February 17, 2012


by Stephen King
352 pages, Hodder and Stoughton

Review by Pat Black
Here we go, then – Stephen King unleaded, super-nasty, no messing about. Does he cut the mustard?

Kind of. I’d say he cuts the chutney rather than the mustard in Full Dark, No Stars – a weird four-novella collection of the type only he seems to be able to get away with. It’s the same sort of format as Different Seasons, the book that gave the world The Shawshank Redemption, Apt Pupil and Stand By Me. It’s also the same sort of format as Four Past Midnight, but that’s by-the-by.

There’s strong meat in here. Marinaded in something sticky and sweet, though – maple syrup, maybe. You know, something a bit sickly. I know a guy who had a great recipe for pork using Dr Pepper, in fact. No, wait – chutney was the last metaphor I used. That’s sweet enough. Let’s go with that.
But it’s a bloody good Sunday roast. Like most of Stephen King’s writing, no matter how much you have, it’ll never be enough. You’ll head back to that fridge with its crinkly tinfoil platter again and again… maybe even in the dead of night. Perhaps you even lick your fingers in the ghastly light of the fridge as your family sleeps, unaware.

You craven god-damned meat picker! Fridge vulture!

This is rubbish isn’t it? Review 100, too. Let’s start again.
It’s nice to see Stephen King finally getting his dues for knocking-on 40 years in the writing business. You’ll read very few reviews these days having a pop at him, and that includes this one. Even the snootiest broadsheet sweetie-rustlers are prepared to acknowledge that whatever you make of his subject matter, there are few writers with such a finely tuned ear for human speech, behaviour and patterns of thought.

He’s primarily known as a writer of scary stories, and certainly his early books are some of the finest ever written in that genre. Gareth Marenghi owes King all he ever achieved during that strange, psychotic “horror boom” in the 1980s. Was it a coincidence that this ghoulish literary phenomenon reached its height during the era of Thatcher and Reagan? What were we frightened of? But that’s for another Squawk.
But although fear was his thing, King wrote in just about every genre you could ask for. In this respect, he’s very close to one of his idols and the other main contender for the title of “Greatest Living American Writer”, Ray Bradbury. Uncle Ray had a similar knack of turning his hand readily to frightening stories as quickly as he did to parables about Martians or dinosaurs or robots.

I’m pretty sure King would graciously concede the title to Bradbury, one of his idols. But if King’s career were to end tomorrow, his sales and influence bow to no-one aside from Agatha Christie and Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.
It’s curious that, despite almost being turned into the world’s first personalised Stephen King bumper sticker in 1999, as well as the years beginning to creep up on him (and he’s not alone there, jeez-o), he continues to be so productive. And so effective.

He’s like a serial killer – one who somehow keeps getting away with it for years on end. He’s not going to stop willingly. And his latest effort could be just as good as his first. There aren’t many writers you can say that about.
Serial killer, oooh. Now that’s a much better metaphor than marinades or, indeed, mustard, because Full Dark, No Stars, has dark business on its mind.

The three long stories are chiefly concerned with murder. The first, “1922”, is the first-person confession of an Oregon farmer who decides to bump off his wife when she looks to sell their farm out from underneath him in the process of their separation. Two truly appalling things about this – first, he enlists his son in the task, “cozening” him and turning him against his mother, and second, the murder itself. There’s no poison in the tea or convenient accident in store for Wilfred the farmer’s slatternly missus. She’s butchered like a hog, and then thrown down a well for the rats.
What follows is a tale of guilt and spiralling disaster, as the authorities and then the consequences begin to creep up on our narrator and his haunted son. There are one or two more otherworldly things which threaten to break out in the background here, but thankfully King reins these things in before they become that detestable horror cliché: the unreliable narrator who suffers delusions of ghosts and spirits. What I liked best about “1922” was the grit and grue, the literally gory details of dumping a body and covering one’s tracks, while in the background the authorities become suspicious.

