Friday, 11 February 2011

Full Dark, No Stars by Stephen King

Full Dark, No Stars is an extraordinary work of fiction. It's a collection of four novellas, each linked by the concept of the shadow-self that lurks within us all and the idea of revenge. King is no stranger to the novella and has released several collections over the years such as Four Past Midnight and Different Seasons (which spawned three of his most respected works, Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption, Stand by Me and The Mist). This collection includes 1922, a confession written by a farmer who murdered his wife, Big Driver, about a mystery author who uses the conceits of her genre in an attempt to take revenge on the man who attacked her, Fair Extension, about a terminally ill man who makes a deal with someone to extend his life, and A Good Marriage in which a loving wife discovers that her husband is hiding a horrific secret...he may be a notorious serial killer.

King's powers as a writer have been resurgent ever since the publication of Cell, a techno-horror about a disease spread by mobile phones. This was followed by Lisey's Story, a romance about a woman dealing with the death of her husband (and the fantasy world he had sometimes lived in), Duma Key, an underrated book about a haunted island and a short story collection, Just After Sunset. But it was the publication of Under the Dome that cemented King's resurgence. One of his bestselling novels since he was at the height of his powers, it's a thrilling page-turner with a wonderfully simple idea at its heart. If you haven't read it yet, do yourself a favour and pick up a copy - it's among the best books he's ever written. But back to Full Dark, No Stars.

Each of the stories in this collection are strongly readable. They're all firmly rooted in the horror genre and involve murder, haunting, revenge, deals with the devil and more murder. King paints with a brush that's been firmly dipped in blood. But it's not cheap or sensationalist. King doesn't go for over the top gore and he's not trying to shock anyone. The stories slowly build to their climaxes, increasing in intensity until you simply cannot put them down.

Choosing a favourite is difficult. I loved the evocation of a harsh life in rural '20s America in 1922. The pace of Big Driver is quite frankly perfect and leads to a surprising finale. Fair Extension is a clever riff on King's Needful Things, and while I initially though it to be the weakest link in this collection it has really stuck with me. But I have to choose A Good Marriage as my favourite. It asks the question of how well you can really know someone, even after 27 years of marriage - and then asks some very difficult questions of how to act when someone you deeply love turns out to be someone deeply disturbing. It's about all the little details that make up a marriage and what it means when it turns out that someone has been misrepresenting themselves. Does the marriage dissolve instantly? Can you shut off your feelings like a tap? And what, ultimately, should you do?

An idea that is sometimes used in relation to Stephen King is that he has 'transcended genre', like genre is somehow a hindrance to him as a writer, a disease that he needs to defeat. Or that he has somehow become his own genre. But this misunderstands genre in my opinion. It somehow implies that genre is necessarily limiting and that to challenge the tropes of genre is to transcend it. But genre can be deep and diverse, and for all the intricacies and layers that are in A Good Marriage it is still a horror story. It doesn't leave horror behind for some purgatory that's halfway between genre and literature, it proves that stories can be both. Masterful writing of the style King produces is all about good storytelling. And it's organic - he doesn't bung it on or play with narrative just for the sake of it.

Full Dark, No Stars is a wonderful collection from one of the best storytellers around. Read it and enjoy it.

Reviewed by Mark

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