NEEDFUL KINGS AND OTHER THINGS: Installment 21
Back in the Saddle Again, or, Under the Western Sky, Full Dark, No Stars, plus a glacier moves and other stuff...by Tyson Blue
Well, it's been four long years since last we met in this space, and a lot has happened. The hell that was the Bush Era has gone away, but it has been replaced by the impending Reign of Terror of the brainless mob that calls itself the Tea Party; the economy is up, but the news says it's down. If you have a skill which does not require you to be an American citizen, this would be a good time to consider another place to live.
But some things remain the same; the seasons roll on at their stately pace, the tide goes in and out each day, and there is always a new Stephen King book on the horizon to talk about. This time, it's the new novella collection, FULL DARK, NO STARS, or, as we refer to it for fun at our place, YELLOW MOONS, PINK HEARTS. If you don't get it, we can't explain...
The new book, which contains four unpublished novellas, or three novellas and a short story if you want to be precise, which are unified by a common theme of extreme, unrelenting grimness. In this quartet, people are forced by their circumstances into doing things no one should ever have to do, all with inescapable consequences. Husbands murder wives, wives murder husbands, victims murder predators and people visit devastating misfortunes upon their friends for personal benefit. It is the darkest, most unrelenting King book in quite some time.
And as an added bonus, since another year has come and gone since the preceding words were written, some people ignore the obvious until it smacks them in the face, in an added short story in the trade paperback edition of FDNS.
In the grim, gory, relentless "1922", the story's Poe-esque narrator, Wilfred Leland James, resorts to a grisly murder to keep his wife from going forward with her plan to sell off the family's homestead, and drags their son into it as well, with lifelong results. Bonus for longtime King fans: the tale is set in Hemingford Home, also seen in "Children of the Corn" and "The Stand".
"Big Driver", the collection's best story, begins when Tess, a mystery writer from Connecticut, accepts an invitation to a speaking engagement in Chicopee, Massachusetts. Taking a short-cut home, she encounters a monstrous man who disables her vehicle, rapes her and leaves her for dead in a culvert choked with leaves and bodies of previous victims.
But Tess is not dead, and sets out on a course of vengeance that may end up costing her more than she is willing to pay. Vengeance casts a wider net in this tale than might at first be thought, which is what lifts this story above the conventional revenge tale it might otherwise have been. This is King at his grim best.
The third tale, "Life Extension", is the weakest of the four. Streeter is a terminally ill man living in Derry, a place long familiar to Constant Readers. He makes a deal with a sinister stranger for a "life extension" -- not eternal life, but merely a finite period of good life before his bill comes due.
And, of course, there is a price for this: Streeter must make a living hell of the life of his worst enemy -- who is, in this case, his best friend.
This is a wryly humorous tale, which is its weakness. The collections other stories are as dark as dark can be, and this dilutes the effect of the story. Perhaps it's intended to be that way, to lighten the generally gloomy mood a bit, but for me as a reader, it just dulls the edge of the story.
The final story, "A Good Marriage", introduces us to Darcy, a woman who is astounded when a late-night search for batteries leads her to the discovery that her husband of 25 years is not at all who she believed him to be. And when her husband finds out what she has learned, there ensues a deadly dance toward a violent climax. Once again, this a grim tale, probably the third best of the book.
That leaves "Under the Weather", the new short story which appears in the paperback editions of the book published in May. It is a short, pithier tale told in first person by an ad agency employee who can't accept the fact that his wife might be dead, no matter what his neighbor's noses tell him...
Full Dark, No Stars is a harsh, bleak, (mostly) uncompromising collection of tales which take an unflinching look at the very darkest part of human nature. King has never flinched from making the reader touch that famous shape under the sheet, but this time around, he takes the reader by the wrist and forces his hand under the sheet, makes him touch the very face of what lies beneath. It takes things up a notch, and isn't for the faint of heart. But for those of us who are longtime Constant Readers, that shouldn't be a problem...
Previews of Coming Attractions: In three weeks, King's latest novel, 11/22/63, makes its debut. I have been awaiting this one with more anticipation than most King projects, for reasons I'll reveal. This installment was completed just to get things up and moving once again. But on November 8, Needful Kings will make its full-fledged return to the blogosphere with an all-new, detailed review of this epic time-travel tale. Be there: ALOHA.