A Wikipedia check reveals all sorts of interconnectedness in this story’s farm setting within the King milieu – the kind of ret-conning he’s been doing for years. You know, like maybe a character in the Stand once lived there, or Pennywise the Clown once disguised himself as a tin of beans on a shelf in the kitchen to frighten some kids in the 1950s, or Roland the Gunslinger went for a crap in the outhouse when it briefly appeared in the fifth f*ckin’ dimension, etc.
I hate all that wank, but I was struck by the reappearance of waving cornfields as something to be scared of in King’s work. I always wonder what it is that makes certain things recur in some artists’ work. What’s so scary about those fields, Steve?

More familiar King territory, now, in “Big Driver”. This echoed a suspense story he wrote in his last short story collection, where a woman is captured by a lunatic and has to try and escape before he can return to do some awful things to her. In that story, the day is saved – but in this one, it isn’t. Well, not quite.
This one echoed Misery in its mixture of rank bad luck and malice carried out by an apparent rescuer. A seemingly benign trucker captures and violates an author of “Knitting Circle” detective stories after she takes a short cut on her way home from a personal appearance at a library, and finds herself in Shitsville. King can sometimes err on the crass side, blending hideous violence with a zany, Warner Brothers cartoon sensibility, but to his credit he steers clear of these patterns in his brief descriptions of the violence. His heroine is left for dead in an effluent pipe, alongside the remains of what we presume to be the trucker’s previous victims.

The true horror comes in the aftermath, where Tess the author begins to see attackers everywhere. This wasn’t based on a Sixth Sense-style delusion, swapping dead people for violators, but based on the very real fear that the trucker is still out there on the Interstate as she tries to get home. She begins to fear every man she comes across on her nightmare journey.
Even worse, there is the suggestion that she is marked with the shame of sexual assault, something that was not and could not ever be her fault. She feels she cannot go to the police or even a doctor, because she is a moderately famous author and it will get out, and she can’t deal with that idea – being the naked victim. And there is a suggestion of what I felt was the real, prosaic horror of this story: the idea that there are thousands of women out there who did not make any complaint about what happened to them, who felt ashamed of raising the alarm, and who now have to live with the fear that any man they ever meet might harbour a similar smiling, seemingly benign monster.

It builds up to a satisfying tale of revenge, and in this “Big Driver” mimics any number of appalling exploitation films like I Spit On Your Grave. But ignoring the framing, and looking at his depiction of the victim, this is a powerful feminist piece.
“A Good Marriage” is the most gripping story. King admits that he based this on a real-life serial killer case, where a wife was completely unaware (so she says) that her husband was Denis Rader, the infamous multiple murderer known as BTK, who was finally snared after a 30-year career in murders and executions.

“Hi darlin’, eh…. I’ve been arrested.”
“Jesus Christ! What for?”

It’s an old, old tale – a wife or child or relative finds evidence that the person they are living with isn’t quite who they seemed to be. I know I’ve come up with similar ideas for scary stories before, and I’m sure you have, too. In fact, one idea I was going through a while back concerned a wife who was worried about why her husband is withdrawn and exhausted all the time, staying out late and being “away on business” for days on end, and so forth. She suspects an affair, BUT…

So yeah, we meet Darcy, a typical middle class King heroine. She’s left alone in the house one night, with her husband Bob away on business and her children long since flown the nest. She heads down into the basement to dig out some batteries for the TV remote. She’s expecting a call from Bob, whom she has spent 30 years with. A nice man who’s never given her a big problem, a loving father to their two children.
Another King favourite – the fateful stumble - is all it takes to knock Darcy’s perceptions of married life askew. This recalled Bobbi in The Tommyknockers, where a woman literally trips over a little bit of metal in the forest which actually turns out to be the tip of a giant alien spaceship, pulling all sorts of psychic shizzle.

So anyway, Darcy nearly trips over a box filled with old catalogues. Through sheer curiosity, she flicks through the pile of magazines, and finds… Oh…
And then, mildly shocked but rationalising what she’s seen, she stumbles across something else, a hidden hatch set into the basement floor. So then she opens that, and… Oh!

It turns out that dear old Bob isn’t really Bob. At least, not all the time. He is in fact a serial lust murderer, responsible for doing some nasty things to women (and a child, in one case) and then taunting the police about it in a series of gruesomely upbeat handwritten notes - all signed, “Beadie!” 
The mental processes the woman goes through were absolutely compelling. It boils down to a simple question: what would you do? Well, I guess the answer’s simple, too – call the police, let them handle it. But would you? After thirty years, and you still loved him? And more importantly, a few weeks before your daughter gets married, and while your son is negotiating the big contract that could set him on the road to being a millionaire?

