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Full Dark, Three Stars
on November 19, 2010
I was looking forward to reading 'Full Dark', especially as it is a collection of stories rather than a novel. The short story suits King perfectly; far less room for the sagging middle section, the proliferation of thumbnail-sketched characters, predictable plot-turns, etc. The writing tends to be both more concentrated AND more pacey; it gathers its wits and gets down to what King does best: telling a great story. At his worst, he coasts along on automatic, happy to let the characters, plots and effects from earlier stories reappear in different guises, and he pads, so that dreary middle section becomes pendulous and plodding.
Since three of the four stories in Full Dark are longish ones (or novellas), there is room for quite a bit of 'automatic' writing. The first story, simply titled '1922' is, essentially, a ghost story, in the form of a prolonged confession by a man who murdered his wife. The murderer is a poor and desperate Nebraska farmer. King establishes the man's voice (contrite but not above self-deception) quite beautifully in the first few pages. Here's a sample: 'I believe that there is another man inside of every man, a stranger, a Conniving Man. And I believe that by March of 1922, when the Hemingford County skies were white and every field was a snow-scrimmed mudsuck, the Conniving Man inside Farmer Wilfred James had already passed judgement on my wife and decided her fate.' But the story has a middle which sags and then some, and by the time the ghost makes its appearance the encounter has been so over-prepared that it is, inevitably, a non-event. And there are rats. Anyone find rats scary? If you do, you may find this tale engrossing, but in my experience an abundance of these critters usually indicates that the fiction will be seriously dilapidated. There are moments of tension and creepiness, but all of these are frittered (or gnawed) away in the 125 pages. It might have worked, with some serious editing, but it is, unfortunately, the longest story in the book.
The two succeeding stories, 'Big Driver' and 'Fair Extension', are better, but they both have weaknesses. 'Big Driver' starts out enjoyably enough. A woman who writes detective stories (of the Miss Marple variety) accepts an invitation to give a reading and afterwards (on the advice of her host) takes a shortcut. Naturally, she encounters a problem, followed by a considerably bigger one. This is promising King territory; he is great behind the wheel, or with most things road-related (remember 'Mrs Todd's Shortcut' from 'Skeleton Crew' and 'Rest Stop' from 'Just After Sunset'). I motored along with this for quite awhile (it's the second longest story), but eventually the payback angle became tiresome. Revenge may or may not be a dish best eaten cold, but overheated it quickly loses all flavour of beliveability. 'Fair Extension' is a blackly comic anti-morality fairytale. It has some nice touches (particularly in the figure of the devil as down-at-heel roadside hustler), but I far preferred the truly scary 'Man In The Black Suit' in 'Everything's Eventual', one of his strongest collections of stories.
Which brings us to the final story, 'A Good Marriage'. I was tempted to title this review 'Indifferent Seasons', punning on King's 1982 book, Different Seasons, which has a similar shape: four novellas (or in the latter case three novellas and one longish story). But, despite my gripes, to call this offering indifferent would be unfair. 'A Good Marriage' is a great story, one of his best. The plot is easily described: a woman, who has been happily married for a quarter of a century, discovers something unexpected about the husband she thought she knew, the man who hadn't a cruel bone in his body. What happens afterwards is what makes this special. No need to say more. Buy the book, because this one story makes it worth the admission price.