Because Stephen King is a master of the horror genre, I continually approach his work with trepidation. Horror is not a genre I frequent, whether it be written or in film, and the choice to voluntarily expose myself to such material always carries with it a side of guilt. Will I hate myself for reading this? I find myself hard pressed to break the cycle in which I hem and haw over reading King’s latest novel, buy it anyway and then finish it within a week.
King obviously has a knack for storytelling, but he has always been able to hold my interest stagnant in the palm of his hand. This is an achievement indeed, and it has always been particularly true of his short stories, of which I am especially fond. His collections seem to age like fine wine: the older he becomes, the better they are. Heck, the guy who wrote “On Writing” should know a thing or two if he’s going to offer such advice, eh? If you have never heard the audiobook, I strongly suggest you check it out. You’ll never be able to read another King novel again without hearing his voice narrating it to you. I find that makes his stories all the more enjoyable.
“Nightmares and Dreamscapes” grabbed me when I was around 13 years old – probably too young to be reading such material, but what doesn’t kill you, right? I was delighted to have numerous twisted tales grouped together in one book that were short enough for me to read at my convenience. I had not heard of his previous collections, so I had not read novels like “Different Seasons” or “Four Past Midnight”. The concept was new to me, so I was excited that Stephen King actually wrote short stories. If you’re a fan, then you know that some of his work is so thick, it can double as a doorstop.
“Everything’s Eventual” completely blew “Nightmares” out of the water for me back in 2004 when I read it. I hold that collection in high regard when I think of King’s books. I was not as impressed with “Just After Sunset”, so when I saw he had released his newest collection “Full Dark, No Stars”, I was apprehensive. Yet my latest habit seems to be that if I am not in love with the most recent of an artist’s work, be it film, literature or otherwise, I will more than likely be infatuated with the next. Such is my relationship with “Full Dark, No Stars.”
“Full Dark” has an ominous-looking cover, particularly the paperback, which pinched me with that same dread I mentioned earlier. Yet despite some of the more graphic scenes that we have come to expect from King (I am never a fan of those involving animal abuse), “Full Dark” differs greatly from a majority of its predecessors in that King fully explores the concept of character study over gore.
“1922”, the first story in the book, certainly starts out gruesome enough. A farmer has had enough of his wife’s obnoxious behavior (and wants to cash in on her farm land) and, with the help of his son, murders her. The rest of the story then focuses on how, little by little, everything unravels for these two. In making this decision, their lives are no longer their own, and even people they will never meet are negatively impacted by the consequences. King pitches a perfectly plausible tale in which people like us can find themselves in a bad situation that never eases, only worsens.
The second tale in the novel entitled “Big Driver” details an established author’s fateful decision to take advice on a new route back home. Naturally, she becomes stranded and when a giant man pulls over to “help” her, we can almost see the clouds rolling into the foreground. I haven’t read all of King’s work, but I don’t recall him taking on the subject of rape in the past. I was rather surprised to see it dealt with here, and in a similar vein to the final story, “A Good Marriage”, King ventures into the wronged-woman-takes-revenge territory. I was pleased to see his good grasp of the female psyche, and his empathy for abused women is evident in his writings.
“Fair Extension” is a decent enough story about quite literally making a deal with the devil, and it builds on the karmic effects of “1922”. It seems every other story in this novel is an extension of the story that came two before it. And it’s always pleasant to read King’s “Afterword”, since he chooses to take a few moments out to talk to you candidly and in his own voice before skillfully wrapping up.
“Under the Weather”, the “bonus” story in this collection, is short and sweet, and it arrives quickly at its eerie crescendo. It is interesting to see a character devolve right before your eyes into someone completely different from that which you thought you knew and in only a few pages. That’s the beauty of King’s work. He can pull you in and make you care about a character in a matter of seconds. It is with a great deal of humility that I would suggest that King write character studies more often, as I am a sucker for them and he is a master of them.