A husband murders his wife with his son’s help, and both suffer for their crime. A mystery author takes a shortcut home, and finds an awful fate. A dying man meets a stranger who offers him a tempting bargain. A wife learns maybe too late just how little she really knows her husband. Full Dark, No Stars is Stephen King’s fourth novella collection, and as always, the form suits him: not too long for over-writing, but just long enough to explore the nooks and crannies of familiar worlds. Much has been made of the book’s unusually bleak tone—King even defends it in his afterword—but none of these tales hit the squirming, off-putting depths of King’s “Apt Pupil.” Full Dark is more about finding unexpected variations on familiar themes, and examining how ordinary people handle a sudden influx of strangeness into their lives.
Not to suggest the collection is whimsical. “1922,” the opening entry in the quartet and the strongest of the bunch, has a plot that could’ve been slotted into any of a hundred horror anthologies, but the pre-Depression Nebraskan setting and the narrator’s mournful, refined language help wring suspense out of the tale’s many small surprises. That’s the key to enjoying the volume as a whole; there are occasional shocks, and King still knows his craft well enough to hook readers with even the hoariest clichés, but the real pleasure here is in the curious texture of each successive novella. Each has a solid spine at its core, allowing for greater risks around the margins.
Not all those risks pay off. “Big Driver” features King working outside his comfort zone, and the results, while compelling, don’t entirely hit their mark; the heroine’s response to the traumatic event at the story’s core seems tailored to fit the plot’s needs, as opposed to the other way around. “Driver” ends too conveniently, as does “A Good Marriage,” but “Marriage,” in which a woman makes a horrifying discovery in her garage, is better justified overall, and its elegiac tone is well-earned. “Fair Extension,” the closest the collection comes to comedy, aims for high satire and just manages to stick the landing. Altogether, Full Dark, No Stars is a book of satisfying, modest pleasures, like an average bottle of wine aged to just the right amount of bitterness.