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Full Dark, No Stars

King of horror Stephen King serves up a grimly captivating collection of tales with his usual skill.

By Erik Spanberg / December 29, 2010

Full Dark, No Stars By Stephen King Scribner 368 pp., $27.99

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A dying man makes a Faustian bargain on a nondescript road near the airport, dooming a lifelong but envied friend to unsuspected calamities.

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A man in Depression-era Nebraska murders his wife – with help from his teenage son.

A woman in the midst of a happy, long-running marriage literally stumbles on her husband’s horrifying secret life, with little hope of salvaging anything.

Finally, a woman who writes cozy mysteries descends into a real-life crime spree after being victimized by a deranged New England bookshop owner.

These are the tales in Stephen King’s Full Dark, No Stars – a title that matches the mood in this grim but captivating collection. As these stories demonstrate, at age 63, King keeps getting better and remains frighteningly prolific.

“Full Dark” arrives on bookshelves just a year after the publication of King’s 1,000-page ode to ecological horror (“Under the Dome”), with a crisp baseball novella (“Blockade Billy”) thrown in last spring for good measure.

His new book opens with “1922,” written as a confession by Nebraska farmer Wilf James. As he sits in an Omaha hotel room in 1930, James recalls the events that led him to first murder his wife and then plunge into madness as the crime went unpunished.

Wilf James has a wary accomplice in his 14-year-old son, Henry. Together they plot to kill Arlette James.

Wilf and Arlette are at odds over 100 acres of adjacent land Arlette inherited from her father.

Arlette wants to sell the 100 acres, as well as the 80 she and Wilf call home, to a hog-farming company. Then the James family can leave rural Nebraska behind for Omaha or St. Louis, satisfying Arlette’s fervent desire to escape the isolation of farm life.

Wilf hates the idea and makes sure his son does, too. Soon enough, they hate Arlette as much as they hate her plan to uproot the family. King, in the guise of Wilf’s confession, offers a plausible scenario of cruel pride overcoming common decency.

“I believe that there is another man inside of every man, a stranger, a Conniving Man,” Wilf tells his readers. “And I believe that by March of 1922 … the Conniving Man inside Farmer Wilfred James had already passed judgment on my wife and decided her fate.”

A 20-foot well behind the barn is Arlette James’ final resting place, but Wilf will have no rest or peace for the rest of his own life.

King relates the physical horrors of murder (“I fought with my gorge and lost”) before honing in on something far more frightening: the rapid loosening of sanity as madness consumes Wilf.

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