Amazon Exclusive: Justin Cronin, Suzanne Collins, Margaret Atwood, and T.C. Boyle Review Full Dark, No Stars

Full Dark, No StarsAmazon Best Books of the Month, November 2010: When a master of horror and heebie-jeebies like Stephen King calls his book Full Dark, No Stars, you know you’re in for a treat--that is, if your idea of a good time is spent curled up in a ball wondering why-oh-why you started reading after dark. King fans (and those who have always wanted to give him a shot) will devour this collection of campfire tales where marriages sway under the weight of pitch-black secrets, greed and guilt poison and fester, and the only thing you can count on is that "there are always worse things waiting." Full Dark, No Stars features four one-sitting yarns showcasing King at his gritty, gruesome, giddy best, so be sure to check under the bed before getting started. --Daphne Durham

Justin Cronin on "1922"

Justin Cronin I begin my thoughts on this tale of confession with a confession of my own: I am an unrepentant sucker for the novella, that oddball middle child who sits between the short story and the novel at the literary dinner table.

The first real piece of fiction I ever wrote was a novella, a multi-paneled narrative of events surrounding a family funeral. I'd given no thought whatsoever to its length; it had simply ended where it ended, on page seventy-nine. That same fall, a Famous Writer was visiting the graduate program where I was enrolled; a lucky few students could meet with her for a conference to discuss their work. I entered her office feeling like I was about to meet a bona-fide rock star. Here she was! The Famous Writer! She looked just like one, too, with long tresses of dark hair shot with streaks of gray and great weary eyes--exhausted, no doubt, from worrying over her perfect sentences.

My piece, I saw, sat on the desk before her, ringed with a coffee-stain. My heart was banging like a bird. She would tell me she loved it. She would tell me she hate it. I had no idea which.

She told me neither. What she said, with a wave of her royal hand, was this: "It's too long."


She silenced me with a glance. "That's it. Nobody wants this kind of stuff. If you're serious about a career, you have to think in terms of the short story or the novel. Who do you think you are, a nineteenth century German? I don't make the rules." And with that, she sent me on my way.

Twenty-three years later, I find myself recalling this moment as I consider Stephen King's "1922"--the anchor piece in his superb new collection, Full Dark, No Stars. I hope time has taught the Famous Writer a few things, because to my mind, "1922" is everything that a novella could aspire to, a perfect union of form and content.

At 133 pages, King's tale is meant to be eaten whole, in a single night's reading, and it wastes no time. "My name is Wilfred Leland James," it begins, "and this is my confession. In June of 1922 I murdered my wife, Arlette Christina Winters James, and hid her body by tupping it down an old well." What unfolds is a searing tale of guilt—the very word 'confession' elegantly sets the idea in motion—magnified by its isolated setting on the Nebraska plains. I couldn't help but think of Grant Wood's famous painting American Gothic, which has always left me wondering: why is the farmer's wife looking at the pitchfork?

If memories of Edgar Allen Poe's "Tell-Tale Heart" also come to mind, with a dash of "Cask of Amantillado," they should. King is Poe's modern heir, and no writer has a richer sense of the dark rooms in the human psyche and fiction's singular power to capture them. "1922" is many things, but most of all, it's a fable of a marriage gone bad—very, very bad. Despite its timeframe, it has a disturbingly contemporary feel. The James' rural farmhouse might just as well be a four-bedroom colonial in an American suburb, the most claustrophobic geography any human society has yet constructed. Like Poe, King knows that people don't change, only their social arrangements, and "1922" achieves the kind of universality the best literature aspires to. (Did I also mention it's superbly written? It is.)

Which isn't to say King has presented us with a treatise on marriage. I found myself pondering his tale—indeed, all the stories in this volume--for days afterward, but in the midst of reading it, my reactions were purely emotional. At times they were even physical. This is bodily, earth-bound stuff. Think: rats. Think: suppuration. Think: the sagging flesh of the dead. One scene in particular left me quaking, even as I couldn't tear my gaze from it. Yet every word is earned, brought to flaming life by language as unsparing as it is precise. It has the most disturbingly convincing quality that any fiction, horror or otherwise, can possess: the feeling of reality.

To retell more of the story would be futile. It's too short to accommodate any spoilers, while it's also too long to be quickly explained. Which is the novella's special quality, and the reason I love it so. Lacking the formal constraints of the novel or short story, it's free to set its own terms, to let the story go where the story needs to go, as King as done so magnificently here. I wonder how he would have reacted to the imperious dismissal of the Famous Writer, that long-ago autumn day. I'm pretty sure he would have spoken the words I merely thought--words that can't be printed here. And he'd have every right to.

Justin Cronin is the author of The Passage.

