Master of horror Stephen King’s latest work Full Dark, No Stars (Scribner) is not for the faint of heart. Neither, however, is it for someone looking for a classic King novel filled with ghosts, vampires, aliens, and other fantastical things that go bump in the night.
Following in the tradition of past work like Four Past Midnight (Signet, 1990), Full Dark is comprised of four separate, long stories. The first, “1922,” centers around a Midwestern farmer who murders his wife, resulting in dark and disturbing consequences. In “Big Driver,” a young mystery writer is compelled to do her own sleuthing in order to take revenge on a rapist.
“Fatal Extension” veers most from the themes of the other three: a cancer patient makes a deal with the devil, saving himself by ruining the life of another. The final story, “A Good Marriage,” features a woman who is married 27 years before unexpectedly discovering a dark secret her otherwise-wonderful husband has been hiding.
All of the stories—“Fatal Extension” being a slight exception—are similar in content and theme. As King eloquently states in his afterword, they revolve around “ordinary people in extraordinary situations,” specifically in the gruesome circumstances of murder. The farmer in “1922” is forced to watch his world fall apart: his son, his land, and his sanity crumble as he is haunted by his murdered wife whose corpse is slowly being eaten by rats. In “A Good Marriage” and “Big Driver,” King looks at the other side of the story (pardon the pun) by featuring those who are seeking revenge on murderers.
King also explores the idea of a separate, unknown self who lives deep inside all of us. For Wilfred in “1922,” this man is “The Conniving Man” and “The Lunatic.” In “A Good Marriage,” Darcy begins to see her husband as “The Darker Husband,” while her new, vengeful self is the “Darker Wife.”
These characters may appear schizophrenic: the rats, voices, and corpses that haunt them just hallucinations; their split personalities merely psychological. But as King places his characters in positions the vast majority of his readers can’t possibly imagine—that of a murderer, a murderer’s wife, or someone seeking revenge for murder—who are we to say who or what is real in King’s universe and that no “Darker Reader,” in fact, exists?
The quartet of stories is not without hope: “A Good Marriage” and “Big Driver” end as well as they could for given their premises. However, the stories are violent, disturbing, gruesome, and ultimately hard to read. Even I, with my extensive experience with fictional serial killers and fake dead bodies (thank you, Criminal Minds), had trouble stomaching many parts.
By indulging himself in only a little bit of the fantastical, King presents one of his darkest and most disturbing works yet. For those King fans who read only for the evil clowns, vampires, and undead creatures la Pet Sematary, this is not your book. That being said, I fully recommend Full Dark, No Stars to those who feel secure in their ability to stifle a gag reflex, and encourage everyone else to give it a try anyway. King provides intriguing insights into human nature, choosing to look without fear at the dark parts of both the world and ourselves.