Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Literature Review: Full Dark, No Stars by Stephen King

Perhaps I am desensitized, but I did not find the novellas (and one novelette) to be scary in the least. I really don't understand why everyone seems to think these are so scary, because they really aren't. Gothic? Oh totally. Modern-era gothic at its finest. Scary? Not so much. But don't let that scare you away from this collection, because you'd be doing yourself a disservice.

"1922" is definitely the strongest link in this chain, so it's only fitting that King leads into the anthology with it. Probably the greater factor in setting "1922" apart from the rest of the collection is its setting: the year of 1922. Because of this the story doubles (or triples) as a gothic/horror/historical piece, and a big part of its charm, its allure, is the setting of a decade not too different from our contemporary time, but different enough to completely change the way logic and law worked. My one complaint here, with "1922" is that King has unfortunately confused gore and horror, and it is more likely to squick you than scare you.

Now the rest of the anthology are all enjoyable stories. They're all stories I would happily read multiple times over, which is a big contributing factor to the four stars I've given this anthology. Despite their flaws, they were fun and written well enough where I would do that, which automatically puts them at a level above most other works.

Unfortunately "Big Driver"--while a fun read--suffers from quite a bit of incoherence and inconsistence. It definitely needed another editing glance for structure, because King clearly couldn't keep track of how many days had passed in the story, and what day in the story the events he'd mentioned happened. This will jar quite a few readers out of the experience, and pulls the entire anthology down with it. And it really sucks, because "Big Driver" was a good story otherwise.

"Fair Extension" is, well, fair. It's not a story so much as a rather large infodump, which is enjoyable to some. Actually, infodump is a tremendous problem throughout the anthology, but I'll talk about that later. For now just "Fair Extension." The story doesn't really contribute much to the collection, or itself. There isn't anything in the way of character development. It's kind of all rising action with no resolution. No fall, no descent. It's almost like King brought you up to the climax and ran away from the mid-book drag, typing "The End" before you'd even reached the top of the mountain.

The only interesting part of that tale is the fact that it features a sharp-toothed supernatural who just so happens to live in Derry, home to one of King's most powerful and menacing monsters. Whether there's any connection between them is total speculation (although the "Afterword" does mention both entities, which I'm sure is a wink and a nod.)

"A Good Marriage" wraps the collection nicely, representing the theme of normal people facing themselves with abnormal, or at the least unsavory, situations. Unfortunately, unlike "1922" and "Big Driver" "A Good Marriage" seems to be devoid of emotion. It reads almost like one sociopath examining and criticizing another who was simply less able to fit in to society. Things just happen, and it's left to you to accept the deadpan emotional adjectives at face value.

In retrospect, I think I'll be knocking that four stars back to the three I had originally intended. While I will definitely enjoy many rereadings of this entire collection, it harbours far too many errors to ignore. Which brings us to infodumps and King's "tell-don't-show" approach.

I personally don't mind "tell-don't-show" in storytelling. In my opinion that's what a story is and what does, it is told. "Tell-don't-show"--the opposite of conventional wisdom for those who don't know--seems to have been the norm in a time not terribly long ago, and probably for good reason: sometimes things just get too messy if you don't say it like it is.

And while an infodump is okay with relevance, King has this delightful tendency not to do that. This has plagued him since his earliest days, and seems to continue to follow him. While I applaud his ability to stick to his guns and write just how he darn wants to, the dumps can be a bit much. There's a lot of useless information shoved at us that does little more than boost the wordcount and hamper the story progression. In some instances, such as the error with "Big Daddy" above, King himself seems to have become confused by the dump. Sometimes these dumps can go on for pages, and while a few of them would have been okay as there are a few that give some interesting insights as to the characters we follow, most of them are extraneous and the pieces would have been better off without.

There is one other theme I noticed throughout Full Dark, No Stars, one that is nearly as prominent as the psychosis of the average individual: marital mistrust and a disdain for women. I don't know if it was intentional or not, but there is a lot going into these stories and the relationships that leads me to suspect, not that King is a misogynist, but that something might be a tad unruly between Steve and Tabby.

The collection wraps up nicely with an "Afterword" by Stephen King which talks a little about how he came up with some of the ideas for the stories as well as the general theme he was working with when writing them. It also goes into some of his views on professionalism in the writing industry, which are pretty rough and hardassish, and just really aren't all that fun to read because it sounds like King is scolding you the whole time. Like an upset parent who can't, or rather won't, understand why their child has done such things.

"Afterword" and errors aside, Full Dark, No Stars is a good anthology of work by Mr. King, and those with any interest or inclination for gothic, horror, or psychological thrillers should go out to their libraries, pick this up, and give it a taste test. It'll be worth it.


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