Like Stephen King’s Different Seasons (which contained the stories behind the films Stand By Me, The Shawshank Redemption and Apt Pupil), Full Dark, No Stars is a collection of four stories. King explains in the afterword:
The stories in this book are harsh. You may have found them hard to read in places. If so, be assured that I found them equally hard to write in places. […] I have tried my best in Full Dark, No Stars to record what people might do, and how they might behave, under certain dire circumstances. The people in these circumstances are not without hope, but they acknowledge that even our fondest hopes (and our fondest wishes for our fellow men and the society in which we live) may sometimes be in vain. Often, even. But I think they also say that nobility most fully resides not in success but in trying to do the right thing… and that when we fail to do that, or when we willfully turn away from the challenge, hell follows.
So, if you like Stephen King’s harsher stories, the fiction of authors like Jack Ketchum, novels/movies like Sleepers or Mystic River, or movies like The Brave One, P2 or Hostel 1 and 2, then you should also enjoy the stories in Full Dark, No Stars. If you prefer nice, happy stories or are easily offended, you’ve been warned.
1922 is told through the written confession of Wilfred James, and the first of four stories linked by the theme of retribution (defined on Princeton WordNet as “a justly deserved penalty”). Wilfred’s confession begins:
TO WHOM IT MAY CONCERN:
My name is Wilfred Leland James, and this is my confession. In June of 1922, I murdered my wife Arlette Christina Winters James, and hid her body by tupping it down an old well. My son, Henry Freeman James, aided me in this crime, although at 14 he was not responsible; I cozened him into it, playing upon his fears and beating down his quite normal objections over a period of 2 months. This is a thing I regret even more bitterly than the crime, for reasons this document will show.
In 1922, King does not hold anything back. Wilfred’s murder of his wife Arlette, with the help of their son Henry, is messier and more complicated than he had intended, and his retribution is the torment he and his son suffer following the murder. In the afterword, King explains that 1922 was inspired by photos in a book called Wisconsin Death Trip by Michael Lesy and writes: “I was impressed by the rural isolation of these photographs, and the harshness and deprivation in the faces of many of the subjects. I wanted to get that feeling in my story.”
Tess is a mystery writer who takes speaking engagements for some extra cash. On the way home from one such speaking engagement, she runs into trouble:
When she got out and looked at the left front tire, she saw a splintered piece of wood impaled on it by a large, rusty spike. Tess uttered a one-syllable expletive that had never crossed the lips of a Knitting Society member, and got her cell phone out of the little storage compartment between the bucket seats. She would now be lucky to get home before dark, and Fritzy would have to be content with his bowl of dry food in the pantry. So much for Ramona Norville’s shortcut… although to be fair, Tess supposed the same thing could have happened to her on the interstate; certainly she had avoided her share of potentially car-crippling crap on many thruways, not just I-84.
The conventions of horror tales and mysteries – even mysteries of the bloodless, one-corpse variety enjoyed by her fans – were surprisingly similar, and as she flipped open her phone she thought, In a story, it wouldn’t work. This was a case of life imitating art, because when she powered up her Nokia the words NO SERVICE appeared in the window. Of course. Being able to use her phone would be too simple.
When Tess is raped by a huge trucker, the big driver of the title, her whole attitude to life is transformed and she reaches a point where she seeks retribution for what was done to her. In the afterword, King explains how he got the inspiration from the story at a highway rest area:
When I came out of the refreshment shack, I saw a woman with a flat tire talking earnestly to a long-haul trucker parked in the next slot. He smiled at her and got out of his rig.
‘Need any help?’ I asked.
‘No, no, I got this,’ the trucker said.
Harry Streeter’s life is not going well, until he meets a man at a roadside stall who offers some help:
‘It’s done Mr Streeter. Or since I’ve cured your cancer, at least temporarily, may I call you Dave?’
‘You’re a very crazy man,’ Streeter said, not without admiration.
‘No sir, I’m as sane as a straight line. But notice I said temporarily. We are now in the “try it, you’ll buy it” stage of our relationship. It will last a week at least, maybe ten days. I urge you to visit your doctor. I think he’ll find remarkable improvement in your condition. But it won’t last. Unless…’
Elvid leaned forward, smiling chummily. His teeth again seemed too many (and too big) for his inoffensive mouth. ‘I come out here from time to time,’ he said. ‘Usually at this time of day.’
‘Just before sunset.’
‘Yes, most people don’t notice me – they look through me as if I wasn’t there- but you’ll be looking. Won’t you?’
‘If I’m better I certainly will,’ Streeter said.
‘And you’ll bring me something.’
Elvid’s smile widened, and Streeter saw a wonderful, terrible thing: the man’s teeth weren’t just too big or too many. They were sharp.
Suddenly things turn from bad to good for Streeter and he gets a second chance at leading a fulfilling life. Meanwhile, other people’s lives are changing around too. King explains in the afterword that he developed the idea for Fair Extension from a roadside stall by a golf course at which a man sells golf balls he recovers and makes them usable once again… meanwhile new balls are in play on the course, some of which will become unrecoverable, making those with a second chance not look so bad in comparison. Streeter sums it up: “Life is fair. We all get the same nine-month shake in the box, and then the dice roll. Some people get a run of sevens, some people unfortunately get snake eyes. It’s just how the world is. […] The law of averages favours optimists, any banker would tell you that. Things have a way of balancing out in the end.”
A Good Marriage
The picture is a good indication of what to expect in A Good Marriage. It begins:
The one thing nobody asked in casual conversation, Darcy thought in the days after she found what she found in the garage, was this: How’s your marriage? They asked how was your weekend and how was your trip to Florida and how’s your health and how are the kids; they even asked how’s the world been treatin you, hon? But nobody asked how’s your marriage?
Good, she would have answered the question before that night. Everything’s fine.
In A Good Marriage, King follows developments as Darcy comes to realise the secret life her husband has been living. King explains in the afterword that he developed the idea for A Good Marriage after he read an article about Dennis Rader, the self-named BTK (bind, torture, kill) Killer. Dennis Rader killed ten people over about 16 years, while maintaining a marriage with his wife who apparently knew nothing of his murders. King’s story explores what could happen in such a situation if the wife found out what her husband was hiding from her.
More on Stephen King and his fiction can be found at www.stephenking.com.
The Australian Literature Review