Written by: Wayne C. Rogers
Full Dark, No Stars by Stephen King is a return by the author to the in-your-face horror that made him famous during the late seventies and early eighties. This is when King was establishing himself as the premier writer of horror fiction, or maybe it was simply fantastic storytelling. Whatever it was, fasten your seatbelts and prepare for a rollercoaster ride into the darkness of depravity and evil. May you come out at the other end in one piece and with your brain cells still functioning properly. Hell, this anthology of four novellas is the most fun I’ve had in a decade. It makes you want to slip the barker a few more bucks so you can take a second ride into the mind of one of the best writers in American history.
The first novella, “1922”, is the sad and horrible story of Wilfred James, a farmer in Nebraska during the year of, you guessed it, 1922. Wilfred (or Wilf as he’s generally referred to) owns a patch of land that he grows his crops on. His wife, Arlette, owns an adjacent piece of property that her deceased father left her. A hog butchering company wants to buy it from her because of the river that cuts across the land, and she wants to sell it. Wilfred, however, loves his home and dislikes the idea of living in the city. He wants to stay on the farm with his young son, Henry.
Over a period of time, Wilfred and Arlette get down and ugly with each other about whether or not to sell the property. Arlette hates the farm and wants more out of life. Everything, of course, changes for the worse when Wilfred kills her one night by cutting her throat and tossing her body down an old, unusable well. He talks his son into helping him do the dirty deed. Both men of the house, however, soon find themselves having to deal with their unspeakable actions and the unforeseeable consequences. You see, Arlette may be dead, but this is a Stephen King story, and dead people have a way of coming back to life when you least expect it.
Now, I haven’t given anything away by mentioning the murder of Arlette James. Wilfred, the narrator of the story, discusses it on the very first page. That’s just a hook to grab your attention, and I was certainly grabbed by the nose and jerked into the story by it. Like most of Stephen King’s fiction, you find yourself hooked by the first couple of pages and this one is no different.
The author creates such believable characters here that you have no choice but to accept their plight and the horrors that soon arrive at their front door. Each character (major and small) is brought to life in such a way that you easily find yourself living within the story and experiencing many of the emotions that poor Wilfred and the others display. For me, 1922 was a return to the dark, haunting stories that King wrote during the early part of his career.
This, of course, is writing at its best. Not a word is wasted. The characters, the plot, the dark theme about revenge, and the horror that consumes those within the story, make this one of the best pieces of fiction by the man who scares people for a living. This is the type of story that makes reading fun and addictive!
The second novella in this paperback is called “The Big Driver” and deals with a successful mystery writer named Tess (no last name), who does a book signing one day in a small town about sixty miles from home. On the way back she drives over several boards in the road that have nails in them, causing her a couple of blow outs. After she pulls over near a closed store, a vehicle comes along with a giant of a man inside, dressed in overalls and wearing a gimme hat.
At first Tess believes the guy is there to help her, but that’s not the case at all. No, sir. He’s actually there to rape and kill the writer. That she even survives the horrible ordeal is a miracle. The human predator leaves her for dead in a culvert on the side of the road and then takes off. Tess later wakes up, only to find herself in the presence of other bodies that have been tossed there over the years. These are the bodies of dead women who were victims of the Big Driver. Now, this guy is huge. It would take a .44 Magnum to put him down.
As Tess makes her way back to the store where her clothes are, she deals with an array of emotions, one of which is whether or not to call the police. In time, however, she decides to take matters into her own hands and to seek revenge. The rest of the story deals with how she goes about completing her mission and hopefully surviving the encounter because killing isn’t an easy thing to do. If anything can go wrong, it will when you least expect it and at the worst possible moment.
Listen, I’ve driven across country several times and the one fear that has always stood out in the back of my mind was breaking down in the middle of nowhere and then being murdered. Part of that fear was based on the fact that I had an old car which would inevitably break down at the worse possible moment. Though I’m not a female, Stephen King still managed to trigger that same old fear within me. Hell, I haven’t own a car in twenty years, yet the fear bubbled right up and surrounded me like a shroud of blackness that even caused my palms to sweat.
I certainly found myself identifying with Tess’s ordeal to the tenth degree. I also have an Old Testament sense of justice in believing an eye for an eye. It doesn’t necessarily make you feel better, but at least you don’t have to keep looking over your shoulder at night. I have softened somewhat in my old age, but I cheered Tess on as she began to make plans to kill the man who’d attacked her. Screw the police and the justice system. Let’s take care of this monster ourselves. Let’s get close enough to him and put a bullet right between his eyes so he never hurts another soul again. This is one of the great talents of the author. Stephen King is able to tap into our primal fears to create stories that pop right off the page in their realism with characters who remind you of yourself and the situations you pray to never find yourself in.
The third novella in Stephen King’s Full Dark, No Stars is “Fair Extension”. This is the shortest of the four stories in the book.
The one centers around Dave Streeter, who works at one of the local banks in Derry (a favorite location for a number of King’s stories), and also happens to be dying from cancer. He stops along the Harris Street Extension near the Derry Municipal airport one day and spots a small booth selling “Extensions” of every kind: hair extensions, penis extensions, loan extensions, and even life extensions.
The salesman at the booth is Mr. George Elvid (the devil?), a short pudgy man with very sharp teeth, a foul scent, and the hint of a much darker personality. Mr. Elvid offers to sell Dave an extension on his life for say another fifteen years at the cost of fifteen percent of his gross salary, plus the name of someone he hates so the illness can be transferred over to them.
