It has been almost 30 years since Stephen King's first set of four novellas, Different Seasons, four stories written in the golden dawn of his career. They were mostly fantasy-free, and three of them were filmed (as Stand By Me, The Shawshank Redemption and Apt Pupil). They were sharp, smart, dark stories of a perfect length to film – longer than the short stories King had written for men's magazines early in his career, shorter than the blockbuster novels he had started to carve out, following the success of Carrie (which was itself a novella, padded out to novel-length with commentary on the events of the book).
It has been 20 years since Four Past Midnight, from King's hazy afternoon period. Another four stories, less remarkable (one film, Secret Window, one TV special, The Langoliers).
Now, in the evening of his immense career, we get Full Dark, No Stars, a final set of four novellas. (At least, it is easy to presume that this is the final set. It is also perfectly conceivable that King, 63, who talks about retiring and laying down his pen, but for whom ceasing to write seems unthinkable, will bring out another set 20 years from now.)
King in novella form tends to avoid or to downplay the supernatural. "1922", the opening story, is simply as good as anything he has done. Inspired, King says in his afterword, by Michael Lesy's collection of clippings and photographs Wisconsin Death Trip (1973) (a book that I sometimes imagine must have inspired as many books as it has sold), it is a first-person narrative: Wilfred Leland James, a small farmer in Nebraska, murders his wife, having first talked his 14-year-old son into helping him. "I cozened him into it, playing upon his fears and beating down his quite normal objections over a period of two months," James tells us. "This is a thing I regret even more bitterly than the crime, for reasons this document will show." And show us he does. The murder of his wife and disposal of her body in a well is only the beginning: the consequences, for James, for his son and for their neighbours, are far-reaching, monstrous and inevitable. It's compulsive reading, sometimes scary, revolting, ultimately heartbreaking and King tells it in a precise manner that's far from his usual voice. There is a hint of the supernatural in it, although the borderline between a haunting and madness here is a hairline fracture, and one that King exploits elegantly all the way to the end.
"Big Driver", the second novella, is told in King's usual voice: it's easy, comfortable reading, deceptively so. Like many of his stories, it features a writer, in this case Tess, author of a series of uninspired mysteries, who has just driven to give a talk to a small-town book club. On her way home she's sent on a short cut, and is brutally raped and almost murdered by the eponymous "big driver". An efficient revenge fantasy, this was the only one of the stories in which the beats were predictable, and, for me, it was the least satisfying. I took the most pleasure in the snapshot of contemporary America in the background of the story.
"Fair Extension" begins as pastiche, gentle, amiable and insinuating. It appears to be a John Collier story, a classical "deal with the devil" tale. Dave Streeter is dying of a cancer that is rapid and incurable. A mysterious Mr Elvid offers him a life extension: he'll get at least 15 years of healthy life. But there is a catch (there is always a catch): if good things are happening to Streeter, bad things must happen to someone he hates, in this case his best friend.
While it begins as a pastiche, it does something else as it goes. The story gains its power from its betrayal of deal-with-the-devil tropes: there is no twist ending, no clever way out. It becomes an act of extended sadism in which the reader is initially complicit and then increasingly horrified. The anagrammatic Mr Elvid tells us that he "wouldn't know a soul if it bit me on the buttocks", but we are watching Streeter's soul being taken, a little at a time, until there's nothing left.
The final novella, "A Good Marriage", is a simple idea, perfectly told. Darcy Anderson has been married to her husband Bob, an accountant and coin collector, for almost 30 years. "It was a good marriage, one of the fifty percent or so that kept working over the long haul. She believed that in the same unquestioning way that she believed that gravity would hold her to the earth when she walked down the sidewalk. Until that night in the garage." Bob is off on a business trip. In the garage that night, Darcy finds a box containing evidence that tells her that Bob might be a serial killer. But Bob is coming home.
These are stories of retribution and complicity: of crimes that seem inevitable, of ways that we justify the world to ourselves and ourselves to the world. Powerful, and each in its own way profoundly nasty.
In his afterword, King states that he wanted the stories to linger in the imagination. And they do. They linger, and perhaps sometimes they even fester. But they are never less than satisfying and are fine stories to take with us into the night.
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Interview with Stephen King
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