Cormac McCarthy begins Blood Meridian by quoting from a newspaper article about an archeological find. The passage ends with the ultimate throwaway line: “a re-examination of a 300,000-year-old fossil skull… shows evidence of having been scalped”. I always found that funny. From the dawn of Man, there has always been one person willing to mutilate and murder someone else. After reading Stephen King’s Full Dark, No Stars, the line seems even funnier, because now I’m convinced that the scalping victim probably had it coming.
Full Dark, No Stars is as horrifying as anything you’re likely to read this year, but it’s not a horror novel. Instead, King presents four crime stories centered on morality and justice. His focus is not on monsters like McCarthy’s Judge Holden, nor on existentialists like Johnny Cash’s inmate who “shot a man in Reno just to watch him die”. Rather, King takes four mostly sympathetic characters and allows them to gaze into the proverbial abyss.
The protagonists include both victims and perps, but King calls on all of them to do double duty. This is a book about context and nuance, where right and wrong ceased to exist in any identifiable way long, long ago. Coming on the heels of eight years worth of childish American political rhetoric typified by labeling “good guys” and “bad guys”, this book offers an artful rebuttal and a reminder that life has always been more complicated than what can be captured on a bumper sticker. More importantly, the book also provides one of the first and sharpest looks at American culture in the wake of the economic collapse of 2008.
The shortest and best of the stories, “Fair Extension”, reads like a fable. It distills the central themes and ideas of the book, and it reminds us that despite his reputation as the master of the macabre and a writer of “popular fiction”, Stephen King is actually one of the best short story writers in America.
The scenario is fairly simple: Dave Streeter, a loan officer at a local bank, encounters a man selling “extensions”. Streeter is interested in one of these extensions, and for good reason, but the price is higher than most of us think we would be willing to pay. The characters in this story are pursuing the so-called American Dream, but in a culture defined by free-market social Darwinism, there must be winners and losers. For every one person living the sweet life, several others must suffer.
There is nothing particularly new in that idea, but what King seems most interested in exploring is the sense that we are all implicitly aware of this balancing of scales. Deep down, we all know that for every success there is a calamity. Yet, at least in American culture, we are encouraged to read our Ayn Rand, quote our Gordon Gekko, wave our tea bags, and proudly sally forth, head held high, fingers clamped on coin, and consciences boarded up. Like the citizens in Ursula Le Guin’s “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas”, we revel in excess and forget about the starving and abused child locked in the basement whose misery pays for the feast.
Part of the brilliance of “Fair Extension” is that, like most good fiction, it shows us things about ourselves we don’t really wish to see. It’s similar to the great Harry Lime scene in The Third Man. As Orson Welles’ criminal takes his old friend, played by Joseph Cotten, to the highest point on an amusement park ride, he tells Cotten to look down at the little people moving below and offers him a challenge: “If I offered you 20,000 pounds for every dot that stopped would you really, old man, tell me to keep my money? Or, would you calculate how many ‘dots’ you could afford to spend?” That’s the game the characters in “Fair Extension” are playing, and the rest of Full Dark, No Stars suggests that variations of that same game are at the heart of most of American culture.
The other three stories are full of the same powerful combination of grisly fun and moral philosophy. The first story, “1922”, is the longest and most densely textured of the four. Set in rural Nebraska, the story takes the form of a confession by Wilfred Leland James, a farmer who tells us up front that he murdered his wife over 100 acres of land. At first, the narrator’s voice seems uneven to the point of distraction. How many Nebraska farmers from the ’20s would ever describe themselves as a “student of American slang” or spend their spare time reading Sinclair Lewis and George Eliot? However, King is not particularly interested in literary verisimilitude, here. In other words, it ain’t about the realism. Instead, he offers a richly layered postmodernist literary mashup, taking us through a de-evolution of crime and horror from Shakespeare to Poe to Lovecraft.
In addition to providing the geeky fun of playing literary Whack-a-Mole (Look! There’s a line from Macbeth! I see “The Tell Tale Heart”!), King also uses this sordid story to focus on the impact of financial strain, greed, and corporate ambition. The narrator is desperate to prevent his wife from selling the land to a large, big city corporation. The corporation, which keeps creeping closer, much like Macbeth’s Birnam Wood, has all of its own lawyers and its own investigators, and its legacy will no doubt last even longer than Banquo’s heirs.
The second story, “Big Driver”, is more accessible, more compelling, and more suspenseful. In terms of sheer “I couldn’t put it down” readability, it’s the most gripping story in the collection. It’s also the most horrifying. Since the dust jacket gives away the basic scenario, it seems fair to mention that the story focuses on a young mystery writer named Tess who is brutally raped and then seeks revenge. The unflinching description of the rape lasts far longer than any readers are likely to be comfortable with, which, no doubt, is the point. However, the bulk of the story focuses on the aftermath, and it offers an intriguing psychological portrait while raising questions about how we ascertain truth and how we measure right and wrong.
Once again, King places all of this terror and violence in an environment of financial pressures and commercial advertising. Even though Tess doesn’t like public readings, she commits to one because she has to build up her retirement funds. When she is raped, King torments her mind with enigmatic advertising slogans from nearby signs and billboards, cutesy sayings and logos that seem to imply both everything and nothing. Later, when the story becomes violent again, King scores the scene with the background noise of a television on which “a young man who looked like a criminal was now selling a robot floorwasher”. Throughout this story, whenever the grossest indecencies are performed, King makes sure that we can see someone, somewhere, trying to make a buck. In a version of America, post-economic collapse, the monster that haunts our dreams is no longer Pennywise the Clown. It’s Don Draper.
The collection ends with “The Good Marriage”, a story King describes as his own fictional speculation about the family life of the BTK killer. The scenario carries its own full slate of clever shocks, though it ultimately is the least satisfying of the stories. The husband and wife are both a bit cartoonish, and the behavior of each seems implausible. Yet even in this story, King brings us back to his overall theme. The decisions the wife makes are based in part on financial considerations; she is keenly aware of what her choices will mean, both for her and for her son’s new business.
Tellingly, the book’s two most unredeemable characters, the rapist from “Big Driver” and the serial killer from “The Good Marriage”, are both tied directly to commerce. While the rapist is a grotesque monster, King also makes him an entrepreneur who co-owns and operates his own business, even posing for pictures on his Website. As for the killer from “The Good Marriage”? He collects coins.
To be clear, Full Dark, No Stars is not particularly partisan or absurdly intellectual, but it is decidedly political. King follows several years of dialectic American foreign policy with a study in perspective and nuance, and for a culture suffering from an economic collapse, he creates a new kind of monster. The Gothic presence that haunts these characters and is responsible for the moral de-centering of their lives is the wheezing form of a runaway free market economy, bloated and drunk on its own sense of self worth, (and with apologies to Yeats) now belching its way towards Bethlehem to be born.