Full Dark, No Stars

Anyone who’s read The Stand or It knows Stephen King’s a master of the long form, but those familiar with his short story collections know he’s just a deft when it comes to short stories, sometimes wrangling a spiky, barbed, nasty little yarn out of just a couple of pages.

This is the first time King’s done a novella collection like this since 1990’s Four Past Midnight and as he reveals, he hasn’t lost a talent for the free structure of the form. The demands of a novel cleave to the golden rule of fiction — show, don’t tell. Glossing over details to show an overarching picture from an omnipotent narrator, it’s said, keeps you from experiencing the plot along with the characters.

You can get away with it in short stories but the novella can successfully incorporate both styles if handled successfully, and the first theme that stands out in Full Dark, No Stars is that King is having as much fun with them as you will.

Sometimes, as with the opening of A Good Marriage or the denouement of Fair Extension, he flits through history, giving us the bare bones of anchors and events to impart story developments. He’s a talented enough writer to know that when the suckerpunch comes (a woman discovering something horrifying about her husband of 20 years or a dying man making a deal with a street vendor who appears to be Satan in the above examples) he can zero in one the exquisitely painful detail and turn the thumbscrews as much as the story requires.

In A Good Marriage, he’s also adopted a relatively new voice that feels very much of today’s time and place. Longtime fans will know he’s always written in a language that appears to be from the era of stories like Stand By Me and Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption. Even his 2006 zombie novel Cell was more concerned with old-time fears from a strange meta-1960s than the technology that delivered them.

After making her shocking discovery, the protagonist uses her computer and the web to conduct more research. King’s talked about the Internet, GPS and mobile phones plenty, but the use and language of them has never been so embedded in his plots. Some readers might even wonder if he’s one of those cranky old men who’s always refused to learn about such newfangled trickery.

The first two stories in the four-story collection are less thematic but just as good. 1922 is a letter written by farmer, driven to madness by the guilt of murdering his wife and who might not be imagining her return from the grave to torment him. And Big Driver is a straight revenge story about a woman escaping from her rapist and tracking him down later to exact revenge.

If you were a little turned off King during the 90s when he seemed more concerned with the emotional pain wrought by man’s inhumanity to man than ghosts and monsters, Full Dark, No Stars is like his more recent novels Duma Key and Under the Dome — still very much in the horror genre, but with a huge helping of entertainment thrown in.

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