Stephen King: Full Dark, No Stars

Posted by Neil McRobert on November 08, 2010 in Blog, Reviews tagged with ,

Stephen King, Full Dark, No Stars, Hodder and Stoughton, 2010. ISBN 1444712543

Reviewed by Neil McRobert, University of Stirling

The novella is recognised as a particularly difficult form to master and an even harder one to sell. It is a testament to Stephen King’s marketability that Full Dark, No Stars is his third collection of such intermediary-length tales, following Different Seasons (1982) and Four Past Midnight (1990). Both previous releases were bestsellers, going on to spawn successful cinematic adaptations – most notably, Stand by Me (1986) and The Shawshank Redemption (1994). King’s success in the form may well hinge on his ability to link the collection by theme; a cohesion that helps resolve the oddity of form. Four Past Midnight, for example, delved into the reality-warping possibilities of skewed time. Full Dark, No Stars contains four stories “strung together on the wire of retribution.” Each of the tales, according to King, is linked by the theme of revenge. This connective tissue is often tenuous, and occasionally stretched beyond its own limits. Who is the avenger and who is the victim often becomes confused. Then again, maybe that is the point.

Taking the form of a written confession, ‘1922’ details Wilfred James’ murder of his wife in the years preceding the dustbowl. The murder is dealt with early. Rather than dwelling on the act itself King describes it in terse, but nonetheless visceral, prose that conveys both the messy brutality and savage desperation of the killer. As Wilfred himself writes, “On the nights when I can’t sleep it plays over and over again, every thrash and cough and drop of blood in exquisite slowness, so let it be told quickly.” (16) More horrifying is the cooperation of Wilfred’s son, Henry, in the murder of his own mother. His involvement provides the pathos as Wilfred is forced to confront not only his own guilt, but also to suffer the knowledge that he is responsible for his son’s ruined life.

According to King the story is inspired by Michael Lesy’s Wisconsin Death Trip (1973) and its portrait of rural poverty. Allusions to other works abound, however, most notably Poe’s ‘The Tell-Tale Heart,’ Faulkner’s southern Gothic, and King’s other spouse-in-the-well story Dolores Claiborne (1992). Also, as a young boy King was obsessed by the Starkweather murder spree and it is obvious that some of that boyhood fascination has found its way into the latter half of ‘1922.’

Critics who have long maligned King for his ostensible misogyny will find new fuel for their own particular fire in the unsympathetic depiction of Wilfred’s wife Arlette.  A narrative told solely from the perspective of the murderer will always occasion a degree of sympathy from the reader, but King is especially emphatic in his portrayal of Arlette as somewhat deserving of her fate. A scene in which Arlette drunkenly taunts her son about his sexual inexperience is discomfiting and repulsive:

She made her free hand into a fist, poked out the middle finger, then used it to tap a circle around her crotch: left thigh, right thigh, right belly, navel, left belly, back again to the left thigh. ’Explore all you like, and rub it around with your Johnny Mac until he feels good and spits up, but stay out of the home place lest you find yourself locked in for life, just like your mummer and daddy. (14)

Her sexual crudity and (worse, it seems, in the eyes of King) her disdain for literature are contrasted with Wilfred’s homespun intellectualism and genuine love for his son. In Dolores Claiborne Dolores’ murder of her husband is a remedy to the sexual abuse of their daughter. The murder in ‘1922’ is similarly founded on the well-being of a child, the irony being that the involvement of that child in the act is more corruptive than his mother’s immorality ever could be.

‘1922’ is the high point of the collection. The three following tales are of decreasing quality. ‘Fair Extension’ is a straightforward (and inappropriately brief) account of a dying man’s deal with the devil. In exchange for the ‘fair extension’ of the title Streeter condemns his supposed best friend to a life of misery. The story is a Faustian black comedy, eschewing the expected moral repercussions for the unrelenting punishment of the innocent.

‘Big Driver’ details the hideous rape and subsequent revenge of Tess, a popular paperback novelist, whilst journeying home from a book-signing. The story owes a great deal to exploitation horror films such as I Spit on Your Grave, Last House on the Left, and Deliverance. It is interesting that King references this last film as it, unlike the others, is concerned with male rape. Whilst he is no stranger to the literary violation of women (see the ‘tennis racket’ scene in Rose Madder and the gang-rape in Bag of Bones) King’s description of the assault in ‘Big Driver’ is as repellent as anything he has written, and made more unsettling by the semi-ironic distance his protagonist experiences from the violence imposed upon her:

It was funny what crossed your mind when you were lying under three hundred pounds of country meat with a rapist’s cock creaking back and forth inside you like an unoiled hinge. (140)

As with Arlette’s vulgarity in ‘1922’ King employs sexual terminology to hideous effect. At one point Tess describes the feel of her rapist’s ‘cockslime’ inside of her. In the universe of Full Dark, No Stars sex is primarily repulsive, aberrant and damaging, and its (mis)use is the primary basis for horror. The last story in the collection, ‘A Good Marriage,’ reiterates this in a wife’s discovery that her husband of many years is a sadistic rapist and murderer of women. Her disgust at his extra-marital activities is juxtaposed with her own residual love. The duality is expressed via the hackneyed motif of a mirror, through which she thinks she can see an almost-imperceptibly altered version of her own life. This she calls The Darker House, in which she is The Darker Wife and he The Darker Husband – a typical use of King capitalisation. As ever, sex demarcates good and evil and it is this, if anything, that links the stories in Full Dark, No Stars. Unfortunately, rather than attempting to elevate the theme to a psychological level – something that King usually achieves admirably with the use of interior voices – he more often descends to the bodily level of Jack Ketchum and Richard Laymon. This will not endear him to those critics who consider him misogynistic and/or unable to write women. Even those who disagree will find it hard to argue with the fact that the successful stories in the collection are those written from a masculine point of view.  ‘Big Driver’ may well contain a strong heroine but it also contains another version of the monstrous female that has recurred throughout King’s work. “A Good Marriage” has a simple but intriguing premise but fails, in the space given, to do it any justice. This, as a longer work, could well have been King’s most successful attempt to write from a female point of view since Dolores Claiborne. Instead it feels superficial.

With the exception of ‘1922,’ which is good enough to have been written at any time throughout his career, Full Dark, No Stars feels like a codicil to last year’s Under The Dome. Like a recording artist who releases a short LP on the wave of an earlier bestselling album’s success, King seems to have delved into his box of unpublished manuscripts and selected four that are a) long enough to constitute a book-length collection, and b) linked to a least some extent by a theme. In the latest instalment in an ongoing conversation with his Constant Reader he states his many reasons for writing the book. The cynics amongst us may feel that he omits the most pressing: a commitment to fill the autumn book list. This would not be so jarring in an author who is less earnest about ‘taking the job seriously,’ or who has not shown only last year that he is capable of so much better.

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