Good old Dave thinks about it for a few seconds and comes up with the name of his best friend, Tom Goodhugh, whom he’s known since grammar school. You see, Tom has been hitting a perfect score all of his life. He’s always been a handsome dude and made it through both high school and college with Dave’s help. He then stole Dave’s girlfriend from him after impregnating her. And, if that wasn’t all, Tom struck it rich with a new business venture he started due to a loan he was able to get from Dave’s bank and with Dave’s hearty recommendation. Tom also has two wonderful children who seem to be as lucky as their dad is.
Dave hates his friend with a passion and poor Tom doesn’t even know it. The banker gladly offers Mr. Elvid his friend’s name in exchange for ridding himself of the life-draining decease. Who wouldn’t? What then happens to Tom and his family is the basis for the rest of the story. It certainly isn’t pleasant, and it also goes to show that you can’t always trust your best friends.
I think in some ways “Fair Extension” is the weakest of the four novellas. Though I enjoyed it, I was expecting a twist at the end with everything coming back in full circle to Dave Streeter. This is what basically happens in the other stories, but not here. Instead, you get a lesson on how fragile friendships can be and how hatred can fester over the years. Like the last novella, it shows that you never truly know another person.
Also, though some of King’s stories are better than others, he never tells a bad one. It’s enough to say that “Fair Extension” is excellent in its structure and pacing and character study. My only thought with regards to it is to be careful on every deal you make and to always anticipate the final outcome from your actions.
Okay, here’s the final novella, “A Good Marriage”. If this story doesn’t have the female fans out there thinking hard, then the Maestro has lost his touch and that hasn’t happened.
Imagine being married to a loving husband for twenty years. He’s a great guy who treats you the way a man should, and he’s been a wonderful father to the kids. Now, let’s take this a step further. Suppose your husband is out of town for a few days and you happen to go into the garage to look for some batteries. You accidentally stub your toe on a box sticking out from underneath the counter. When you search the box to see what’s in it, you discover old catalogues and something else—a magazine about men torturing bound women.
Okay, you think.
Maybe my husband has a secret fetish and bought a couple of magazines to satisfy those inner cravings. But, when you push the box back under the counter, you discover a hidden niche that contains a wooden box you gave to your husband as a gift. In the box are the blood donor card, library card, and driver’s license of a woman who was recently murdered. You know because you saw her picture on the nightly news. Now, you’re thinking something else, and it scares you.
Because your wonderful, loving husband can’t be the man who killed the woman in the picture. Besides, she was murdered by a serial killer, who has been in business for decades. You know your husband, and there’s no way he could be a serial killer who’s been performing gruesome acts on unsuspecting females for over twenty years.
Now, because your husband is an accountant and has kept the records of his business travels for the last two decades, you decide to check the dates and locations of the killings to see if they match. After all, you have to be sure.
Oh my God, they do match!
What do you now do now? Who’s going to believe you? If it’s legally proven your husband is the killer, who’s going to believe you didn’t know about it from the beginning and maybe even helped him? What’s going to happen to your children when the stigma of having a serial killer for a father lands on their little shoulders?
Well, at least you have a day or two to come up with an answer.
So what if your husband called to see how things were going, and you stayed calm and didn’t let on you knew about his secret proclivities. You do have time to work on a solution, but first you need some sleep. It’s been a stressful evening. When you wake up during the night, however, you suddenly find your husband sitting on the edge of the bed. He knows that you know and the shit is getting ready to hit the fan!
That’s the premise for “A Good Marriage” and it doesn’t stop there. There are more twists and turns ahead as Darcy Anderson attempts to figure out what to do to protect herself and her kids. You see it’s not easy being married to someone like Hannibal Lector…someone who may make you his next victim if the wrong word is spoken, or the wrong look given.
The final novella will have you thinking about what you would do in this situation, ladies. And make no mistake, you could be married to a serial killer and not even know it. Heh, heh, heh! The author captures the stark realization and absolute fear that can overcome an individual when she unexpectedly finds out her spouse is not the man she married…that he’s actually a very dangerous and cunning individual who loves to torture and kill for the sheer pleasure of it.
This story, like the first two, is King at his best. He pulls no punches in the development of his characters, showing that serial killers can have their good moments, too. The Maestro lures you into this tale of deception and horror with a few simple sentences, but by then you’re caught inside the dark twisted journey of one woman’s search for the understanding. Even more is the realization that you never truly know anyone else, no matter how close you think you are to them. Everyone has their dark secrets, but some secrets are more terrible than others.
Full Dark, No Stars is a magnificent anthology that will leave you with a deeper understanding of humanity’s darker side. It’s harsh, brutal, and terrifying. These stories will compel you to think about yourself and what you would do if caught in a similar situation. There are no right answers…only an understanding that when push comes to shove, we’ll do whatever it takes to survive.
There are a lot of decent people out in the world who try to live a life filled with hope, honesty, fairness, doing good deeds for others, and seeing the positive in everything. Of course, there are also others who have an innate personality that’s filled with evil in its purest form and feeds off the suffering and pain of others. For those who are like that, they must be fought and destroyed so the rest of humanity can survive. Sometimes that means we have to be like them in order to win the final battle.
Stephen King touches on all of this in his four stories. You won’t be able to come away unshaken and without a sense of having lost something precious. This is profound stuff, ladies and gentlemen. Though written as horror fiction and entertainment, there are some important lessons to be learned here.
So, read this anthology at your own risk and don’t say I didn’t warn you.