Hello boys and girls. It’s time for another book review, and today’s book is by our favorite boogeyman, Stephen King. So grab some marshmallows, pull up a log, hunker up here by the campfire, and let’s begin, shall we?
While I do not claim to be Stephen King’s “number one fan” (such an oogy title can only place one in a cockadoodie category of lying old dirty birdies), I DO fully admit to being somewhat obsessed with the man’s voluminous (to put it mildly) oeuvre. This has basically been true since I was a teenager and read, back to back, The Shining and The Stand. Since then, I have pretty much read ALL the King I could get my hands on, quite often on the first day a new novel is released. His new book is no exception.
While King has referred to himself as “America’s schlockmeister,” he is infinitely more than that. With over 60 books published over the course of the last 36 years – bestsellers all – the man is a publishing phenomenon unto himself. Many readers understandably focus on the horrific themes in his stories rather than their humanity, but I would argue that said humanity is what makes his work so truly frightening. Such emotional involvement makes his tales infinitely scarier than they would be without it. He is, unquestionably, our modern-day Dickens.
If King’s last book, Under the Dome, was a welcome return to the loooong form he honed with epic favorites like The Stand and IT, his latest, Full Dark, No Stars, is a return to the short form. These are not short stories – as previously collected in 1978’s Night Shift, 1985’s Skeleton Crew, 1993’s Nightmares and Dreamscapes, 2002’s Everything’s Eventual, and 2008’s Just After Sunset. This collection of four novellas round out a trilogy which began with 1982’s Different Seasons (the collection that begat such film classics as The Shawshank Redemption and Stand by Me) and 1990’s Four Past Midnight. While this collection is not as good as the former, it is better than the latter. It is also the darkest work Uncle Stevie has published in awhile. Not quite as dark as if his alter ego Richard Bachman’s name was on the cover, but still quite black. And bleak. Hence the title.
And yet, even these bloody (and bloody good) stories each have a moral center. In fact, the quartet of morality tales presented here plumb the depths of human psychology in ways heretofore … unplumbed. “I believe there is another man inside every man, a stranger …” King writes. “How many unsuspected selves could a person have, hiding deep inside?” That question forms the core of this collection, and asks that we as readers attempt to answer it. “What would I do in a similar circumstance?”
The first story, 1922, tells of a farmer who not only murders his shrewish wife, but enlists the help of his son to do the dirty deed – the method may seem “dirt cheap,” but there is, of course, a high price to pay down the road. Even if it is just madness. And rats. Lots of rats. Yes, homage is being paid here to Poe’s Tell-Tale Heart and The Cask of Amontillado, but when the teller is this talented, one cannot help but be grippingly entertained.
Big Driver concerns a female mystery writer who, while driving home from a book signing, is raped and left for dead. While that unsavory event does make one cringe, there is still humanity to the prose. We are not made to identify with the perpetrator, but rather the victim. When she, Tessa, recovers, she must decide whether or not to call the police, or take matters into her own hands. That she picks the latter is not surprising – this is, after all, written by America’s schlockmeister. Nor is it surprising that Tessa’s revenge is as carefully plotted as one of her mystery novels. What is surprising is the emotional resonance such a dark tale imbues. Then again, this is our favorite Uncle Stevie telling the tale. Maybe it’s not so surprising after all.
The shortest story here, A Fair Extension, regards a dying man who makes a deal with the devil for more life. The catch is, he must pick someone else to be the recipient of his cancerous bad fortune – someone he hates. This story reads, of course, like a Twilight Zone episode penned by Richard Matheson (never a bad thing), but the ending is way too abrupt and left me wanting.
The final tale, A Good Marriage, regards a woman who discovers that her loving husband of over a quarter century has been keeping secrets, dark secrets, very dark secrets – he may, in fact, be a serial killer. The tale also posits that perhaps it really is impossible to fully know another person, even a spouse, and how scary is that?
King himself has been married to his wife Tabitha for almost 40 years – lest one think after reading these tales that he has it out for his own marital partner. In fact, he dedicates this book: For Tabby, Still.
At 63 years of age, King probably has more books behind him than ahead. But if Full Dark, No Stars is any indication, the man still knows not only how to how to get under our skin, but to make us grateful for such an invasion. If only by making us confront our own inner stranger.
Full Dark, No Stars may be unabashed pulp fiction, but it is also psychologically rich. It may at times be gruesome, but it is also emotionally rewarding. Then again, I’ve come to expect nothing less from Uncle Stevie.
So, there it is, boys and girls. Time to head back to your cabins with your reading materials. You should each have a copy of Full Dark, No Stars, and a flashlight with which to read it under the covers – which is somehow apt. Just don’t let your counselors catch you. And if they do catch you, perhaps this book will give you some creative ideas on how to deal with such meddlesome creatures. MWHAHAHAHAHA!!
BOOK GRADE: A-
Check out my in-depth profile of Stephen King over on Examiner.com.