Tuesday, December 7, 2010

"Full Dark, No Stars" by Stephen King

"I believe there is another man inside every man, a stranger..." writes Wilfred Leland James in the early pages of the riveting confession that makes up "1922", the first in this pitch-black quartet of mesmerizing tales from Stephen King. For James, that stranger is awakened when his wife, Arlette, proposes selling off the family homestead and moving to Omaha, setting in motion a gruesome train of murder and madness. In "Big Driver", a cozy-mystery writer names Tess encounters the stranger along a back road in Massachusetts when she takes a shortcut home after a book-club engagement. Violated and left for dead, Tess plots a revenge that will bring her face-to-face with another stranger: the one inside herself. "Fair Extension", the shortest of these tales, is perhaps the nastiest and certainly the funniest. Making a deal with the devil not only saves Dave Streeter from a fatal cancer, but provides rich recompense for a lifetime of resentment. When her husband of more than twenty years is away on one of his business trips, Darcy Anderson looks for batteries in the garage. Her toe knocks up against a box under a worktable and she discovers the stranger inside her husband. It's a horrifying discovery, rendered with bristling intensity, and it definitively ends a good marriage.

It's always good news when King puts out short fiction; my husband and I agree that there's probably not another author currently writing that does the short stuff better than King. But when he writes novellas - that's when you're really in for a treat. The novella form seems to give him the best of both worlds - long enough to really flesh out his characters but short enough to keep the writing nice and tight (and making it impossible to get long-winded, a common complaint from some about his works).

My feelings on this book are mixed. All four stories are good, but I was a bit dismayed at how dark two of them are. Even worse, I skipped around and read those two tales back-to-back, which left me wondering if I would actually finish this book. And trust me, readers, when I say "dark", I mean exactly that: gut-wrenching, dismal, no light-at-the-end-of-the-tunnel, depressing as hell sort of dark. "1922" starts off the collection, and that's the first story I tackled. "Wilf" James has been married to Arlette for 14 years or so, producing one son, Henry "Hank" Freeman James. They own a small family farm that has been in Wilf's family for generations, around 80 acres or so. When her father dies, Arlette is left 100 acres of good farmland; however, being the sort of woman she is (not a farmer's wife, that's for sure), Arlette wants to sell the land to a hog farm and move to "the big city" - forever leaving behind the dirty work that makes up the backbone Wilf's days. He doesn't want to sell it, of course, but it's not his decision to make; the land was left to Arlette and her only. Wilf sees only one way out of this predicament, and it means no more Arlette in his life. But getting what he wants will be messy, and tragic, and will ultimately drive him mad.

Hoping for something a bit lighter, I turned to the shortest of the four works, "Fair Extension". My husband said he really liked this story, so I thought I would, too. Well, you can't agree on everything, can you? Dave Streeter has cancer and not long to live. Late one evening, when the road is empty of traffic, he sees one last vendor on the Extension, a stretch of road typically brimming with roadside deals. Not so much during the dinner hour, though. Streeter makes a deal with Mr. Elvid (knowing full well who he's really talking to) and gets a "fair extension" on his life, 15 years for sure, possibly even 20. But as it has to be a "fair" swap, the bad luck/mojo/juju has to go somewhere, or more exactly, to someone. Dave picks his best friend from grade school, the guy who stole his girl years ago, and the deal is done. I had a hard time with this one because the two now-grown men are supposed to still be friends, and what happens to Dave's "friend" is worse than just bad luck. The fact that Dave gets happier and happier as his friend's life spirals further and further out of control.... well, that's just hard to read about. I wondered what my husband saw in this story that he liked so much (and worried about that same thing a bit, if I can be honest), as well as why the book jacket blurb called it "the funniest". I certainly didn't find it funny, and I wondered which of the remaining two to tackle next, fearing that I might just want to leave the book alone after these two grim tales.

Luckily, I opted for "Big Driver". Yes, it's a grim tale, but it's the sort of grimness that I expect from King, and it has a point. Tess is a meek, mild-mannered 30-something writer of cozy mysteries starring a group of little old ladies; the series is enjoyed by pretty much the same demographic. She'll never get rich from her books, but they do sell enough to let her live comfortably. Her real money, her "retirement" fund, comes from the 12 speaking engagements she does every year, never more than driving distance from her cozy home where she lives with her cat Fritzy. She'll travel far enough to occasionally need a hotel for the evening, but never enough that she's away more than one night. One day she receives an last-minute invitation for one of these engagements; their original guest, Janet Evanovich, had to cancel and would she be so kind as to fill in, and they can offer her a bit more than her usual fee, and they'd be ever so grateful if she'd say yes. The gig is fairly close by, and she says yes. When she's done her job, Ramona Norville, the local librarian and head of the book club, suggests a shortcut to Tess, one that will save her at least 10 miles and some time. Tess loves a good shortcut, and programs the new route into Tom, her TomTom GPS. Little does she know what lies in wait for her down the road.... This is a female-empowerment story, done King's way, and yes, this one more than made up for the first two stories.

King finishes things off with "A Good Marriage" and so did I. Darcy and Bob Anderson have been married for 27 years. It hasn't been an exciting coupling, but it's been a good, solid union. Bob is an accountant and coin-collector; Darcy is a home-maker. They met when Bob's accounting firm was hired to do the books for the auto dealership where Darcy worked as a secretary. A comfortable existence with two children, a son and a daughter. A loving relationship built on the little details of every-day married life. A marriage built on a lie, as it turns out, one that Darcy literally stumbles upon when she heads out to get some batteries for the TV remote control during one of Bob's business trips. A gruesome lie, a lie of such staggering proportions that a wife will question everything she's ever known, about her life, her husband.... and herself. This one was a doozie, but gosh, it was good. It certainly does bring up the question can you ever really know the one you love? Really?

Overall, I still liked this offering from King. It might have gone better if I'd read the stories in order, thus having dark, less-dark, dark, less-dark. I see where King gets the title, too - there's not much light here. But it's still a treat for the Constant Reader, and King promises in his afterward to take us back into the sunshine next time.

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