Tracing The Trails : Full Dark, No Stars
I had high hopes for this book. I loved Different Seasons as well as Four Past Midnight so I as eager to see King dip back into this format, four novellas, too long to be considered short stories but too short to be released on their own. I hold these in their own category of books, separate from the other collections and to date, Full Dark, No Stars was the last time King would write a book of this nature. And it is because of King’s prolific output with these types of stories that I am eagerly awaiting the newest book, from King’s son, Joe Hill. Strange Weather is also a collection of four novellas. Hopefully this runs in the family.
So my hopes were elevated but sadly, I was a little underwhelmed by the stories here. I don’t think the book is bad, and there are definitely some moments where I thought the writing really shined. Still, overall my reaction was fairly lukewarm, found the stories to be interesting but not a lot above and beyond that.
What sets this book apart from the previous two was that there was a unified theme to the stories, namely that they all dealt with the subject of revenge. And while at first, I thought this was going to work out well, it ultimately seemed like this might have hurt the overall experience of the book. Because while revenge can certainly be the driving force behind a successful story, I don’t feel like there is a huge variety in terms of the way that story can be told. I kind of wish that King had done one really great revenge story and then moved on to other areas. I think that what made the other books so phenomenal was the divergent nature of the stories. I’d never guess that The Body and Apt Pupil were placed in the same collection. Or Sun Dog and The Library Policeman. With Full Dark, No Stars, I reached a point where I felt like the book was starting to cycle and double back over itself a little.
On the whole, I would definitely rank this as my least favorite of the novella collections. Moments of great writing that were somewhat lost within longer stretches of narrative that was just kind of okay. It’s a book that, had it been written by a lesser known author I think it could have maybe seemed better. But when held against the legacy of Stephen King, it just seems a bit flat.
This was the high point of the book for me. It’s a period piece, taking place…well…in 1922…and while I often find historically placed stories to feel awkward, King does a good job with this. The narrative is centered around a farmer, Wilfred and his son Henry. In the midst of their life with what seems like an abusive and overbearing wife, the two of them commit an unthinkable act. The son is clearly reluctant to get involved with his father’s actions and a big part of the tragedy of the story is in seeing how he is changed. It is this act of violence that leads the two characters down radically divergent paths and that opens the doors to the more supernatural aspects of the story.
There are some fantastic pieces of dialog between Wilfred and the father of the girl that Henry becomes romantically involved with. There is a terrific amount of chemistry between the two men and the competition between the two of them adds a great element to the tension of the story.
I thought that Henry’s story was particularly poignant in its tragic aspects. Watching Wilfred’s son start out so innocent and seeing where he ends up was difficult to accept. And I thought the supernatural turn to the story was original as well. This is not your typical, ghost shows up and takes revenge on the person who wronged them. This is a much more original approach, seeing a ghost instead choosing to torment their victims instead of merely ending their life.
Of all the stories, this is the one I think could have been effectively transformed into a longer work. The characters are interesting and deep and I found the plot to be scary at times, intriguing at others and at all points, I felt comfortably propelled through the book. I would almost say that this story justifies the price of collectioon as King has placed some genuinely creepy imagery and moments throughout. And it all winds down to a landing spot for the novella that is truly disturbing to read.
This one started off with a lot of promise. The main character is Tess, a rare female author in the King lexicon of fictional writers. Tess is a popular novelist of cozy mysteries and has been invited at the last minute to do a reading in a nearby town. After being given directions for a shortcut to get back home, Tess ends up stranded along the side of the road due to a freak accident. An encounter there ends up changing her life.
As I said, when this began, I was genuinely blown away. King has never necessarily shied away from graphic content but this story had a razor sharp edge to it, grinding through scenes that I honestly wanted to turn away from. I felt so much sympathy and sorrow for this character, I just wanted the story to come to an end and I was eager to move on to see where she was going to go from here.
Unfortunately the story, especially in the middle section, proceeds to down a path that, frankly I found to be slightly mundane. It becomes a mystery of how Tess is going to track down her attacker and find the justice she deserves. This is a perfectly well-intentioned plot but the way it is executed just feels routine to me. There is very little tension to the story and past the brutality of the opening, Tess never seems particularly challenged by her situation. Ultimately, I thought that the end of the story came about almost in routine course, so much so that even the moment at the end that should have been pretty shocking came across to me as kind of bland. The few stressful sequences towards the end are dealt with and dispatched routinely.
I think this needed to be longer in order to give the burn of the narrative some time to really seep in. As it stands, for me, Big Driver will simply exist as the story that could have been.
Didn’t care for this one and I thought it felt like something King put into the book just to round out the amount of stories contained within. Like he needed to have four stories so he pulled out an idea, fleshed it out a little and placed it here. It is quite a bit shorter than the others and honestly, I don’t think I would classify it as a novella. That’s arbitrary of course, but I think that some of the longer short stories from Everything’s Eventual or Just After Sunset could have been swapped out in exchange for this story. The story is about Dave Streeter, a man who has received a diagnosis of terminal cancer. Coming across a salesman along the side of the road, he stops and finds that the man is offering to sell “life extensions”, a way out of the death sentence that Dave has just been given.
Overall, the story didn’t really feel like anything I havn’t already gotten from classic episodes of Tales From The Crypt or The Twilight Zone. There wasn’t anything structurally wrong with the story, there just didn’t seem to be that much to it. And one thing I have come to depend on for King’s stories is a certain level of complexity and originality. I also found myself struggling with the fact that as a character, Dave doesn’t come off as a particularly good guy. This isn’t always a bad thing but considering the nature of this story, I think he needed to be slightly more sympathetic.
A Good Marriage
This one was slightly better, and probably a good choice to end the book on. Like Big Driver, I think this could have been better, though. The main character is Darcy, someone who had previously felt like she had lived a good life with a husband she loved. That is, until she makes a discovery in their garage that completely changes how she feels about him.
Like with Big Driver, I thought this had some strong points to it. But for as much as Darcy struggles with what she finds and what she should do, I still felt like this aspect of the story deserved more time and attention. When the story comes down to her choice and what she does, it still feels like it comes out of nowhere for me and a little less plausible. In the end, the story fades away on the back of a scene that has some interesting dialog but ultimately doesn’t really seem to lead anywhere. The second act of the book is likely supposed to feel shocking but to me it just seemed like the story itself was going through the motions. I think that based on the content itself, this story could have packed a much heavier punch than it ultimately does. And again, as with Big Driver, I think this needed a lot more narrative space in order to reach its full potential.
In all, the stories in this book were decent. Not great, but decent enough. I did appreciate that most of them were told from the perspective of a female character. Also, King seems to place them in less common roles from what we generally see women doing as characters in these kinds of situations. There was promise to this, I just think that from the perspective of one reader, I found this book to be less effective and I think most of the stories would have done better placed in the pages of one of King’s other collections, instead of being highlighted in one of his novella anthologies.
And just to be fun about it, I’m going to propose my own lineup of novellas for Full Dark, No Stars, chosen from the two collections that preceeded this, Everything’s Eventual and Just After Sunset. In this level of the Tower, the four novellas included in my version would be as follows:
A Very Tight Place
The Little Sisters Of Eluria
Like I said, it’s just for fun but I think this would have been a stronger book. And the stories that were replaced could have easily been put into Everything’s Eventual or Just After Sunset and not had much impact on the overall quality of those books. I figured that I made the argument, I should stand up for myself and actually put something out there. I’m sure plenty would disagree and that is their right.