A dying man makes a Faustian bargain on a nondescript road near the airport, dooming a lifelong but envied friend to unsuspected calamities.
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.
Henry, sullen and despondent, gets his girlfriend pregnant and, eventually, steals her away from the Catholic Home for Girls in Omaha. From there, the two young lovers embark on a Bonnie and Clyde-style crime spree, a doomed odyssey of petty theft that morphs into still more killing.
That leaves Wilf alone to fend off visits from a cagey sheriff and a canny lawyer hoping to acquire the land Arlette James was negotiating to sell when she disappeared. Wilf often finds himself alone on his desolate, doomed farm with little to do but think about how many more lives have been destroyed since the murder.
King is happy to pile on to what is already a staggering nightmare, adding in illusion, delusion, and the odd savage rat bite for good measure.
It is with relief that the reader shifts from this chugging, blood-spattered finale into “Big Driver,” a story about a storyteller in peril (a motif re-visited by King many times, most memorably with his earlier novel – and its later film version, with an Oscar-winning performance by Kathy Bates – the stunner “Misery”). Short-lived relief, that is.
Before the fireworks begin, King does what he does best: He sets up an ordinary character in ordinary contemporary American surroundings for a hellish ride into traumatic, extraordinary events.
Tess is in her mid-30s, churning out Willow Grove Knitting Society novels that earn respectable sales, if not the blockbuster status of those written by Janet Evanovich. Think Jan Karon meets Alexander McCall Smith.
To ensure a retirement cushion, she knocks off a dozen paid speeches and book-signings per year, all of them within an easy drive of her New England home.
An invitation for just such an appearance pops up at the last minute, and Tess accepts with delighted aplomb. All goes well, until the president of Books & Brown Baggers – a mannish 60-year-old named Ramona who extended the author’s invitation – suggests Tess take a shortcut home.
What follows is harrowing enough: flat tire, hulking helper-turned-attacker, Tess left for dead. But the lead-in and aftermath are what cement the horrors with the reader’s dread, driven by the commonality of Tess’s thoughts and mental tics.
She calls her GPS Tom (it is, after all, a Tomtom) and juxtaposes scenes from “Deliverance” and “Wait Until Dark” with the real-life crisis she finds herself in. Panic and shock commingle with an old 7-Up slogan (“You Like It. It Likes You”) as Tess reels from rape and violence. The horrible, unspeakable devastation hits even harder amid mundane concerns: Tess wonders about her cat Fritzy, ponders the fact that an hour or so earlier she had been speaking to a roomful of happy people – and then jolts back to the present.
And that could be that, except King is unwilling to let Tess – or matters – die there. Instead, a couple of severe plot twists, and an unforgettable road to recovery, put the pedal to the metal as the finale comes down on “Big Driver.”
The final two stories in “Full Dark” are shorter, but offer little in the way of sunny skies.
While “Fair Extension” seems harmless enough – employing the familiar devil’s bargain as its foundation – the details (ah, yes, the devil is always in the details, isn’t he?) of the ravages set afoot prove disturbing nonetheless. One family’s fatal fortunes devolve to another accustomed to ceaseless triumph, with grisly results.
Still, “Fair Extension” is mere child’s play in comparison with the last story, “A Good Marriage.” Again, the chills here stem not just from evil acts (in this case, the sordid deeds a husband hides from his wife), but also from the discovery that everything in an illusory contentment has been blackened.
By happenstance, Darcy Anderson discovers the secret life of her work-a-day accountant husband Bob, a shadowy existence that has left 10 women and one child tortured and dead. The bogeyman, she soon realizes, lives not just in her house, but also in her head.
What begins with a glimpse through the peephole of never knowing anyone completely leads into a yawning chasm of regret and revulsion, topped by a dollop of deepening dread.
Bob Anderson, being the obsessive deviant that he is, discerns Darcy’s discovery and then begs forgiveness. It is to King’s credit that such an insane plea could carry the slightest hint of credibility. That plea gains credence through the inevitable logic of self-preservation and, yes, self-esteem.
Can Darcy call the police and lose the life she and her husband have built? (Legal claims, he tells her with unswerving pragmatism, would take all of their savings even after he goes to jail.) What would the inevitable cable-news feeding frenzy do to the Andersons’ two grown children? And would anybody believe Darcy’s contention that during the course of a 27-year marriage she had no clue her husband killed and tortured?
Then again, Darcy could contemplate taking care of her murderous husband and preserving some small shard of her family’s previous life. Those of us steeped in King’s world can see where her thoughts could be headed on that count, can’t we?
Here again King leads us back to the everyday colliding with the horrible. “It would,” he writes, “be like the last chapter of an Elizabeth George.”
As for this final chapter, darkness lingers, but the nightlight keeps the pages turning just the same.
Erik Spanberg is a freelance writer in Charlotte, N.C.