IN THE CRANKY "AFTERWORD" to Full Dark, No Stars, his latest collection of short works, Stephen King asserts that the four preceding tales are his best attempts to record "what people might actually do, and how they might behave, under certain dire circumstances." But this seemingly cool assertion comes right on the heels of a more sweeping proclamation. "Bad writing," King exhorts us, "is more than a matter of shit syntax and faulty observation; bad writing usually arises from a stubborn refusal to tell stories about what people might actually do." Taken together, these statements make for a befuddling wrap-up to a collection of incredibly well-rendered tales about characters who lash out against devastating situations with acts of savage violence. And in light of the brutal stories he's just walked you through, the taciturn tone of King's "Afterword" feels a bit like being coughed on by your tour guide after a long walk through the Holocaust Museum.
Make no mistake. The writing here is some of the best of Stephen King's career. In each tale in Full Dark, No Stars, King crawls into the head of his character as if he's spent his entire life there. In the process, he lays bare the emotional wreckage wrought by spousal betrayal, rape, and a host of other traumas with the same unflinching exactitude he has used to depict rabid dogs and intestine-devouring aliens. (There's one notable exception, but it's a short one: "Fair Extension," the gimmicky tale of a dying man who purchases a secret, restorative potion that comes with-wait for it!-a terrible price.) But at the eleventh hour, King tries to raise a banner of gritty realism before a cast that has behaved in exceptional ways, and they don't fit behind it. They're just ordinary folk, he insists. They are not.
They seem to be when we first meet them. Tess, the heroine of "Big Driver," is a modestly successful author of cozy mysteries, but she's about to take an ill-advised shortcut home that will change the course of her life forever. In "A Good Marriage," Darcy Madsen is a mildly neurotic housewife. But she's just made the mistake of looking into one of her husband's secret boxes in the garage, and her response to what she discovers there will be explosive. There's also Wilfred Leland James, the Depression-era farmer who narrates "1922"; he might sound like the most "ordinary" of the bunch. But his tale comes in the form of a letter of confession and in the second line, he tells us, "In June of 1922 I murdered my wife, Arlette Christina Winters James, and hid her body by tupping it down the old well." By the time King is finished with each of these characters, they have all reacted to their situations in ways that are both terrifying and cathartic. Which is why King's insistence on their ordinariness seems like an attempt to deprive them of the very thing that makes them worth writing about; their unlikely — and in two instances, enviable — bravery.
Over the course of his long career, King has established something of a boilerplate for the points-of-view from which he prefers to tell his tales. His characters ceaselessly compare their predicaments to popular films and television shows. (In "Big Driver" mystery-writer Tess does this to excess.) They address complicated emotions with acronyms that stand for their favorite truisms. (S.S.D.D. — same shit, different day — is a constant refrain among the ensemble cast of his 2001 novel, Dreamcatcher.) Their neuroses lead many of them to endow inanimate objects with nicknames and personalities, objects they can have a desperate, therapeutic dialogue with about the horrible circumstance they find themselves in. It's a predictable construction, but at more than fifty books, it's anything but stale. Indeed, it makes for readily accessible characters a reader can slip on like an old pair of gloves.
But accessible and ordinary are not always the same thing. King frequently insists that they are, as in this "Afterword," and his words sometimes comes across like a shrill over-reaction to the long disdain he suffered at the hands of literary critics who were miffed that he chose to write passionately of characters more likely to be found working at your local gas station than your local library.
That disdain had softened in recent years, in large part because King's technical expertise as a writer is almost impossible to ignore, regardless of how one feels about stories involving man-eating oil slicks. Aside from his recipe for concocting accessible points-of-view, his mastery of a kind of nimble, conversational grammar creates sentences that slide off the page and into a reader's ear. And while he is often capable of rendering terrifying monsters, his singular excellence as a storyteller lies in his ability to depict in impeccable detail the maelstrom of tortured impulses and tragic, half-formed urges swirling through the mind of characters that are being scared to death. (Indeed, his ability to render the emotional state of fear itself is so good, it can sometimes mask malevolent forces that are disorganized to the point of being incoherent, as they were in weaker efforts like Dreamcatcher and Desperation.) One of the most unforgettable achievements in Full Dark, No Stars is a devastating rape scene that is utterly devoid of pornographic detail, rendered in a series of time-lapse paragraphs as the victim fades in and out of intolerable consciousness. It feels terribly authentic because King depicts it directly through the mind of the victim.
And yes, the victim is, at the outset, rather ordinary. But the path King lays out for her in the pages that follow is anything but ordinary. And thank God.