"Full Dark, No Stars": A Quartet of Pitch-Black Tales from the King of Horror
written by: Laura Wise
• edited by: Ronda Bowen
• updated: 9/11/2012
This latest quartet of long stories/novellas is grim even by the standards of Stephen King. “1922," “Big Driver," “Fair Extension" and “A Good Marriage" explore the darkness, meanness and occasional heroism of human nature.
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Themes of Retribution and Redemption
While this is a four-story collection, each story in "Full Dark, No Stars" is thematically linked. Each tale deals with the theme of retribution: "1922" where the ghost of a murdered wife drives her husband insane; "Big Driver" where a woman hunts down her rapist; "Fair Extension" where a deal with the Devil lets a dying man get revenge on his successful, lucky best friend; and "A Good Marriage" where a wife brings her own type of justice to her serial killer husband.
Another important theme is the hidden person inside every person --- the braver, crueller, more devious, kinder or simply stranger person that lives inside everyone and surfaces under dire circumstances. Wilfred from "1922" calls his murderous half "The Conniving Man," thus avoiding complete responsibility for his crimes. Tess of "Big Driver" differentiates between the "Old Tess" before she was raped and the "New Tess" she is now. Having discovered her husband's secret, Darcy from "A Good Marriage" discovers that she can keep secrets as well. These and other themes and motifs --- including violence against women and the burden of keeping secrets --- tie the quartet together.
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Summary: “1922" begins the quartet with the confession of a Nebraska farmer who murders his wife. Rather than let her sell her father’s 100 acres to a hog-butchering company, Wilfred butchers her instead and throws the body down the well. Worse, he turns his son against his mother and makes him an accessory to the crime. As the years after the murder unravel in a host of unforeseen events — including rat infestation, teen pregnancy, and the Great Depression — Wilfred loses his son, the farm he killed for and eventually his sanity.
Review: “1922" is the longest of the stories, but every word is worth it. It is also the most carefully constructed and the only one told in first person voice. Akin to Poe’s “The Cask of Amontillado," it is the confession of a murder from the mind of an unstable man. Haunted by guilt, Wilfred comes to believe the ghost of his wife Arlette is actually haunting him. Though he asserts his justification for the murder to the very end, it’s difficult not to sympathize with someone who loses everything. He even loses his confession in a bitterly ironic, O. Henry ending: penning the confession before his suicide, Wilfred hallucinates that rats are biting him and dies by chewing his own wrists open. He also chews up the confession.
“1922" introduces Full Dark, No Stars’s motif of violence against women. The worst part about Wilfred’s misogyny is the fact-of-life way it is perceived by him and the rest of the community. For instance, when Wilfred tells the sheriff his wife ran off, the sheriff advises him to beat some obedience into her if she comes back. He even offers to help. It’s clear that the real reason Arlette’s murder is never discovered was that no one cared enough about a woman to investigate further or question Wilfred’s word.
Other motifs in “1922" include those of rats and the murdered body in the well, both of which come up again and again in Stephen King’s writing. In "Misery," Annie Wilkes says that all people are rats in traps; she later imprisons Paul Sheldon in her rat-infested basement. In "’Salem’s Lot," a man murders his wife and throws her body down the well. Also, in "Lisey’s Story," Lisey’s husband shoots his father and throws his body down the well. Just as in “1922," neither murder is ever discovered.
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Summary: “Big Driver" is a brutal story of rape and revenge. Cozy mystery writer Tess takes a shortcut home from a book signing and blows a tire on a trap. The man who drives up to “help" brutally rapes her and leaves her for dead. When Tess wakes to find herself lying next to the rotting skeletons of his other victims, she knows she has to do something. But she doesn’t want to go to the police. She wants to take him down herself. And because she writes murder mysteries, she knows how to kill and not get caught…
Review: “Big Driver" is very difficult to read in parts. The rape of Tess, while not explicitly described, is still brutal. Her mental state and days of recovery afterward are equally agonizing. However, this story is also strangely cathartic. Tess takes matters into her own hands, avenging herself on not just her rapist but her rapist’s mother — the woman who sent her down the back road as some kind of offering for her son. The ending, while it still leaves some loose threads, is far more satisfying than that of “1922." If you can get through the unflinchingly narrated brutality, you might enjoy this story more than the first.
