Thursday, January 13, 2011

Full Dark, No Stars By Stephen King

Full Dark, No Stars
By Stephen King
Copyright 2010

This book contains four novellas.

A man recounts in a written confession how he and his son went about murdering his wife and the tale of woe that followed their crime.

Wilford James is married to a harpy of a woman who needles him constantly about selling their farm and land she has inherited adjacent to the farm. She wants to vacate their farm in Hemmingford Home, Nebraska and move to Omaha. To preserve their agrarian way of life, James resolves to kill her.

He enlists the aid of his son, who dreads moving away from the young girl from the farm next door with whom he is in love. Wilford gets his wife intoxicated and it creates a scene so vulgar and shocking to young Henry that he ultimately helps his father kill his mother.

James buries his dead wife in an old well. As he is burying her, along with an unfortunate cow that is forced to serve as a cover, he sees rats attacking her dead body. Those rats haunt him.

Lawyers for the corporate farm are eager to find Mrs. James so they can complete the transaction for the land. The sheriff comes out to the James farm and makes a cursory examination of the premises, but buys James’ claim that his wife ran off.

Later that year of 1922, things start to go bad for James. His 14 year old son impregnates his girlfriend and she is sent away to a Catholic school in Omaha to have the baby. His son is distraught. The father of the girl is demanding partial payment for the girl’s school expenses. His son steals his truck and takes off for parts unknown.

James takes out a mortgage on his farm, ostensibly to make repairs and invest in the farm. The rats around the farm take on a menacing stance and begin to invade his house. One bites him and the bite becomes infected. A snow storm has cut him off from any assistance and he has no phone. As his fever rages, his dead wife, escorted by a coterie of rats, comes to him. She relates to him a narrative of her son’s life since his departure. He has resorted to bank hold ups to fund his pursuit of his life’s love. He eventually graduates to murder as he springs his pregnant girlfriend and takes to the lam. They are dubbed the Sweetheart bandits as they head west from Nebraska through Utah and into Nevada on a bank robbing spree.

Eventually, he is found by the sheriff who has come to tell him that his wife’s body has been found. Deep in fever, he is transported to the hospital where his gangrenous hand is amputated and his health restored. The sheriff tells him that the skeletal remains of a woman was found in a field several miles from Hemmingford. It seems to corroborate his story that she took off. James is off the hook for his wife’s murder.

But he’s not off the hook for the ultimate demise of his son and his young girlfriend. James believes that he hardened his son and robbed him of compassion when he made him a conspirator in his mother’s murder. He soon learns that his son and his girlfriend are dead. She by gunshot from a lunchstand clerk and he of his own hand.

James sits in a hotel room, recounting the narrative of his life in 1922 and his life in the aftermath of his tragedy. As he writes, rats gather in the room, inching ever closer to him. He rushes to complete his narrative. The rats draw closer. . .

The story ends with a newspaper account of the strange death of Wilford James in an Omaha hotel room.

This story restores my faith that King can still tell a well paced story without heaps of subplots, backstories, and character development. Told in a first person narrative, much like in Delores Claiborne the narrator tells the tale in chronological order with just enough reflection and introspection to make the character a sympathetic anti-hero.

King fans will recognize Hemmingford Home as the town in which Mother Abigail Freemantle of The Stand resided. However, no element of The Stand is touched upon in this story.

Bravo Mr. King for a well told, fast paced story!

Big Driver
Tess is the writer of a series of mystery novels based on a set of characters known as the Willow Grove Knitting Society – a geriatric crime solving club. She agrees to accept a speaking engagement in a Connecticut suburb. After the event, the promoter recommends she take the back roads through the countryside and recommends a route.

While traveling a remote section of road, Tess hits a pile of rubble in the road. Here tire is punctured and she is stranded near an abandoned gas station. She is discovered by a very large man who at first seems friendly and helpful, then turns mean and ugly.

He rapes her and strangles her. She feigns death and Tess is placed in a remote culvert where her rapist believes her to be dead. When she is finally convinced he is gone, she looks around and finds that she is not the first woman to be placed here and probably won’t be the last. She flees down the country road, away from the abandoned store and cold, damp culvert.

She makes it home and the next morning, she receives a call from a bar near where she placed her call for a car to pick her up. Her car was left in the bar parking lot and she has just 24 hours to claim her vehicle.

Tess goes back to the bar to get her car. While there, she asks the bar’s manager if she knows anyone matching the description of her assailant. The bar manager knows him, knows his name, and knows that he’s a trucker.

Tess tries to put it out of her mind. But the memory of those bodies in the culvert and the responsibility she would bear for those placed there in the future spur her to action. She decides to pursue her assailant, mete out revenge, and administer justice. As she does, she learns more and more about the twisted soul who raped her and his family of accomplices.

This story had a lot going for it. I liked the plot. I liked the sudden but slick transformation of the heroine into dark anti-heroine. I liked the demented nature of the rapist and his family. However, the way this story was written took me back to Gerald’s Game which for me is not a pleasant experience.

In Gerald’s Game, the heroine, Jesse Burlingame has inner dialogues with herself playing different roles inside her head. Some of this shows up in Rose Madder as well which I regard as one of King’s weaker efforts. For some reason he feels compelled to write female characters this way.

Tess channels her navigation system for advice. Gains insight from her fictional heroine of her mystery series, wisdom from her cat. As King tries to make the inner dialogues witty and insightful, they come off as dull and tedious.

