Full Dark, No Stars

“How’s the drain in that slop sink?” Pale,neutral, unblinking, the man in the three-quarter-length black leather coat wasall business. Having briskly groped the corpse’s breasts (checking forprosthetics?) and poked his fingers in its mouth (checking for fillings?) hewas preparing to perform the disposal operation for which he—a professional “cleaner”—had been hired. His affect was creepy: some kind of -path for sure:psycho-, socio-, maybe a neuro-…“I’m in the mood for some music,” he announced, looking as if he hadnever heard music in his life. “Eighties.”

Stephen King’s recent cameo on Sons of Anarchy—FX’sdelirious biker opera, now in its third season—was quite literally a sensation:it entered at the eyes, stole down the arms, and tickled behind the knees. Thefact that his character went by the name of Bachman only increased the frisson: “Richard Bachman” wasa King pseudonym in the late ’70s and early ’80s, under which he publishedseveral novels including Thinner and The Running Man. Sohere was Bachman materialised at last, the fake author walking and talking andbeing scary, like George Stark in 1989’s TheDark Half. (Stark, it will be remembered, notonly terrorized his “host,” the modest novelist Thad Beaumont—he alsosold a lot more books than Beaumont did.)

How many distinct personalities are contained, floatingly,within the authorial nimbus that we currently know as “Stephen King”?A deeper Kingologist than I might be able to put a number on it, but I can tellyou that four of them at least are on display in the story collection Full Dark, No Stars.

“1922”—the confession of a Depression-era farmerwho murders his wife and dumps her body in a well—gives us King the pasticheur and genre-hopper. “Yetsomething held me back. ‘Twas not fear of the neighbors’ chatter, I had no carefor country gossip; ’twas something else. I had come to hate her, you see. Ihad come to wish her dead….” The narrator stops saying ’twas after a few pages, thank God, andby its end the story has become an (I think) unprecedented blend of JamesHerbert’s The Rats andTerence Malick’s Badlands. In “Big Driver,” a femalewriter of mid-range, not-too-alarming mysteries—”cozies,” as they areknown in the biz—is raped and left for dead: here we see King white-coated inhis literary lab, squinting coldly as he combines categories of experience overa Bunsen burner. “A Good Marriage,” meanwhile, is your classic oldschool horror-buff what-if: what if you discovered that your beloved, trustedhusband, the man with whom you have built your life, was… a serial killer?

“Fair Extension,” the shortest and, in some ways,the nastiest of the stories, is a showcase for King the jester, the gargoyle,the upside-down moralist: Satan, who runs a little roadside stall out near theairport, offers a cancer patient the opportunity to “transfer the weight”of his suffering—to land it on somebody else, in other words. The offer isguiltlessly accepted, the patient recovers, the patient’s best friend begins arun of agonising afflictions, and the Devil (who likes to watch Inside Edition on his tiny TV) rubs hishands.

This being a bookby Stephen King, it goes without saying that the stories—with the possibleexception of “1922,” which suffers from a distracting instability inthe language—more or less drag you along by your hair: like them or not, you’regoing to finish them. Are they horrible? They are quite horrible. In an afterwordthe author defends, with a kind of wounded modesty, their horribleness: “Ihave tried my best in Full Dark, No Starsto record what people might do, and how they might behave, under certain direcircumstances.” A fifth personality appears! This is King the crankypedagogue, the King of On Writing and Danse Macabre,unassuaged by global success, with many ghostly chips on his shoulder. Badwriting, declares this King, “is more than a matter of shit syntax andfaulty observation; bad writing usually arises from a stubborn refusal to tellstories about what people actually do.” Well, what people do—in theirmillions—is read books by Stephen King, so perhaps he should settle down…. Ortry a bit more acting: it seems to suit him.