(Full Dark, No Stars)
So this is one of King’s collections of novellas. It contains four of them: 1922, Big Driver, Fair Extension, and A Good Marriage. The title of the collection is definitely accurate because these are some seriously dark stories. Not even so much in the scary sense as they are dark in the meanspirited sense. The collection left me feeling a little depressed, actually.
We start with 1922. Of the four, this is the one that least appeals to me style-wise. I feel like it’s part “The Telltale Heart” (as in, the narrator has done something terrible and hidden it, but it keeps coming back anyway because guilt) and then toward the end turns into a Bonnie-and-Clyde style store. And then returns to “TheTelltale Heart”. But with rats. This is just a preference thing, but I don’t care that much for Poe, don’t care about Bonnie and Clyde, and hate rats. On top of that, I don’t much care for how any of the women in the story are drawn (which is going to be a recurring theme throughout the book.) At least the narrator feels guilt, I guess, even if it’s mostly about what he’s done to his son and not so much about killing his wife. Maybe I’m also just not big on wife killing. In 1922, it seems, everyone is mostly just annoyed that the law now says that a man can’t physically force his wife to do what he wants with no limit — there seems to be an agreement that none of this would be happening at all if Wilf could have just beat Arlette into compliance. Or openly killed her without consequence. Or just been legally given control over her property from the outset. (And I’m not really clear on why he can’t, to be honest — even with today’s laws, this happens all the time without repercussion and I tend to think that 1920s Nebraska laws weren’t exactly stronger.) In the end, everyone dies. And there are rats. It’s definitely a tale that gives you some shivers, but it also just kind of makes me mad at everyone in it.
Big Driver is the next one. This one has been made into a movie. I haven’t seen it — I really don’t want to — but looking it up, I do see that both Ann Dowd and Joan Jett are in it, which does interest me. I’m not sure that it interests me enough to watch it, though. I’m still trying to get the taste of the story out of my mouth, so to speak.
You’ve seen or read this kind of thing before, or at least heard about this kind of story. It’s the kind where a woman is assaulted, physically and often sexually, and goes on a revenge rampage. The story itself even references another story of this kind: The Brave One, starring Jodie Foster. I’m going to be honest, I hate these. I hate rape as the catalyst for a story. The rape of a woman being the catalyst for a story about the woman is at least a little better than the rape of a woman being the catalyst for a story about a man — another tired trope — but it’s still not pleasant. It’s not as if the story is condoning rape, but I feel like it takes a bit too much pleasure in showing it to us and talking about how common it is. “Look at it, isn’t it awful? But keep looking. It’s definitely terrible. Let me tell you all about how terrible it is. Let’s think and talk about it a lot,” the story seems to say. Frankly, I do not need this much examination of rape. Not even the woman’s revenge — since of course, that’s still about the rape. Again, that might be a personal thing for me. It may not be a problem everyone has. But this just left me cold. I know that I should feel triumphant for Tess, but by the time she’s making things happen, I’m just freaking sick of rape.
Fair Extension is super interesting, but it’s also incredibly mean. They all kind of are, but this one feels like the meanest one in the bunch. It feels more like Bachman than King. At least in the others, there’s some retribution for the worst characters. This?
Imagine that your life went to hell. Your partner dies, your kids are injured, commit crimes, experience life-ruining events, also die. You go into bankruptcy. You lose your looks, your health, your loved ones, your financial stability, everything. Now imagine that all of this was orchestrated by your best friend. Now imagine that when the story of it is told, it’s from your best friend’s perspective. And at the end, he’s just fine. Ouch.
I don’t hate the story. I hate the main character. I think — I hope — we’re supposed to. What’s really horrifying — and again, I think it’s meant to be — is that you can kind of understand why the main character is jealous enough to condemn his lifelong best friend to a horrible life in order to extend his own life. You can feel that jealousy with him, you can understand both why he wants to improve and extend his own life and why he thinks his friend needs a comeuppance.
But it goes too far. I mean, son of the man whose life is supposed to be ruined stabs his female partner and that’s supposed to be more bad luck for the man? It’s sacrificing an unrelated woman who’s not even related to the man that our main character has cursed in order to make his life worse by putting his son in jail. And our main character has not a moment’s qualm about that. That’s several steps too far. Taking it out on the man and even on his wife would be one thing. The children were too far to begin with, but OK, generational curse, fine. But the children’s partners? It’s too much. I was mainly horrified by the main character’s lack of compunction by this point — as happens, over and over again with King, his horrible realistic character is much scarier than the supernatural element of the story. I did like the story better than the first ones, but I don’t much want to read it again. Because like I said — it’s just mean.
I do notice the dark tower reference in this story. The main character at one point wishes his friend “long days and pleasant nights.” but doesn’t know where he came up with it. This makes me think the man who granted the extension is some type of Low Man? Certainly, he’s from other worlds than this one.
A Good Marriage is the last one. It’s also a movie. (Again, one I haven’t seen). It’s probably the closest thing I have to a favorite from this book, though I still feel like that’s a strong word. It asks the question “do we ever really know anyone? Even our partner of decades?” and the answer to the question is a clear “no.” Which I think is probably the right answer, honestly. I feel like this kind of thing probably happens to people. Maybe not to the extent of discovering that your partner is a serial killer (although maybe that’s happened?) but certainly to the point of discovering late in the game that there’s something big you don’t know.
This one, at least, does not let the killer off and depicts a woman taking action that’s not based on her own mistreatment. It feels more cathartic than the others do. I still would put it fairly low on the list of King stories that I like, but it’s a standout for me in this bunch.
I don’t have deep critiques of these novellas. I think you could probably make deep critiques about it — if nothing else, about the treatment of women throughout — but I’m not really trying to do that, although I suspect that has something to do with how these stories made me feel. What I’m trying to convey is just that — how these stories make me feel. And the answer is down. Depressed. King stories don’t typically do that to me. They can make me afraid, unsettled, uneasy, mad, even sad, but they usually don’t make me depressed and dispirited. Maybe these are supposed to — the book is called Full Dark, No Stars. I pulled the quote from the title of this post from King’s notes at the back — because frankly, I was just happy to be done and come back into the sunshine. This is a dark place that I’m not interested in spending much more time in.