Book Review: Full Dark, No Stars

Stephen King has another book out and naturally, I got my hands on it within hours of it being available. I waited until my vacation to dive into it, though - exactly until my vacation. One minute past midnight on December 17, I dropped the more serious, "literary" book I'd been reading and picked up Full Dark, No Stars.

This isn’t just one story, it's four novellas and they push the envelope more than King normally pushes the envelope, which is to say quite a bit. In his Afterword, King talks about how he likes putting ordinary people in extraordinary situations in this book is very much about that, except this time it is (for the most part) without the interference of things that go bump in the night. These are stories about what happens to people who commit extreme deeds or who experience extreme/extraordinary events and what happens within them afterwards. King also mentions in the Afterword that he likes fiction that is "propulsive" and "assaultive" and they certainly qualify as that, as well.

1922 and Fair Extension are both written from the point of view of a male protagonist and Big Driver and A Good Marriage are written from a woman's point of view. I'm pretty sure I could write a post on each of them and in that sense, King definitely achieved his goal of getting his readers to experience the stores emotionally while they read them, waiting for the thinking to happen after. Because three of them in particular made me think and I'm still thinking.

1922 is in many ways vintage King, except with a slightly different slant. The story takes place in the eight years between 1922 and 1930 and I think it's a bit of an experiment in writing in a different era. As such, it succeeds (inasmuch as I know anything about writing in the early 20th century), offering a fascinating look into farming in the middle of the US just before the depression. However - and I'm sure this is a matter of taste - it didn't make as big an impression on me as the other three stories did and in fact, I think it should have been tightened up a bit.

Big Driver is hard to read. Our protagonist - a quiet, gentle woman who writes quiet, gentle knitting mysteries - is raped, beaten and left for dead and that's just the beginning of the story. The rest is about what happens to and within a quiet, gentle woman who experiences such horror and King doesn't hold back. At all. It's hard to read, but ultimately worth it. A Good Marriage is about what happens to another gentle woman when she discovers that her husband has kept a very big secret. This being Stephen King, the secret isn't anything as mundane as an affair or a gambling problem, so you can probably guess what kind of secret we're talking about. Given the Canadian very recent real-life horror of Russell Williams, this one became much more real than it might otherwise have been (if you don't want to know any details about this story at all, don't click on the link)

I started writing this review in my head while I was still reading the book and started out thinking I'd describe it as being about what happens to people who experience or do something extraordinary. The story called Fair Extension is the one that made me amend that to include people who experience something extraordinary or who commit evil. These are all harsh stories, very dark stories - the title Full Dark, No Stars is very accurate - but Fair Extension takes it to a new level of ruthless. It goes past harsh, puts the protagonist in a particular situation where the must make a choice and having made that choice, take it to the logical (insane?) conclusion. These are uncompromising stories, but this one gave me the willies. It's cold, so cold. As a writer, I consider it a lesson in how to let the story happen without putting on the brakes because you yourself are uncomfortable. As a reader? I'm also impressed - this one will stick with me. They all will, but this one will live in a different place.

I could write another post on Stephen King and women - I find his experiments with writing from a female point of view fascinating. It's very difficult to write the opposite gender and King does it well although his heroines tend to be a little too mildly perfect for my taste. Regardless, the fact that he genuinely likes women is very obvious in his stories (despite the horrible things that happen in their lives).

And now to the narrators and I've saved them for last, not just because that's what I tend to do in these reviews, but also because I can't quite make up my mind. The stories are read by Craig Wasson and Jessica Hecht and they do a good job – Wasson is particularly terrific in Fair Extension and Hecht is very effective in Big Driver - but I'm sure you can hear the but. The thing is, I don't know if it's the readers or that these stories are written differently than King usually writes. I'm used to being able to hear his rhythm and in these stories, I couldn't. In my experience, some narrators do better at capturing the rhythm than others, but I'm pretty sure that the fact that all of these stories in many ways did not feel like familiar King is probably due to the author writing in a different space. In which case, the narrators did a beautiful job. 


Wren said…
Wonderful review, Lene. King has been one of my favorite authors since the 70s; I've always been fascinated with his ability to draw the reader directly into the story by weaving the weft of the everyday and mundane into a fabric of extraordinary and unlikely warp. His characters are people we know; the settings so familiar they seem like home. With only a few exceptions (Dreamcatcher and Tommyknockers come immediately to mind) I've enjoyed reading just about all of his stories. And I've shaken my head at the critics who castigated him for being such a prolific writer of hugely popular novels (as if there's something somehow wrong with that).

King is a master of the uncomfortably compelling story. It was his skill with plot, characters and imagination that inspired me to try writing myself. You've made me anxious to read Full Dark, No Stars. I can't wait!
AlisonH said…
Reading the link: they burned his uniform to banish him and vanish him from the presence of the military forever. That is a powerful image.
Jocelyn said…
I haven't been in a King space lately, for a number of reasons, but I know what you mean about those stories he writes that stick with you.  His Bachman books have more or less consistently popped up in my mind since I read them (right after they came out; so that should say something about their staying power).  I've always thought of them as books about the things that people will do to themselves...

(P.S. I removed the word recognition thing from my blog comments, in hopes that spammers won't come back - thanks for the alternate perspective on the presence of those kinds of security devices!)