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CBR4 #34: Full Dark, No Stars by Stephen King

Sometimes I think that as much as I love his supernatural brick-sized books, Stephen King's real talent shines best in novella form. Some of my very favorite of his work are novellas (The Bachman Books and Different Seasons, particularly) and while I enjoy his more extensive work, I think that the shorter form reins him into telling tighter stories. After all, "Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption" is a novella, but the story is epic.

In Full Dark, No Stars, King presents us with four novellas and a short story.

In the first tale, "1922" a man makes a confession and regrets the choices he made in his life. This may or may not be a supernatural story (it depends a lot on your interpretation of it) but it is definitely disturbing. It's tough to decide whether to condone or condemn the main character, and I'm sure that the side you take will color your view of what happens and your interpretation of the narrator. This one has some great historical context to it as well, and the narrator's voice feels pretty authentic.

The second story, "Big Driver" feels less like a Stephen King story and more like one of the thriller novels I tend to enjoy. The main character is a writer (shocking!) but a female for a change. On the way home from a book signing, she takes a shortcut that turns out to be a big mistake. There's nothing supernatural in this one at all, but it's still an edge-of-your-seat story with some very good twists and turns. The character of Tessa is determined and tough, despite the horrific things that happen to her.

"Fair Extension" returns us to the realm of the supernatural, and is another story that is colored by the reader's interpretation of it, since the ending is a bit ambiguous. Dave Streeter is an average man living a fairly average life. Then he's diagnosed with terminal cancer and things start to come apart. One day he meets a strange man sitting at a table out by the airport, and this man offers him a trade. The rest of the story was the result of that trade on Dave and the people around him. As I said before, this story is definitely open to interpretation, and I found myself waiting for the other shoe to drop, and trying to figure out if that made me a bad person...or if the fact that I was happy that it didn't was what made me a bad person! I'll admit this was my least favorite of the novellas, as I didn't feel it had the urgency of the others.

The last novella, "A Good Marriage," is another story with absolutely no supernatural elements, but it also kept me on the edge of my seat. Darcy Anderson is a housewife who considers herself the epitome of the American Dream. She has two wonderful children, a nice house, and a husband who has a good job and does things like lead a boyscout troop. Unfortunately for Darcy, she makes a disturbing discovery about a secret her husband has been hiding in the garage. Darcy's struggle to figure out how to deal with this revelation is gripping, and I liked her as a character. It's another piece that feels very different from most of King's work, but is a taut little thriller.

Finally, the short story "Under the Weather" (which isn't included in all editions of the book) is just a quick amuse bouche in a William Faulkner sort of vein. I can't say too much about it without spoiling the surprise. It's a trick, and it's an old trick, but it's still a good one.

On the whole, I think this is one of Stephen King's better story collections. I'd say it could stand with Different Seasons (in my opinion his very best novella work, with the exception of "The Breathing Method") or The Bachman Books. I'd highly recommend it, even to those who might not normally enjoy King's work. This is him working at his best, sharp, quick, and mesmerizing.

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