I give this one mixed reviews. The really great story is overpowered by the subpar storytelling.

Fair Extension
A man on his way home from chemotherapy stops at a roadside stand on a lonely stretch of highway near the airport. There, Dave Streeter encounters a man who can’t give him eternal life, but can give him a “fair extension” of 10-15 years. All he needs to do is sign over 15 percent of his gross earnings every year and find a person whom he hates to pass along his bad luck and grief.

Streeter chooses what many would consider an unlikely candidate: his best friend since childhood. Put upon by the man selling favors to reach down deep and find his hate, it was this man whose visage he saw. He felt bitter resentment of having academically carried the football hero through school then watched as he got fabulously rich in the sanitation business. It was this man, who constantly expressed his gratitude and respect to Streeter, upon whom Streeter lays his curse that will guarantee him more than a decade of good health.

Streeter makes a miraculous recovery. His friend meets with misfortune at every turn. His sons are injured and mentally incapacitated. His daughter falls ill. His wife dies. His business goes bankrupt. Streeter’s wife is distraught over the constant misfortunes of their “friend.” Dave is cool with the bargain he struck.

His kids are doing spectacularly well and are wealthy and prominent. Dave has advanced his career in banking and making great money – fifteen percent of which he dutifully deposits in a Cayman Island bank. Things go well for Streeter. . .

I do believe Stephen King channeled Rod Serling when he penned this short story of just 30 pages. The bewitching character has the over the top charm and propensity for innuendo that are the hallmarks of a Serling villain. However, he lets you know right away he’s not a cliché when he tells Streeter, “I’m not a character out of The Devil and Daniel Webster.”

No. King’s Devil is less demanding than that of Faust and Benet. No souls for him, just his 15 percent cut for a “Fair Extension.”

One of King’s finest short works.

A Good Marriage
Darcy Wellburn: wife of a successful accountant, mother to two successful grown children, happy housewife, seems to have a perfect life. But one evening, as she searches for batteries for her television remote, she stumbles across her husband’s dark secret – a dark secret beyond her worst nightmares.

He learns of her discovery and lays out the grisly details of what he’s done in his secret moments for the past 30 years. He tells Darcy that if she decides to call the police, he will go with them willingly because he could never hurt her. However, he reminds her of the pain and embarrassment their children will suffer and the suspicion she will be under with their friends, neighbors and the whole world wondering if she knew. Forget it, he tells her, and life can go on and he’ll never do it again.

She resolves to move forward. With thirty years of practice, she’s able to carry out every ritual of their marriage flawlessly. However, she is emotionally empty. The sight of a mirror shows her the ghastly toll the dark secret has taken on her life.

One night, they go out to celebrate her husband’s acquisition of his Holy Grail of coin collecting. He gets drunk, and Darcy seizes the opportunity to send her husband and her dark secret into the next life. It’s a perfect “accident” and it seems Marcy has got away with ridding herself and the world of a monster. Her guilt subsides.

But her husband was not quite as perfect in the execution of his crime as he liked to think. One day, several months after her husband’s death, Darcy receives a caller. A man from the Attorney General’s office to see her husband about some murders.

One last time, Darcy channels her dark side to deal with the investigator.

This was a superb story with a well developed, believable anti-heroine. But she’s more heroic than the other anti-heroes in the book.

King calls the book Full Dark, No Stars because there is not supposed to be good. The heroes are dark. But I don’t think Darcy fits that role. I saw her as heroic. Yes, she had a self interest in not ratting her son out. But her first consideration in the equation was her children. And yes, she did benefit from her husband’s death. But the crime was not premeditated and she did rid the world of one of its most heinous killers. Her motives, while not pure, were lighter than darker.

King has written often that the question he gets asked most often is “Where do you get your ideas?” He now answers the question reflexively after each book with an afterword for which his biggest fans are grateful.

1922 was inspired by a non-fiction book called The Wisconsin Death Trip. That featured a photograph of a town called Black River Falls. He was struck by the rural remoteness of the town.

Big Driver was inspired by a chance event at a truck stop. King makes no secret of the fact that he hates to fly. So he commutes everywhere. One time on a trip to a book signing, he observed a big, burly trucker changing a tire for a woman at a truck stop. He walked over to see if he could help. The truck driver said, “No. I got this.”

Fair Extension was inspired by one of King’s regular walking routes which leads out by the Bangor Airport extension road. Along that road, sidewalk hawkers are wont to set up. They inspired King to create his Serlingesque hawker.

A Good Marriage was inspired by the events surrounding the BTK (Bind, Torture, Kill) killer that terrorized Wichita over two different time periods spanning almost 30 years. I picked up on the similarities right away. I did not notice a disclaimer that all characters in this book are fiction and any resemblance. . .I guess King was not compelled to deeply mask his story idea.

This was a fine collection of novellas. It is superior to Four Past Midnight but not nearly as good as Different Seasons. The one weak story was not too awfully bad to the point it could not be enjoyed and its best work ranks among King’s best short fiction.

1 comment:

  1. Great review. I loved this book, too.

    "No. King's Devil is less demanding than that of Faust and Benet. No souls for him, just his 15 percent cut for a 'Fair Extension.'"

    The soul of anyone who would bring so much hurt to someone else is tainted already, anyway. Why ask for what is already his?