Don’t ask me why, I’d just not got around to reading this one, even though I’d bought it a couple of years ago. Full Dark, No Stars consists of four (loosely) thematically linked novellas.
The first story, 1992, is a man’s first-person confession of a killing – and in many ways owes more than a tip of the hat to Poe’s A Tell-Tale Heart. The second story, Dig Driver, is darker still – the revenge of a rape victim. The third, Fair Extension, deals with a pact and its consequences – though this is far from being The Monkey’s Paw. The final story, A Good Marriage, deals with the horror of discovering that the man you’ve lived with most of your life isn’t what he seems.
Stephen King describes these stories as harsh. It’s an accurate word. Although there are hints (and sometimes more than hints) of the supernatural, these are really tales of the dark that is within us all – those parts of human nature which we tell ourselves don’t exist, or occur only rarely. We may tell ourselves this, yet we know even as we do that this is self-deceit. Such darkness is around us – we only have to watch the news to know this is the truth. Sometimes the darkness is close to us. Sometimes it is inside us.
It can be the case with a collection of shorter stories that there’s one stand-out story and at least one lame duck. Not so here. Each story is as strong as the next – an engaging plot that’s driven forwards by believable, though flawed, characters in horrific situations.
None suffer from ‘clockwork plot’ syndrome (that you can tell instantly where things are going and nothing falls in the characters’ paths). None miss a step. None dawdle or linger. None flinch in the face of giving the reader the truth – the truth that’s a bone, broken, with skin and flesh torn away. These are examinations of human nature; the dark with the light – though of course mostly dark.
Yet, the stories never become salacious. This isn’t horror porn, it’s our dark selves under scrutiny. What someone might do if tempted, pushed or cornered.
King remains a gripping writer. Someone who is able to conjure characters that are as solid and believable as your own neighbours, friends and family. He’s also someone who’s a master of not just the novel but also the novella – so unfashionable elsewhere, perhaps, but here the stories are exactly right for the word count.