Like every anthology, Stephen King’s latest book, Full Dark, No Stars, is a mixed bag of dark wonders. Not one of the four stories included is as lyrical or evocative as the book’s title — and that’s a shame, because I’ve seen King write sentences that shook me to the core or nailed me with perfection. There are some shining moments here, certainly; but they do not shine half as brightly as “The Mist,” “The Body,” or any of the stories in King’s first and uber-primal collection, Night Shift.
Reviewers are calling these four stories brutal, and King himself refers to them in his Afterword — the best part of the book — as harsh and visceral. He’s accurate. Only one of these stories involves the supernatural, and all of them revolve around horrors and deeds that are as real — and as visceral — as blood spurting from a gaping wound, or rats gnawing through rotting flesh.
Like most anthologies, this one follows a very basic structure. Actually, this one is perfect — it only has four stories, and they exemplify the structure of a typical anthology:
Story #1 “1922” B+
Story #2 “Big Driver” C+
Story #3 “Fair Extension” C
Story #4 “A Good Marriage” A
As you can tell, the best story is usually saved for last, but anthologies still have to open with a very strong story to hook the reader. The middle stories, no matter how many, are usually structured in a rising/falling format, like a staircase, all leading up to the A story — the Big Finish. (Personal note: I think the story titles here are pretty dull. Steve’s done much better, titlewise.)
Story #1, “1922,” is strong. Really strong. Actually, I consider it the best tale in the book; but King, obviously, disagrees, by placing it at the opening. “1922” takes place in rural Nebraska — in a town King used to great effect in The Stand, and which, I suppose, ties this story to that universe of evil and supernatural armageddon. But there is no supernatural in this tale — only death and madness, and slow, Midwestern lives as empty as the Nebraska plains. This is King possessed by Poe, and the stark setting is a much a character — perhaps even stronger — as the protagonist, who, in the first paragraph, confesses to murdering his wife.
There’s a good moment of freak out in “Big Driver,” when the main character, a rape victim, is left for dead in a roadside culvert. Otherwise, this is a typical story of revenge — typical in the way that King’s most recent fiction has turned: realistic and fairly predictable, with characters that are rounded out just enough to satisfy short attention span readers.
The only story to turn into King’s trademark world of living dead girls, ghosts, psychic children and otherworldly beasts from beyond our ken is “Fair Extension,” a deal-with-the-devil tale that isn’t very original, nor memorable. The devil guy is named . . . Elvid.
Come on, Steve.
What would you do if you discovered a box of trophies in the garage that proved your spouse was a serial killer? That’s what happens to Darcy Anderson in the final story, “A Good Marriage.” It’s a hell of a premise, but it’s not much of a story. From the opening sentence, King fills the action with background and unnecessary exposition that do nothing to move the story along. It’s modern King at his weakest, and it screams that he needs a good editor who isn’t afraid to cut.
Full Dark, No Stars isn’t bad. It’s just weak. The light seems to be going out. Read ‘Salem’s Lot, The Shining, The Stand, Carrie and Night Shift for King at his most primal, most energetic — and his most brilliant.