Hey guys, I’m back.
February has been an incredibly slow reading month for me so far, and when it rains it pours, so I’m behind on blogging as well. Hopefully I’ll be able to catch up this week. To start it off, the first book I finished in February was actually one I should’ve finished back in January (which gives you an idea of how things have been going for me lately): Stephen King’s 2010 story collection, Full Dark, No Stars.
About the book: In one short story and three novellas, King explores the dark side of mankind and proves that real people can be just as horrifying as any of his more fantastical plots (alien invasions, child-snatching clowns, pets that won’t stay dead, etc.). This collection includes a murdering farmer in historical Nebraska, a woman with car trouble who is raped instead of assisted, a man who makes a selfish trade in order to live a little longer, and a woman who stumbles upon evidence that her husband of almost thirty years is not the man she thought he was.
“How many unsuspected selves could a person have, hiding deep inside? She was beginning to think the number was infinite.”
“1922”- This first story in the set took me longer to finish than I was anticipating spending on the entire book. Here we have a small-time Nebraskan farmer whose wife wants to move; she’s inherited some land that will finance a fresh start, and she’s determined to take her son with her. Her husband will stop at nothing to keep the boy and his own 80 acres.
In concept, I really liked this story. I liked its themes, its morals, its characters. The year gives it a perfect setting. But in actuality, I really struggled to get through reading “1922.” There’s a lot of gore, a lot of physical injury, a lot of suffering animals. The wife is villainized perhaps more than is good for the story, and the other female character is hardly more than a prop. The inclusion of a ghost seems unnecessary and far-fetched. There are a lot of rats. A lot of rats. In the end, I was able to appreciate how it all fit together, but this story was not at all pleasant to read. Sometimes an unpleasant story can feel worth the effort, but this one often felt like it was just trying to be as disgusting as possible.
I watched the Netflix adaptation of this story as soon as I’d finished reading it, and I had a much better time with it. It’s very loyal to the text, but the few changes I noticed were improvements. My only hesitation in recommending the film over the written story is that the ending doesn’t have quite the same psychological punch. It leaves out one detail that changed how I felt about the rats when I reached the end of the story.
“I believe there is another man inside every man, a stranger, a Conniving Man.”
But once I made it past “1922”, I had a great time with the rest of the book.
“Big Driver”- This is the story of a woman novelist who is set up to be raped and murdered on her way home from a book event. However, as the premise notes, she is not murdered, but left for dead in a culvert on the side of a little-used road. I was a little nervous about this one, as a rape story can be difficult to pull off without sensationalizing what should be taken very seriously, but King did not disappoint. I haven’t always agreed with the way he portrays women in his fiction, but I liked this one. He focuses the story on the woman trying to solve the mystery of why this has happened to her, and on how far she’ll go in the name of revenge. I was hooked.
“Fair Extension”- The third piece is the shortest of this set at just over 30 pages. It’s the story of a man close to the end of his final fight against cancer; instead of meeting his end, he meets a mysterious stranger who sells “extensions” of various sorts. The man has to “trade” someone he hates in order to postpone his own death. This is more a character study than anything else, as his choice in the trade is somewhat surprising, as is the way he feels about the trade as the story progresses. There’s not much that really happens in this story, and what does happen is fairly predictable, but King puts an interesting spin on the “be careful what you wish for” narrative that made for an unexpected ending.
“A Good Marriage”- After 27 years of marriage, a woman learns a disturbing secret about her husband and must decide what to do with the new information. Turn him in? Run for her life? …Ignore it? This story was somewhat spoiled for me by the fact that I read a thriller with a similar premise last year. This is by no means 2010 Stephen King’s fault, and the stories were different enough. The problem was that the element that is the same is meant to be a shock in this story, and instead I was expecting it. For which reason I won’t even name the thriller, to avoid spoiling you- I would absolutely recommend “A Good Marriage” over that other thriller anyway. This story had a slow start, but I loved where it went.
All in all, I found this a very intriguing collection of stories, connected only by the fact that they each display some of the uglier choices men and women are capable of making. There are a few supernatural details, but nothing very significant, as the focus is on the (very human) characters rather than anything otherworldly. Writing-wise, this is one of the best Stephen King works I’ve read in recent years, and probably the most accomplished of his works from the last ten years (that I’ve read so far). There are so many pleasing references and parallels to other Stephen King novels also, which I always particularly enjoy. I found a mention of events from It, a mention of a tactic that’s key in Mr. Mercedes (which had not actually been published yet at this time, but clearly the idea mill was rolling), and a parallel between the wife’s mode of discovery in “A Good Marriage” and Bobbi’s mode of discovery in The Tommyknockers. There were probably more I missed, as I’m just noticing that all of my examples come from books I’ve read in the last year, which probably left me predisposed to notice those particular instances. It’s all done very subtly and tastefully though, so if you haven’t read what’s referenced, you likely won’t notice and you certainly won’t be spoiled. This is a must-read for Stephen King fans, and a good choice for anyone looking to get into King’s books who maybe doesn’t know where to start and/or is intimidated by the size of some of his classics.
“In the end we are all caught in devices of our own making. I believe that. In the end we are all caught.”
My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. This was a really solid set of stories, even though I struggled with the first one. I’ve been reading several short stories this year, and found several good ones, but these stand out. I’m looking forward to exploring more of Stephen King’s shorter stories in the future, as I’ve overlooked them in the past and apparently should not have! I’m glad I stuck with these and finished even though the first story was… gross.
The Literary Elephant