B is for bleak

Stephen King, 1998. Photograph: PA

Stephen King, 1998. Photograph: PA


FICTION:  Full Dark, No Stars By Stephen King
Hodder&Stoughton, 340pp. £18.99

WHEN REVIEWING Stephen King’s last novel, the very fine but slightly anticlimactic Under the Dome, I suggested that the short story may be the ideal form for explorations of the supernatural, as it doesn’t require the writer to provide an explanation for what has occurred, or even a conclusive ending.

Its purpose is simply to offer a glimpse of what lies behind the curtain, a hint of the uncanny that lingers in the mind rather than a full revelation that leaves no mystery.

But it may be that, in King’s case, the novella form is more appropriate to his talents: it forces him to curb his natural tendency to write long, and requires him to dispense with the fat that has tended to detract from the meat of his heftier volumes. At the same time it allows space for the development of ideas and characters, and a collection of novellas, particularly one with a unified thematic approach, may have an impact that a volume of short stories, given its more scattershot nature, may not.

It’s also interesting that some of the most successful film adaptations of King’s work – The Shawshank Redemption, The Mist, Stand By Me– were originally novellas, perhaps because a novella’s length is roughly equal to that of a standard movie script.

Full Dark, No Starscontains four stories, of which only three, 1922, Big Driverand A Good Marriage, can strictly be described as novellas. The fourth, Fair Extension, is little more than a shaggy-dog short story, and a marginally unpleasant one at that. In fact a consistent streak of nastiness runs through all of the tales in the book: in his afterword, King uses the word “harsh” to describe their nature, but it is more than that. With the exception of Fair Extension, in which a dying man strikes a deal for a longer life with “Mr Elvid” (the anagram is deliberately clumsy, but the twist to the tale is more puzzling than satisfying), the stories are largely without humour, and dark humour has always played a strong role in King’s work.

This absence is most noticeable in 1922, which tells of a man who kills his harridan wife in order to ensure that she does not sell her share of their land to a hog-farming operation, and finds his life disintegrating as a consequence. It reads a little like The Grapes of Wrathcrossed with Poe’s The Tell-Tale Heart, and manages to be profoundly depressing. It is beautifully written, yes, with a resigned narrative voice that throughout rings true, and the unfolding of events is both tragic and believable, but it is also curiously pointless. Misery is added to misery, nobody’s life ends well, and there are rats. Lots of rats.

Big Driver, meanwhile, is a female revenge fantasy. An author of cosy mysteries is brutally (and I use the word in its fullest possible sense) raped and left for dead after a reading, then sets out to hunt down her attacker. It namechecks Wes Craven’s cinematic rape shocker The Last House on the Left, and Neil Jordan’s more restrained take on similar subject matter, The Brave One, while curiously omitting any reference to the film that it most resembles: Meir Zarchi’s I Spit on Your Grave. In fact, B-movie conventions – a murder gone wrong, a deal with the devil, rape and revenge – are common to all of the stories, but these conventions are, for the most part, faithfully adhered to and rarely challenged.

Thus Big Driver is undeniably gripping, and, as with the final story in the collection, suggests that King could have made a pretty good crime novelist if the supernatural hadn’t proved a better fit, but it doesn’t do anything new with its central idea.

Which brings us to A Good Marriage, the most successful of the four stories. It asks the question: how well do we really know our spouse? In the case of Darcy Anderson it turns out that she doesn’t know him very well at all. After 25 years of marriage she discovers a bondage magazine in the garage, and a driver’s licence belonging to the victim of a serial killer, and begins to suspect that her dull, pudgy accountant husband may be something infinitely more sinister. A Good Marriageworks because Darcy doesn’t respond to the revelations exactly as we might have anticipated, and a nicely judged coda involving an elderly, dying investigator elevates it above the rest of the stories in the volume. It’s an old tale, but one well told, and I suspect it’s the one most likely to attract the attention of film-makers.

In the end, Full Dark, No Starsis never less than professional in its approach, and many writers would be happy to have written even one of these stories, but this is overly familiar ground for King, while his decision largely to eschew humour – and, indeed, the supernatural – paradoxically renders the results marginally anonymous. He is further limited by his decision to work in overdetermined forms without committing to any serious attempt at experimentation. If this were a school report, King would receive a B: good, but can do better.

Oh, and the visiting author in Big Drivergets paid $1,500 for speaking at a public library. Fifteen hundred dollars? I need a new agent.

John Connolly’s latest novel is The Whisperers