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Summary: “Fair Extension" is the shortest and most callous of these tales, told with a wicked sense of dark humor. Dave Streeter is dying of cancer while his best friend Tom Goodhugh lives the successful high life with the girl he stole back in high school. Streeter pulls over to vomit on an empty road and stops at the stand of Elvid, who advertises “fair extensions." A deal with the Devil allows Streeter fifteen years’ life extension and petty revenge on his best friend.
Review: “Fair Extension" is the only tale of the four that does not feature violence against women. However, it takes us to the basest level of human nature with a protagonist desperate enough to strike a deal with the Devil. Although the Devil scorns the offer of his soul, saying that souls have become cheap, transparent things, we have to wonder what condition Streeter’s soul is in if he’s willing to make the deal he does. It’s disturbing when a character can inflict fifteen years’ agony on his best friend with no other motive than petty jealousy. Part of the humor of the tale is that, like other classic deal-with-the-Devil stories like "Faust," "The Devil and Tom Walker" and "The Devil and Daniel Webster," you keep waiting for the protagonist to show some remorse, or at least fear for his immortal soul. Streeter does neither --- while Tom’s life falls apart, he smiles and wishes for more. “Fair Extension" is an exercise in black humor.
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"A Good Marriage"
Summary: “A Good Marriage" paints a truly touching picture of a twenty-seven-years married couple. Their life seems perfect — until Darcy stumbles over her husband’s box of dirty magazines in the garage. Further investigation finds a hidey-hole with the I.D. of a murdered woman. A good marriage is destroyed when Darcy realizes her loving husband is the serial killer she’s been hearing about on the news. Can she expose him and ruin her family?
Review: “A Good Marriage" features a heroine who, unlike Tess of “Big Driver," is a little slow on the uptake. She’s a retired homemaker, content to let her husband run her life and peacefully happy with normalcy. This makes the shattering of her world — and her faith in her husband — all the more shocking. Darcy is truly torn: she wants justice for her husband’s victims, but if his identity comes out it will destroy her children and implicate her. After all, how could she not have known she was married to a serial killer? King got the idea for "A Good Marriage" from the wife of the BTK killer, who left town after her husband's arrest because people couldn’t believe she’d been married to a serial killer for years and not realized it. “A Good Marriage" explores how even the people who should know each other best — husband and wife — can hide terrible secrets. A suspenseful tale, it makes a satisfying conclusion to the quartet.
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Faithful readers of Stephen King will recognize his trademark style --- somewhere between literary and genre --- and be thrilled by the masterful building of suspense they have come to expect. But even King's fans may be surprised by just how dark and gruesome these four tales often are. The author himself admitted in the afterword that if the reader found parts of the collection difficult to read, he found them difficult to write. For people who have never read Stephen King, it might be better to read one of his classic horror or suspense novels first before sampling the stories in this new quartet. If you can't stand "Carrie" or "Misery," you definitely will not like this collection.
Not that there is no redemption involved for Wilfred, Tess, Dave and Darcy. The conflict between the sexes plays a major role in this book, and it's worth noting that while Tess and Darcy eventually triumph in "Big Driver" and "A Good Marriage," neither male protagonist achieves redemption. Dave has the opportunity to do the right thing and rejects it. Wilfred at least tries to confess, saying that confession brings redemption, but ultimately fails when he destroys his own confession in a hallucinatory fit brought on by guilt. However, it is the chance at redemption, not the failure or success to achieve it, that creates interest and suspense in these stories.
This collection is a compelling read that plumbs the depths of human nature.