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Stephen King collection gets the thumbs-up

At the conclusion of this collection of four novellas: Full Dark, No Stars, Stephen King adds an “Afterword.” In acknowledging that his quartet of stories is “a bit harsh,” King goes on to make some provocative observations on both the reasons for his success as a writer and his beliefs about the significance and /or purpose of fiction. Essentially, King feels that writing is the act of taking meaningless and/or random events and arranging them in a pattern that gives the lives of his characters the appearance of an order and meaning. The implication is that this “appearance of logical order” is artifice, or fabrication.

What is especially interesting about King’s comments is the fact that he acknowledges a debt to the American writer Frank Norris. Anyone who is familiar with Norris will immediately recall McTeague, the author’s “naturalistic novel” that recounts a grim tale about a man who is a hapless pawn to forces beyond his control. The popular literary term that describes McTeague’s dilemma is “determinism,” and embodies factors such as heredity, environment ... and chance. With this in mind, King’s four tales acquire an additional “noir” quality.

“1922” grew out of King’s fascination with Michael Lesy’s Wisconsin Death Trip (which is well worth the trouble of tracking it down if you are not familiar with it). A bizarre collection of photographs and news articles, Lesy’s book presents a disturbing “vision” of the harsh life of farm families in the Midwest during the depression.

King chooses to depict such a family and gives a vivid account of the forces that move them. Wilfred James, the protagonist of “1922,” confesses the details of his wife’s death (a gruesome murder that was never discovered) and its consequences. The fact that Wilfred’s teenage son, Henry, becomes an unwilling accomplice to the crime complicates matters considerably.

In fact, poor Henry’s guilt provides the corroding poison that blights the lives of a dozen innocent people. The crime is motivated by land (Wilfred’s wife wants to sell it and move to the city and Henry is determined to keep it). When King adds a few mitigating circumstances, such as a mortgage, a ruthless banker, Henry’s pregnant girlfriend, and Wilfred’s phobia about rats, “1922” acquires sufficient deterministic forces to assure a tragic denouement. In addition, the plot includes a colorful “Bonnie and Clyde” couple (Henry and his pregnant girlfriend) who are also created (and destroyed) by forces beyond their control.

In “Big Driver,” King presents one of his most appealing characters: Tess, a gentle soul who has managed to find her niche in the literary world by developing a series of mysteries, each of which features a witty collection of ladies who solve murders while they knit (“The Willow Grove Knitting Society”). Tess is blessed by a modest “cult following,” and when she isn’t busy working on her next mystery, she augments her income (and savings) with speaking engagements. Her cozy and quiet lifestyle contains only two companions: Fritzy, her cat and Tom-Tom, her GPS (the latest in satellite navigation systems that enables Tess to find her way to her speaking engagements).

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When Tess takes an ill-advised shortcut home from a speaking engagement, she ends up in a cleverly-devised trap on a remote road where she is raped, brutally violated and left for dead ... stuffed in a drainage pipe with several corpses. Unwilling to report the crime (she knows what happens to rape victims in the media) and mindful of the fact that her rapist will continue to maim and murder, Tess is plagued with guilt and anger.

So begins a fascinating study of an ordinary (moral and law-abiding) woman who is forced by circumstances to become an agent for justice and, yes ... revenge. Utilizing her skills as a researcher, she not only succeeds in identifying her rapist but discovers a surprising link between her last speaking engagement – where her “helpful employer” gave her the information about the ill-advised shortcut home. The tension builds when Tess loads her .38, feeds Fritzy, programs her GPS and drives away into the dark ...

“Fair Extension” is King’s darkly humorous version of the old Faustian bargain with the Devil. Dave Streeter, a nice fellow who has terminal cancer, finds pudgy Mr. Elvid sitting under a yellow umbrella on a side street near the airport. Mr. Elvid seems to be a street vendor and has a sign on his table that says “Fair Price.” However, he has no visible wares to sell. When Dave realizes who the vendor is and makes a cautious inquiry, Elvid assures him that instead of his soul (souls no longer have any value), Mr. Elvid wants 15 percent of his annual income. Streeter agrees and is told that if all of Dave’s misfortunes are removed, he must “pass them on” to someone else.

Dave selects his best friend, Tom Goodhugh. Dave goes home to find that not only is his cancer in remission, his life is blessed with prosperity. During the next 15 years, Dave’s fortunes thrive while Tom Goodhugh and all the members of his family ... once wealthy and powerful, descends into poverty, bad health. Does Dave Streeter suffer from guilt? Absolutely not. Instead, he dutifully forwards 15 percent of his annual income to Mr. Elvid’s account and basks in his good fortune ... which continues unabated.

“A Good Marriage” owes its origin to King’s research into Dennis Rader, the infamous BTK (bind, torture, kill) serial killer. In his “Afterword,” King notes that Rader’s wife of 34 years never had the slightest suspicion of her husband’s “secret life.” However, following Rader’s confession, she endured considerable distress due to comments by neighbors and the media. In essence, these comments suggested that Rader’s wife “must have known something.”

This response prompted King to write a story about a wife who inadvertently discovers that her husband has murdered at least 11 people during their 27-year-marriage. What would she do? In “A Good Marriage,” Darcy Anderson has a strong sense of justice, but there are “extenuating circumstances.” If she calls the police, her life and the lives of her children will be wrecked. There must be a way to bring the monster down. There is. This tale also has a satisfying conclusion that features Darcy’s meeting with a character that may remind some readers of Peter Falk’s popular character, Detective Columbo. Their dialogue is a masterpiece of evasion and implied meaning.

This is an excellent collection. King displays masterful control of his four dramas, all of which feature ordinary characters driven to extraordinary actions by circumstance. Frank Norris would be pleased.

Full Dark, No Stars by Stephen King. Scribners, 2010. 368 pages.

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