Current reviews
  Reviews by title
  Reviews by author

  Contact Onyx

  Discussion forum


Onyx reviews: Full Dark, No Stars by Stephen King

Stephen King periodically produces collections of novellas. The first such collection contained gems like "Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption" and "The Body," which became the popular film Stand By Me. Though Different Seasons contained one dark story ("Apt Pupil"), it was balanced by nostalgic tales and stories of hope.

As the title hints, the four novellas in Full Dark, No Stars are unremittingly grim and bleak. King aims his authorial camera lens directly at people in dire straits, describing every gruesome detail of their ordeals. Some of his protagonists make the worst of their bad situations while others find a way to pick themselves up and return to some form of normalcy.

The first and longest story, "1922," is a confessional told from the point of view of Wilfred James. He wants to expand his farm using the land his wife Arlette inherited, whereas she wants to sell their existing farm and her property and move into the city. She's a shrew who berates him constantly and insults and strikes their fourteen-year-old-son Henry. It's the sort of marital breakdown that generally leads to divorce. However, Wilfred comes up with a different solution, one that he admits to early in the tale: Murder.

Like the narrator of Poe's "The Tell-tale Heart," Wilfred pleads his case directly to the reader. "I had to, surely you see that; I could kill my wife but must save my lovely son." It's easy to sympathize with him, because Arlette is such a terrible person. He can't carry out his plan alone, though. He manipulates Henry, explaining what life would be like if his parents divorced and he was forced to live with his abusive mother. He twists the boy's mind with perverse logic: If Arlette dies a natural death, she's bound for Hell because she's so evil, but if they murder her, her life will be cut short before she has a chance to atone for her sins, so they will be forgiven. Like Dexter Morgan, Wilfred has a Dark Passenger (he calls his alter ego the Conniving Man) who ultimately decides Arlette's fate. It's a way of distancing himself from responsibility for his most reprehensible thoughts and deeds.

The murder is a gruesome affair. No matter how well Wilfred prepared himself to minimize the mess, Arlette doesn't die as quickly or as neatly as he imagined. "She had been a trouble to me all the days of our marriage and was a trouble even now, at our bloody divorce. But what else should I have expected?" King describes every drop of blood, and the horrific aftermath as Wilfred and his son dispose of the evidence. "I discovered something that night that most people never have to learn: murder is sin, murder is damnation...but murder is also work," Wilfred writes in his confession.

The crime takes an enormous toll on father and son and the cover-up is even worse. Everything Wilfred touches from that day forward turns sour. Henry spirals out of control and Wilfred descends into madness. The very things he killed to protect are stripped from him, and Arlette's ghost makes sure he sees every tawdry detail of events he can't witness himself. If ever there was a cautionary tale about the wages of sin, "1922" would be it.  

In "Big Driver," a writer of cozy mysteries appears as a last-minute replacement for Janet Evanovich at a nearby book club. Tess's books sell moderately well, and she supplements her income with a dozen or so speaking engagements like this each year, so  long as the venue is within driving distance of home with no more than an overnight stop.  She isn't afraid of flying—she simply hates putting her life in the hands of someone else. As she discovers, her life is always in someone else's hands.

Her hostess suggests an alternate route home that will cut ten miles from her journey. Like Mrs. Todd, Tess is a sucker for a shortcut. The back road puts her on a collision course with an oversized man who seems like her savior when she gets a flat tire. Tess observes that he doesn't so much drive his pickup truck as wear it. He turns on her, raping her repeatedly and leaving her for dead, crammed into a drainpipe he's used before.

Because Tess is a minor celebrity, the tabloids will have a field day sensationalizing her experience. On the other hand, Big Driver is still out there, and he knows where she lives. Even if he doesn't come looking for her, he'll probably kill someone else. She feels duty-bound to stop his reign of terror, but she has to handle it by herself, accompanied only by the self-created voices of her cat and her GPS system, a common element in King's stories.

