Number Sixteen: Review of FULL DARK, NO STARS by Stephen King

Stephen King has been my favorite author for close to 30 years now. My love affair with his writing began at the young age of 12, when my mother handed me her paperback copy of MISERY and turned me loose. It was the first adult novel I had ever read, and it floored me. Axes and lawn mowers and sadistic number-one fans. Phew. Talk about an eye opener!

[What a great cover!]

All these years later I’ve read damn near every novel and short story King has made available to the public. One that got past me, despite my purchasing it right as it came out, was his novella collection from a handful of years ago, entitled FULL DARK, NO STARS.

[What a horrible cover!]

What follows is a breakdown of the stories, along with separate scores for each:

“1922” – The lead novella relays the confession of Wilfred James, a Nebraska farmer who murders his wife, Arlette, because she wants to sell a section of the family’s farmland and move to the “big city.” Wilfred and his son, Henry, were country folk through and through, and had no desire to leave the family plot and move to Omaha. Wilfred decides he’s had enough of his wife and her scheming, and convinces/guilts his son into helping him kill her. But, despite promises that the murder will be easy and their lives will quickly go back to normal, Wilfred finds that murder is a difficult business, one that leaves the perpetrator haunted for the rest of his days. For me, this is where the story excelled. King does a fantastic job of showing that even the most sincere ideas (let alone murder) don’t always lead people where they want to go. Indeed, the grass is not greener for Wilfred and his poor son. (8/10)

“Big Driver” – Tess, author of a series of mystery novels, agrees to take a last-minute speaking engagement in a nearby city. When the session ends and Tess collects her appearance fee from Ramona Norville, the librarian who setup the Q&A, Ramona offers Tess a shortcut that will save ten miles on her return trip home. In a cruel twist of fate, Tess drives over some debris in the roadway of said shortcut, thus popping a tire on her Expedition. I can’t really say much more without ruining the surprises, but what follows is a brutal series of events that threatens to shatter Tess’ sanity. While I enjoyed the first half of the novella (as tough as it was to work through in spots), the second half tailed off for me as various events transpire that almost belittle the powerful opening. A solid story, but could have been better, in my opinion. (6/10)

“Fair Extension” – Dave Streeter is a man living on borrowed time, having recently found out that he has a form of cancer from which there is no coming back. One evening he’s driving on the outskirts of town and comes across a man sitting at a roadside table, which advertises “extensions” for sale. Curious, Dave strikes up a conversation with the vendor, who offers to sell Dave fifteen years of healthy living in exchange for 15% of his future earnings…and the name of a person Dave hates, someone who will have to take on Dave’s bad fortune. Figuring he has nothing to lose (already questioning both the sanity of the vendor AND his own sanity for indulging the seller) he agrees to the terms and gives the man the name of his best friend, Tom Goodhugh. Despite being his best friend, Dave has always harbored an incredible amount of jealousy toward Tom for being wildly successful, marrying a woman Dave liked as a young man, having the perfect life, etc. What follows is a classic deal-with-the-devil story, one that will be familiar to people who read horror and suspense, but one that is also quite enjoyable in King’s capable hands. Initially the ending left me cold because it’s very abrupt and I was hoping to see how the situation played out in full, but I’ve grown to like it better as the days have gone by. (8/10)

“A Good Marriage” – Darcy and Bob Anderson have lived a charmed life together for 27 years – successful professionals (Darcy leaving her job after having children), owners of a side business in coin collecting and sales, and parents of two wonderful children. In Darcy’s terms, she had “a good marriage.” Or so she thought. One night, with her husband gone on a business trip, she goes to the garage to look for something and makes a startling discovery – a magazine with sadomasochistic pornography in it. But nothing could prepare her for what she finds even further back in her husband’s hidey-hole. “A Good Marriage” explores the question of how well we truly know anyone in our lives, even the people who are closest to us. While the story’s premise may seem like it’s coming from left field, the book’s Afterword lets readers in on a nasty surprise: King’s tale is loosely based on a true-to-life story, once again proving that truth is stranger than fiction. (7/10)

In the end, FULL DARK, NO STARS is a very solid collection of novellas. While it does not rise to the level of DIFFERENT SEASONS (perhaps the finest collection of novellas ever compiled in the genre), “The Mist,” or some of the Bachman Books, I would argue that each story firmly holds its ground in the second tier of King’s novellas, which isn’t a bad place to be. And, speaking of Bachman, some of these stories have a Bachman-esque feel to them. There are scenes in “Big Driver” and “A Good Marriage” that made for a difficult reading experience.

One last note: while I read most of “1922,” I switched over to the audiobook version for the remainder of that story and all of the other stories. The novellas were read by Craig Wasson (a familiar voice to listeners of King’s work) and Jessica Hecht, and I felt both readers did a nice job overall. My only nitpick would be that Ms. Hecht read many scenes as if she had a smile-with-barely-contained-laughter in her voice, which didn’t really go with some scenes she was reading (she did the two “difficult” stories I mentioned above, neither of which were a laughing matter).

Until we meet again…



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