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Stephen King
Scribner / Simon & Schuster
Format: Hardcover / Paperback / eBook / Audiobook
Release Date: November 9, 2010
By Hamza Khan May 26, 2011

Another Bag of Bones

“For most authors, publishing more than three best-selling novels is a remarkable achievement. For Stephen King, it’s simply his post-retirement scribblings.” This was a point paraphrased ad infinitum with the release of Lisey’s Key, Under The Dome and Cell, but it is only with the release of his latest short story collection, Full Dark, No Stars, that we realize the implications of an author unable to stop writing.

The four stories contained within this volume ostensibly share the theme of redemption but they are more closely linked by the exploration of purpose, of raison d’etre. The ostensible devices have all been used before: in “1922,” the first story, there is a shapeless monster following the narrator from town to town, relentless in its hunger for revenge, waiting only for the story to be told before appearing to bring about its grisly conclusion. Sound familiar? You’re probably thinking of “The Bogeyman” first published in the March 1973 issue of Cavalier magazine, and later collected in 1978’s Night Shift. “The Bogeyman” takes place in a psychiatrist’s office, wherein a nincompoop father attempts to atone for his guilt in the deaths of his children. In “1922,” it is a hotel room in Omaha, in the eponymous year, where Wilfred Leland James types out the confession to his wife’s murder.

Taking a sharp object to the old biddy and throwing her down a well is hardly an original concept, but even less so is the monster which chases Leland down: a mob of rats, grown swollen and grotesque from years living underground, feeding off humanity’s mistakes (both literal, in the case of the late Mrs. James, and figurative, in the greed for land rights which puts her there). If these furry friends should ring a bell, consider “Graveyard Shift,” from the October 1970 issue of Cavalier magazine, which culminates in a cow sized legless, eyeless “queen rat”. King leaves out the queen this time around, but the remaining rats are as horribly deformed as they were 40 years ago.

The second story, “Big Driver,” features a talking GPS unit, a level of anthropomorphism that has been stamped as Stephen King to the point of parody – think Family Guy’s “WOoOOoo, a lamp!” The third, “Fair Extension,” features a shadowy stranger who grants wishes akin to Needful Things’ very own Faustian Leland Gaunt.

Admittedly, King has made self-reflexivity a motif, but it has usually been confined to throw-away call outs and familiar settings (the town of Castle Rock, troublemakers sent to “The Shank” of “Shawshank Redemption” fame). Full Dark’s wholesale appropriation of characters and events is something else, a fundamental shift in King’s story telling.

By taking the same set of bones we are no longer shocked at the skeleton, but intrigued at the shapes and shadows cast. King is free to explore stories rather than tell them. In “1922,” Wilfred James is presented not as a murderer, but as a man confounded by progress. Unable to balance the creeping influence of cities, corporations, and education, his actions become so alien that asking his adolescent son to help commit and cover-up a murder seems downright mundane in contrast to his attempts to pay back a loan.

“Fair Extension” follows the same template. We know that deals with the devil end badly, and it is only when small town folks learn the cost of desire that the devil gets his due and a happy ending appears. But if you want to read that story, Needful Things can be found at your nearest library, as can a dozen Twilight Zone episodes and The Master and Margarita. Instead, King here is free to take that template and indulge in the joy of finally getting what one wants, damn the expense! Especially if the final bill is delivered to another.

Of course, most writers focus on the tangible because tangents are often best left to our own imaginations. Is that why narrative heavy authors like (early) King and Clancy work best on the beach or at airports, where we can read a chapter and then play with it while dozing or distracted? By drawing attention to the space between the lines, King needs to present something our imaginations cannot create. In the case of “1922” and the majority of “Fair Extension,” King manages to do so.

For the other two stories in the collection, his attempts wear thin. “Big Driver” begins with weight and panic, as an author is raped while returning from a book reading. But King seems too willing to move past the consequences of rape to a revenge story with a moral twist that barely twists at all. By the conclusion, the author’s trial serves less as horror in itself, and more as a horrific act (rape/murder/torture) which serves only to set up a tangent on revenge stories.

Where “Big Driver” at least has an excellent first third, the final story “A Good Marriage” fails near absolutely. The bones are there – a wife discovers a horrible secret about her husband – but King does nothing to interest us in these characters or their situation, given that every one of us wrote this story in our mind when images of Austria’s Josef Fritzl broke on the newswires. Whereas “Fair Extension” was a simple idea fleshed out with wit and subversion, “Marriage” is nothing more than a pile of bones better left in whichever closet they were found.

With three hits out of four shots, fans of King should walk away from Full Dark, No Stars pleased. Ultimately, the stories are King as he has always been, but for readers willing to read between the lines, his stories about stories achieves a level of freedom and experimentation long thought behind him. For most authors, a late career revival would be a miracle, for Stephen King it is simply his post-retirement scribblings.

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