She orchestrates her revenge the same way she constructs her novels. Unlike her plots, though, violence doesn't happen off-screen, and the clues she turns up are ambiguous and misleading. Other people, the jokers in the deck, don't behave predictably.  

After watching revenge movies for inspiration, she digs out her pistol and embarks on a path from which she can never truly return. She isn't the same person who answered questions about where she got her ideas and how she got an agent. "That woman now seemed to her like a distant relative, the kind you sent a card to at Christmas and forgot for the rest of the year." If she continues as a writer, it's likely that her stories will be substantially different than what she wrote before her experience. 

The shortest story, "Fair Extension," is set in familiar territory: a road near the Derry airport close to the site where important events transpired in Insomnia. Dave Streeter ends up on the Harris Avenue Extension early one evening because he does his best thinking while he's driving. His cancer is progressing at a rate that leads him to believe he won't be driving much longer. 

The area is popular with roadside produce and knick-knack vendors, but there's only one left on this particular evening, a pudgy man watching Inside Edition on a portable television at a card table with a sign that says "Fair Extension, Fair Price." The man, George Elvid, makes an unusual proposal after he hears Dave's sob story. He specializes in extensions, the kinds people need to compensate for shortfalls, and offers Dave a life extension. 

Traditionally, the devil (and no one will be fooled for long by the acronym surname) would ask for Dave's soul in exchange, but Elvid is more pragmatic. Human souls have become "poor and transparent things," he suggest. He'll settle for cold hard cash, 15% of Dave's income for the next fifteen years. The only catch: Dave has to pick someone he hates to take the heat. "You have to do the dirty to someone else if the dirty is to be lifted from you," Elvid says. Dave pretends to hesitate, but he has a prime candidate: his better looking, more athletic, and richer best friend, who long ago stole Dave's girlfriend. If he needs to serve up his so-called friend to the devil in order to survive his disease, so be it.

Elvid delivers exactly what he promises, and Dave watches in delight (the word schadenfreud comes to mind) as the karmic balance tilts in his favor. Job got off easy compared to Dave's friend. The story seems straightforward enough, but readers will probably be left wondering about the ultimate fate of Dave's soul.

After twenty-seven years, Darcy Anderson thought she knew all the important things about her husband. The Andersons are an unremarkable middle-aged couple and, until one fateful night, Darcy would have said they had a good marriage. Bob is a partner in his accounting firm. Darby stayed at home to raise their two kids, both now adults, and helps out with their sideline, a mail-order business in coins, baseball cards and movie memorabilia. They have a nice home in Yarmouth, Maine, on two acres. Bob travels for work, on Cub Scout camping trips and to attend coin sales. Their life is normal, as was that of the BTK Killer, who was the inspiration for "A Good Marriage."

A dead battery in the TV remote sends Darcy to Bob's side of the garage where she stumbles upon a box that contains a surprise: a bondage magazine. She can deal with that. Men are curious. Then she finds something behind the box that she doesn't think she can deal with. She spends the evening doing computer research, hoping to find evidence that will contradict her suspicions. Nothing does.

Though she isn't famous like Tess, if she reports her suspicions she will bring national media focus on her family. Her children's lives will be ruined, as will her own. Like Tess, she can't turn a blind eye or kill herself because there are other people to consider.

When Bob returns home, he realizes that she has discovered his secret. As soon as he opens up to her, all the craziness he's hidden so carefully for decades comes pouring out. He places the blame for his behavior on someone who has long been dead. If she can find a way to forgive him, he'll stop.

Twenty-seven years of love can't be turned off overnight. They agree to never speak about his little hobby again so long as he keeps up his part of the bargain. They drift back into their old comfortable life. There are small changes—Bob stops traveling, to avoid temptation, and they no longer have sex—but for the most part, things go back to normal. But Darcy is waiting for the right time. Her resolution to her situation draws the attention of a stranger who has been watching Bob for years, a man who admires Darcy's resolve and strength of character. Their exchange is one of the best in the book.

Web site and all contents © Copyright Bev Vincent 2007-2010. All rights reserved