I recently had the energy to pick up and read Stephen King’s latest volume of short stories, Full Dark, No Stars. The collection won the 2010 Stoker award — Joe Hill tweeted very nicely about that — and I’d read other good reviews of the collection and thought it was probably time I got around to it.
In my opinion, King is almost always better in short than long with the possible exception of the Dark Tower series and even there he starts to suffer from verbal diarrhea more than once. Man just can’t stop once he gets started.
I’m not saying that this collection is the exception — the four long-ish stories in it (“1922,” “Big Driver,” “Fair Extension,” and “A Good Marriage”) are pretty good. Solid King, you might say; there are all his old familiar tropes: man kills wife; woman kills attacker; deal with the devil; horrible discovery in family. There’s nothing here that you haven’t seen before if you’ve read more than one King novel or previous collection of short fiction.
What caught my attention and prompted this post is King’s insistence, and that of several reviewers I read, that these were his “darkest” short stories. In his afterword, he specifically describes them as such, talking about how dark and serious and disturbing they are.
I read the volume at a go one hot Sunday afternoon, read the afterword, and sat there thinking, ‘Dark? Dark? Mr. King, sir — what is this dark of which you speak?’
Sure, the stories are vintage King as described above but I don’t know if, in all fairness, I would describe any of them as being darker than, say, “Dolan’s Cadillac,” “You Know They Got A Hell of A Band,” or “Home Delivery” from Nightmares & Dreamscapes. Or “The Raft” or “The Mist” in Skeleton Crew. Or “The Road Virus Heads North” in Everything’s Eventual.
And then I started to wonder about what I mean when I said “dark” and what King might mean — and then I decided not to worry about that because trying to figure out what someone else means when they use a word is pretty much a mug’s game unless they’re standing right in front of you and you can ask them. I’m not going to trudge all the way up to Bangor just to bang on the man’s door and ask him an obscure question about the afterword to his latest book.
What I do know is that none of the stories in Full Dark had the same feeling of menace, of inevitable doom, and of bleakness that I think make the stories I named above so genuinely dark and threatening. Take “The Road Virus Heads North,” for example — it’s a pretty basic “purchase a haunted/possessed item — purchase the haunter/possessor” story. A man stops at a yard sale, is struck by the painting of a young man in a muscle car heading north over the Tobin Bridge from Boston, and buys it. As he takes it further north with him towards his home, the painting begins to change. It becomes clear to the reader, if not the poor sumph of a narrator, that he’s being followed. Perhaps even hunted. I find “The Road Virus” terrifying — every time I read it, the inevitability of the narrator’s pretty ghastly demise is still frightening. The doom he manages to avert from some of the others along the path of the Virus is awful — the implacability of the antagonist quite real.
And check out “Home Delivery,” man! Woman alone on island facing birth of first child after the descent of the zombie apocalypse. Bad enough? Oh, did I mention her husband drowned recently? Yeahhhhhh — think that one, through. And keep your knitting needles handy. What I like about “Home Delivery” is the common-sense approach of the character to an unbelievable situation; yes, it approaches the pragmatism of the narrator in “Big Driver” (once she gets done being traumatized) but “Big Driver” then descends into a straightforward rape revenge drama. Pretty rote, once you figure out what’s going on. “Home Delivery” takes you on a hell of a ride, not forgetting the heaving cemetary dirt scene.
I think what these stories have in common that I didn’t feel in any of the work in Full Dark is a sense of claustrophobia, fear of something awful that you can’t get away from. Yes, the characters in Full Dark, in “Fair Extension” and “1922” particularly, are doomed by their actions — but their actions are also avoidable. There’s no point in any of the stories when you feel, “Aha. There’s the click. The key’s turned in the lock — hell, that fucker’s broken off in the lock, and here we go.” It always seems reversible. There’s no sense in this collection that the you can’t kill the boogeyman — in fact, in “A Good Marriage,” that’s exactly what the protagonist does. Yes, it’s horrible; yes, her journey of discovery is wrenching; but it also doesn’t feel as immediate and as clutching as, say, the fate of the teenagers on “The Raft.”
None of the stores in Full Dark have that feeling. Yeah, in “1922,” the narrator pretty much buys his own ticket to hell by bludgeoning his wife to death and getting his son to come in on the deal. But the rest of the story is really just an exercise in Lovecraftian inspiration and a long-drawn out version of HPL’s “The Rats in the Walls” — except not as good. (Sorry, Mr. King.) “Big Driver” is just — well, I thought it was just bad. We don’t need to go into why.
Anyway, the point of this post was not to get into trashing the stories in Full Dark — they’re worth a read, particularly in you’re a King fan. I just wanted to say that I don’t think they’re very dark; perhaps there’s just a twinkle or two in the sky — maybe the glow of a city in the distance. That’s all.