Review: Full Dark, No Stars by Stephen King

Author: Stephen King
Publisher: Scribner;
Print Date: November 9, 2010 – First Ed.
ISBN-10: 1439192561
ISBN-13: 978-1439192566
Details: 384 pages | Hardcover | $27.99

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Dark. Grim. Dangerous. Full Dark, No Stars by Stephen King features four gritty stories that are not for the faint of heart.

In his new collection, King returns to the long fiction form that once again establishes his mastery of bone-chilling literary fiction. Each story represents the essence of King’s craft, bringing out the darkest parts of human nature that usually remain safely hidden behind a facade of amiable smiles and pleasantries. However, as dark as this collection is, and it is among the darkest of King’s fiction, each piece reflects a glimmer of unexpected goodness.

1922 – family values take on a new meaning as the James family struggles with whether or not to stay in their small town or move to the “big” city. This piece is the most powerful of the stories within the collection. What starts as a simple decision for Wilf James becomes increasingly complicated as he finds his life collapsing around him, forcing him to make new decisions that dig him deeper and deeper into a wicked combination of madness and despair. That said, it’s also a striking portrait of middle American farmers in the early 1920s. The combination of King’s research and his imagination allow for a completely convincing setting and a plot that is as unsettling as it is engaging. The glimmer of goodness in this story is Wilf’s love for his son. No matter what comes, he struggles to protect and take responsibility for his son’s actions.

Big Driver – short cuts and back roads aren’t always the most direct route for this midlist writer returning home from a library event. This one of the darker more disturbing pieces within the collection. However, even in face of the horrible violence committed by a deeply disturbed man, King succeeds in creating a strong female character who is surprisingly smart, determined, and just as ruthless as her captor. What’s beautiful about the way King develops Tessa’s character is that she evolves into a strikingly different person by the end of the story, yet there isn’t a single point between the first and last pages that her character doesn’t ring true. Her transformation is utterly believable, forcing the reader to cheer for her as often as they cringe. While the violence inflicted upon Tess is severe, she doesn’t break and play the part of a victim. Instead she empowers herself to think smart and to think savvy about what she will do next.

Fair Extension – everyone is looking for a good bargain and some are willing to pay more than most. Dave Streeter makes the ultimate trade in order to extend his life, but the cost will have a long lasting and far-reaching effect on the people in his life. While all of these stories will surprise you in some way, “Fair Extension” feels  like Classic King, yet the end isn’t quite what you’ll be expecting. Stories of people making trades with the Devil are fairly common. However, King finds a new way to twist this tale into something that feels unique. Let’s just say, this story brings new meaning to the old saying, “Who needs enemies with friends like [Dave]?” The goodness in this story comes in the most unlikely of places – the Devil. He offers a fair deal, is honest about the trade, and sticks to the agreement.

A Good Marriage – how well can you really know another person? Do wedding vows mean your spouse becomes an open book or are there secrets that can remain hidden for years or decades after the rings are exchanged? This story explores that question in a believable way, eroding the foundation of everything you once thought you knew about the person you love. While this piece may not be as engaging as the other three stories within the collection, it resonates on a much more realistic level. King does an exquisite job of exploring how a loving, trusting marriage can keep a person from suspecting the darker truths that her spouse may choose to hide. The glimmer of good in this piece is a bit more obscure, but comes out in the innocence and self-realization that Darcy experiences when faced with unwanted truths about her husband. [Read an excerpt from “A Good Marriage.”]

Afterword – The final section of Full Dark, No Stars is a short personal essay from Stephen King about this collection and his thoughts on fiction. In it he says, “…the art of story-fiction…is not worn out, it’s not a literary game. It’s one of the vital ways in which we try to make sense of our lives, and often the terrible world we see around us. It’s the way we answer the question, How can such things be?” Truly, King is a master writer whose sense of story strikes deeply into the emotional experience of being a living, breathing human. His “Afterword” is as gripping and poignant as any of the tales within this collection and it should be read since it serves as the perfect ending to a collection that will erode your sense of safety and sanity within the world.

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