I’d like to think that yes, well, that’s all too bad, but my husband is a nutter. And I’d call the cops. But I suspect some of you reading this might not. You might lie to yourself… You might try to forget you’d seen it… You might try to convince yourself that you’d gotten it all wrong… Or more realistically, you might worry that your husband will decide to make you his latest leisure project, if he suspects that you’ve rumbled him.
Or you might have an even more selfish fear – that if it all came out, you’d be blamed, even made complicit in some subtle way.

These parts of the story, where Darcy deals with the horror of discovery and puzzles over just what she wants to do, were wonderful. And there’s tension, too. She takes a phone call from her man during which he uses… and King’s phrasing is beautiful… supernatural slyness, to deduce that not only is Darcy upset, but is lying about why she is upset, which is probably something to do with Beadie’s special hidey hole. Hunter’s vision, all the way.
So is he going to stay away for another night, as planned? Or will Darcy - still in bed, confused, nauseous, frightened, wondering what to do – get an unexpected personal alarm call a few hours later from Bob?

Or if not Bob, maybe… Beadie?
It’s a Stephen King book. What do you think?

Full Dark, No Stars sometimes makes a mockery of King’s own pulpitty pronouncements in his (now customary and occasionally pompous) afterword. King says that for authenticity, his fiction always seeks to trace how a person would realistically act. Anything which fails to replicate this authenticity, no matter what the subject matter, isn’t worth the bothering, King asserts.
He sets himself a high bar, there. And he fails to clear it more than once. Would a dutiful, well-adjusted son actually conspire to slaughter his mother? No he would not. Would a mousey novelist left for dead after a horrifying assault turn the tables on her rapist in a cold, clinical manner, in order to exact a satisfying revenge? No she would not. Would a retired detective, who’s spent years of his life tracing a f*cking maniac, allow the families of the victims to go their graves without finding out who the killer was? Out of some sense of nobility or deference towards the guy’s wife? No he would not.

That’s not what would really happen, Stevie. And this was what you said you were aiming for. Sorry mate.
Oddly enough, the only part where I thought: Oh aye... I could see how that would go, comes in the only supernatural story here, “Fair Extension”. Again, not a new plotline – a bloke suffering from cancer goes to a roadside amusement, where the owner offers him a chance of fifteen years of healthy life. The snag is that in return, the guy must pick someone whose life should be ruined while his thrives.

So who does the guy choose to ruin – his boss? A former partner? A childhood bully? An adulthood one? Or, let’s get darker… a relative?
Nope, this guy picks his more talented, better-looking and far more successful best friend.

I know some people who are like that, and I’ll bet you do, too. Hey, maybe it’s you – or at least, the Shadow You that grins in the mirror. The snarks. They just can’t help it, can they? They have to be picking at stuff – like you, foul Sunday roast leftover carrion feeder! They can do nothing else.
This is the area that King explores so well, that heart of darkness that exists in all of us. Like watching Norman Bates mop up in the bathroom and push the car into the swamp, King makes us queasily complicit in all manner of horrors.

And yet, for the nicest of reasons, King lets us down. Even though the book’s title hints at something brutal and nasty – stygian, joy-free horror without hint of hope or redemption – King never really follows through. He can’t quite stop himself from injecting some moment of hope, catharsis, revenge or redemption in these stories. The unjust are punished in Full Dark, No Stars, as surely as they got theirs in the EC Comics of the 1950s. The wickedness is not allowed to win, and put to a stop.
The only tale which is infused with wickedness without punishment is “Fair Exchange” – but even that has a certain fatalistic acceptance to it. We look to blame circumstances and individuals for the bad things which happen to us, King seems to be suggesting. But sometimes your luck just isn’t in. You get dealt a bad hand, and you have to make the best of it. God help us, “Fair Exchange” actually has a happy ending. And not a little glee.  

Full Dark, No Stars is not quite what I was expecting, but like everything else the man wrote, it’s worth your time and money.
Mostly Dark, Wee Bit of Light might be better way of putting it.

No comments:

Post a Comment