Suzanne Collins on "Big Driver"

Suzanne Collins There's an undeniable satisfaction in watching certain kinds of characters go down--bullies, Nazis, torturers. But there's an extra dramatic punch if their intended victim turns out to be specially designed for retaliation. Like when the punk with the ice cream cone taunts the seething Harrison Ford in Witness, and you think, "Boy, did you pick the wrong buggy full of Amish to harass." Or when those mean kids dump that bucket of pig's blood on an unsuspecting prom queen named Carrie.

Cozy mystery writer Tess may seem like a safe target, but she's armed with the experience of devising a dozen murders. No matter that her detectives are a group of old ladies known as the Willow Grove Knitting Society, the tools of the trade are at her fingertips. After being viciously raped and left for dead, she puts her bag of literary tricks to practical use. Tess bypasses the option of calling the police, motivated by the reluctance to expose herself to humiliating publicity and the very visceral question, "just what's in that for me?" And so begins her transformation into a vigilante. While her actions are neat and clean, her psyche splinters messily as it copes with the severe trauma of her attack. It's helpful to have someone to bounce your hunches off of, but when Scooby and the gang consist of your cat, your GPS, and your own fictional sleuth, you are losing your grasp on reality.

Fast-paced and beautifully plotted, "Big Driver" pulls you into Tess's fragmented mind and holds you hostage until the story concludes. King injects a clever, gutsy heroine with rage and lets her loose. As you walk in her shoes, questions of legality and even self-preservation pale in the face of her personal need for justice. I only hit one snag concerning the weirdly gratuitous sexual orientation of a character. But on the whole, this is a gripping, tripping revenge fantasy.

Suzanne Collins just concluded the Hunger Games trilogy with her latest novel, Mockingjay.

Margaret Atwood on "A Perfect Marriage"

Margaret Atwood Stephen King's nail-gnawing new story, "A Good Marriage," is proof positive--if any is needed--that Our Stephen is a not-so-secret feminist. In fact, like Steig Larsson of the Dragon Tattoo, he can--and has--taken the motif of female retaliation against male violence to much greater extremes than a woman writer could do without being labeled a deranged man-hater. In King's work, Rose Madder is perhaps the best example, but other initially abused but ultimately strong and vengeful female characters abound.

In "A Good Marriage," Darcy is not abused. She's a contented wife of twenty-plus years, shown to us first through a meticulously detailed Norman Rockwellish average-family description. But then--as in Hawthorne's surely ancestral story, "Young Goodman Brown"--this American innocent finds there's another, much darker world beneath the one she's trusted. Through a chance discovery, everything she thought she knew about her foursquare Boy Scout leader husband, Bobby, is peeled away, to reveal a sadistic woman-killing monster. What can she do, now that he knows that she knows, but has pleaded with her to forgive and forget, and to grant him a second chance?

As Bobby says, "this isn't one of those movies where the psycho husband chases his screaming wife all around the house." And it isn't. But it wouldn't be Stephen King if somebody's messily bleeding neck did not sprout a huge white knob. As it were. In the end.

Margaret Atwood is the author of more than forty books, including The Handmaid's Tale, The Blind Assassin, and, most recently, The Year of the Flood.

T.C. Boyle on "Fair Extension"

T.C. Boyle One of the enduring traditions in our literature is the encounter-with-the devil story. I think of Stephen Vincent Benet's "The Devil and Daniel Webster" and Washington Irving's "The Devil and Tom Walker" (which I had a bit of fun rewriting some years ago in my own take on the genre, "The Devil and Irv Cherniske"). Mr. King, as magical a storyteller as Irving himself, gives us his own wickedly hilarious version here. "Fair Extension" turns the sell-your-soul-to-the-devil story on its ear, as his very ordinary-looking devil has no use for human souls, which, in these enervated times, "have become poor and transparent things."

No, he's a practical devil, and what he wants is good hard cash, sent regularly to his retirement spot in the tropics. As for our hero (protagonist, that is, anti-hero certainly), Dave Streeter, a man who could be the poster boy for the deadly sin of envy, he is able to reverse his fortunes through a nefarious little business deal with this same money-grubbing Mephistopheles. Did I mention envy? Yes, he envies his boyhood friend, Tom Goodhugh, whose life has gone swimmingly while his own has been flushed down the toilet by the kind of very bad luck that can--shudder to think it--afflict any of us. (As the story opens, Streeter is suffering through the final stages of an aggressive and untreatable cancer.) Suffice it to say that his pact involves a stunning turnaround and that the fun here--and this story is pure fun--lies in the darkly comic concatenation of horrors inflicted on Goodhugh, the poor sap. What makes all this work is the lively and intimate style Mr. King employs here. Let me leave you with the first line, by way of example: "Streeter only saw the sign because he had to pull over and puke." Yes, indeed. But he won't be puking for long.

T.C. Boyle is the author of eleven books, including World's End, Drop City, and, most recently, Wild Child.