Four dark stories deliver more unbelievable thrills from King

By Ed Siegel
December 1, 2010

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If only Stephen King hadn’t become “Stephen King, Heavyweight Horror Writer,’’ he coulda been somebody, to borrow a phrase from Brando. Not that his gazillion fans are complaining as their pleasures rise with every tortured limb or strangled neck in his stories.

Nor will there be any complaints from those quarters about his new collection, “Full Dark, No Stars,’’ which consists of one short story and three novellas. They’re all accomplished pieces of genre thriller writing.

But here’s the deal. Each of the novellas deals to some degree with characters who are seeming Dr. Jekylls on the surface, but deep within hides Hyde, a monster who would as soon take a carving knife to you as shake your hand. As Wilfred Leland James, the wife-killing protagonist of “1922’’ sees it, “I believe that there is another man inside of every man . . . a Conniving Man.’’

And I believe that within every genre writer or popular entertainer there is an artist struggling to get out. And so does King. In his afterword, he takes writers to task for not shining a light on the darkness of human behavior and adds, “for those who substitute unbelievable human behavior for the way people really act, I have nothing but contempt.’’

Agreed. The only problem is that this might be one of the more artful pieces of deflection by someone who has been substituting unbelievable human behavior for the way people really act for much of his career, which is what has made him more entertainer than artist.

Certainly the novellas’ main characters act in ways that set up the next thrilling moment rather than the next believable one. Would Wilfred’s son really go along with the murder of his mother? Would the writer of “cozy mysteries’’ in “Big Driver’’ turn into Dirty Harriet? And though King stresses the Hyde in all us Jekylls, the folksy serial killer of “A Good Marriage’’ just doesn’t ring true.

In “1922,’’ the issue is also whether we are in supernatural territory or whether Wilfred, the narrator, is imagining being haunted by his wife’s corpse and her pack of rats. But compared to how artfully Dave Zeltserman handles the similar question of reality or psychosis in his 2010 novel “The Caretaker of Lorne Field,’’ King never rises above pulp fiction.

Again, that doesn’t stop it or the rest of the pieces from being good reads in their own right. For relying too much on gross-out horror, “1922’’ is no less puerile than gross-out humor, but it’s a page-turner, as are the other pieces. “Big Driver’’ has considerable fun putting that writer of cozies in harm’s way at the kind of speaking engagement that King suffers through himself. Nothing in those books could prepare Tess for the ordeal she suffers when she’s raped and left for dead after taking a shortcut home after speaking. And in “A Good Marriage,’’ the question of how Darcy will respond to growing proof that her husband is a killer proves pretty riveting.

It all keeps you plowing forward, along with the best piece in the collection, the short story, “Fair Extension.’’ It’s a twist on making a deal with the devil that succeeds in breaking away from the moralistic pack. It’s all good genre stuff, but it doesn’t find that middle ground between literary writing, which King eschews, and shining light on the world. The writing can be annoying, particularly when he tries to show how clued in to pop culture he is and proves the opposite — “on Friday nights, the Stagger Inn was hopping with the bopping, rolling with the strolling, and reeling with the feeling.’’

It has the ring of King. Ker-ching, ker-ching.

Ed Siegel, a freelance writer, can be reached at


Scribner, 368 pp., $27.99