Full Dark, No Stars
Literary fiction concerns itself with extraordinary people in ordinary situations, says Stephen King in the Afterword of his new book. “I’m much more interested by ordinary people in extraordinary situations,” he adds about his own writing, which he calls “story-fiction.”
Full Dark, No Stars hearkens back to King’s short fiction collections such as Different Seasons, which resulted in minor literary gems and major motion pictures such as Stand by Me, Apt Pupil, and The Shawshank Redemption. There is only one semi-precious stone, however, in this desk drawer assortment of three short novellas and one lengthy short story.
Each of the four stories in the 384-page book revolves around the lives of a person who, as in King’s mandate, finds themselves in extraordinary situations. There’s murder and there’s revenge, but all of the stories except one have very little to do with anything paranormal and are more about the psychology of desperation.
In the gory, first novella, “1922,” farmer Wilfred James concocts a terrible scheme when his wife decides she wants to sell off a large amount of acreage that is in her name. In “Big Driver,” the second novella, an author has a frightening encounter on a deserted road. “A Good Marriage,” arguably the best story of the quartet, is about a middle-aged woman with unremarkable marriage who stumbles on her husband’s darkest secrets. Only in “Fair Extension,” a 33-page fable, is there a supernatural presence that drives the plot.
King has assembled these four character studies for his readers, and the stories all have endings that are more like literary fiction because of their ambiguity. Without giving anything away, suffice it to say that the characters don’t necessarily make morally right decisions but their moral relativism usually works out just fine, thank you.
The author seems to be at play in “Full Dark,” setting up the scenarios and then watching his characters follow them through to their not-so-predictable conclusions. Along the way there are the usual King idiosyncrasies that can either charm or annoy readers. For example, the farmer in “1922” spouts sayings from Greek mythology, which seems to make sense when the whole story plays out like a Greek tragedy, but instead it just seems like the author is talking out loud behind the literary curtain and interrupting the show.
Or in “Big Driver,” we hear the thoughts of Tess the author, who like so many other King heroines has whimsical thought bubbles—italicized asides such as “Have some irony, it’s good for your blood.” King’s dialogue, not his strongest suit, often features this kind of nervous, dark humor, but in stories like this it jars against the overall tone. At the end of Big Driver, King even inserts a couple of paragraphs that sound like a tinny public service announcement from a women’s crisis center.
Only in “A Good Marriage” do we find a gripping tale that spans decades of a married life, making us believe that even the most ordinary people can harbor the most monstrous secrets. We are introduced to Darcy in the 1980s as a young secretary who is “plain, but with the help of two marginally more sophisticated girlfriends, learned enough makeup skills to make herself pretty on workdays.
She marries Bob Anderson, an accountant as plain as his name whose sole purpose in life as a coin collector is to find a rare, 1955 penny. He is “as plain as she was, just another guy you’d pass on the street without noticing.” Darcy and Bob get married, Bob gets promoted, they have children, and soon they are creeping into the even duller but contented years of middle age.
In their 25th year of marriage, Bob is away on business and Darcy is looking in the garage for some batteries when she finds a stash of hard-core porn and some other, more disturbing keepsakes that Bob has squirreled away. What will she do with this new knowledge about her husband? What can she do? And will he know that she knows? The cat and mouse game doesn’t last for long.
“A Good Marriage” is one of those aforementioned King stories that could very well be adapted into a great film, but the nuances of character and the sympathetic qualities of both Darcy and Bob make it a great read as well.