4 out of 5 difficult stars
“From the start – even before a young man I can now hardly comprehend started writing the The Long Walk in his college dormitory room – I felt that the best fiction was both propulsive and assaultive. It gets in your face. Sometimes it shouts in your face.”
Stephen King’s Afterword in Full Dark No Stars
This another novella collection from my own personal favorite author, Stephen King. He really tested my loyalty, and that was the point. It’s funny, because the last book I read had an author’s note that pissed me off, and this one brought me home, made me feel safe, took away the shit the author had just put me through. We became friends again, we became Constant Reader and Constant Writer. And it’s why I love Stephen King so much.
He always has author’s notes or afterwords in his collections, and will break down the inspirations for the stories or novellas. I always enjoy them. He begins it “The stories in this book are harsh.” And they are. Then he says “You may have found them hard to read in places.” Yes, again. I had trouble with two, and almost stopped reading both, one because it was so bleak and one because I didn’t like the way he handled the situation. But I powered through each one. Because Stephen King is a genius of character development and he knows how to tell a story.
There is a good mix of stories here. 1922 and Fair Extension have paranormal elements. Fair Extension and Big Driver have a revenge element. Big Driver and A Good Marriage have a mystery vibe, and a strong element of justice – what is it, at what price is it bought, is it even achievable? Fair Extension is the only one that doesn’t feel at all like it touches on horror, you know, other than the horror within an individual, the rest have different shades of horror. 1922 is mostly psychological, Big Driver is a straight up thriller, and I guess A Good Marriage is horror in the way that the Hannibal Lecter series is horror. In that the subject matter is so awful you can’t leave it out of the description.
This was not a good year for the James family. This feels like old timey King, a horror story that is so much more than a horror story. A tragedy that is more than a tragedy. Sadly, this bored me a little. At about the halfway point I felt it was running out of steam and it was so heavy, with no light in it at all that I didn’t think I could continue…but, I wanted to know what happened. Wilford is telling you the story, but he tells you it’s a confession, and he’s dropping hints about his current situation. I wanted to know what on earth he was talking about.
It was all over 100 acres of land. A farmer knows the value of land but his wife may not. When Wilford’s wife threatens to sell her inheritance plot to the Farrington empire, who will build one of their slaughterhouses on the land, to blow the stink of blood in the air and send the guts and offal floating down his water supply, he has to take matters into his own hands. But can vengeance reach back and touch him from beyond the grave?
The characters in this feel are classic King – they feel like people. They are also small town, salt of the earth, sometimes vulgar, surprisingly intellectual, xenophobic and a little bit sexist. But it’s the characters that are sexist, not the story. And that realness is what makes what happens so riveting and sad. That’s part of what made it hard to read. But also what got me to finish this novella.
I want to mention something that came to mind while I was reading this. King has admitted he has an interest in serial and spree killers, in a sociological way (as do I). How is it that a person gets to that point of actually killing someone, how does it go beyond thought and becomes action? King has talked about one of the first he had ever heard of, a boy and girl who went on a robbery-filled killing spree together. I remember him talking about looking at pictures of the guy and seeing nothing in his eyes, just double zeroes. I’m paraphrasing, but his description has stuck with me for years. I wonder if that was part of the inspiration for this. (I wrote my opinions on each story as I read, and the Afterword did not mention the couple I thought this might be based on. But still. I am sure it was them.)
Trigger warning: Rape
Rape is a hard thing to deal with in a story. I didn’t think I was going to get through this, and I think King made a lot of mistakes in dealing with the first half of the story. I don’t think it was sensitively handled. I don’t think Tessa Jean would have reacted to what happened to her with the words he put in her head. But for some reason, I kept reading. That’s a lie – the same reason. The same reason I read all of King’s things, even when difficult or disturbing. I want to know what happens to these people. Tessa Jean is a writer of little old lady cozy mysteries – you know, something Marple-esque, Jessica Fletcher-like. After a speaking engagement, she takes a shortcut and winds up getting raped.
What turned me off was that Tessa had no intention of reporting her rape. None. Nada. Not even a thought – it was immediately, I am not doing that. And she knew this man was a serial rapist. That just really stuck in my craw. And all because she is famous. She didn’t want her name “smeared.” That pissed me off a lot. I think it is expected that a woman who is raped feels like it’s her fault and feels shame, we all know this, it is understood. I know women feel this way, but for a modern woman, I’d think she would say I am not going to be “smeared” by this. I am going to seek justice, I’m at least going to go to the hospital and take care of myself. I would expect her to at least think of it. Women know that serial rapists need to be stopped. I felt it was very 1970’s with the reaction she had. I know it happens, I know there are reasons women don’t report and perhaps I’m struggling to put my thoughts into words as this is such a difficult topic. Being raped isn’t your fault and it’s not a smear. It just burned me up seeing that as a plot device.
Also – going to the police is not required, but you can go to the hospital and get a rape kit done, so at least there is evidence and an element of safety. You don’t have to publicize or report or anything like that if you don’t want to, but when you know this motherfucker is going to continue doing what he did, to other women, you fucking do something about it. The story got better when she put on her Miss Marple hat and got to work on doing that. There are a couple of twists, you start to question the reliability of the narrator, and it just makes it more fun. I’m glad I left the story happier than I entered it. It was well paced, well plotted, and I didn’t slow down for a minute. The ending gets really tense and exciting.
I have little more to say about the story than the blurb: guy with cancer makes a deal with the devil. It explores the horrible jealous monster that lives inside all of us, and that there are sicknesses of the soul as well as the body. I liked it, it was very dark but in a way opposite from the other stories. It’s like the darkness is across the street. This one was the least engaging, to be honest.
A Good Marriage
Trigger Warning: Rape and Sexual assault
This is by far the standout of the whole book. Darcy Anderson has what she considers a good marriage, but a search for batteries in the garage leads her to a box of her husband’s things. Things no wife would want to discover. This was just amazing. It begins with the tale of a marriage: safe, sane, the house, 2 children, businesses, a Prius, good and regular sex. And then it all comes crashing down. I can’t tell you how, of course, because that would wreck it for you. It’s so chilling and scary and so dark you wonder how on earth is this going to come out okay? Because that is what I wonder when I read a story like this. Then you realize… how can anything ever be okay again? And that is the point of this whole collection. And yeah, that is a little mind blowing. He definitely saved the best for last, and when I was done with it, I realized what he was doing with the other stories.
I loved this, I’m glad I read it, I wish I’d read it earlier, and A Good Marriage was my favorite – surprisingly, Big Driver was the 2nd favorite.