Full Dark, No Stars

After seeing Stephen King a few weeks ago, Hobgoblin suggested that I read one of his books. This thought hadn’t occurred to me because horror is not my genre at all, but Hobgoblin and other people have assured me that King writes more than just horror and that a lot of his books are more about psychology than anything else. So I picked up his latest book Full Dark, No Stars (although not one of the two copies we got signed!). I ended up liking it quite a bit. The book has three novellas and one short story, and yes, there was violence in each one, but the stories were more about character and psychology, just as people had promised.

The first novella was good — gripping and hard to put down. But it was a complicated reading experience that reminded me of Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr. Ripley in the way both books have psychotic narrators who commit atrocious crimes. In King’s story, it’s a first-person narrator, and in Highsmith’s it’s a third person narrator who stays so close to Tom Ripley’s consciousness that I keep forgetting it’s not actually in first person. In both cases, I got so wrapped up in the stories and identified with the narrators to such an extent that I started feeling obscurely guilty, as though I were the one who had committed the crimes. I had to remind myself that no, there was nothing I needed to worry about, no fear that anyone would come and arrest me for the horrible thing I did.

I started the second novella relieved that the mood was lighter, at least initially. That story is about a semi-famous cozy mystery writer who is asked to do a reading for a literary society when Janet Evanovich cancels on them. But then on her way home she gets attacked and raped, and I began to worry about what I’d gotten myself into by reading this book. The first story was about a man murdering his wife, and then here was another story about violence toward women, and I wasn’t sure I wanted to read about it anymore. But I kept on and realized that King wasn’t simply using violence toward women as a plot device, but was making a point of exploring its cultural meaning. The cozy mystery writer, Tess, spends a long time thinking about how she is going to deal with the attack, and a big part of her worry concerns what the public will make of it, since inevitably the press will seize on the story. She is a bit of a public figure, after all. She imagines someone insinuating that she invited the attack somehow, and she delays calling the police. She is agonizingly alone, a victim another time over, since she knows how hostile the world can be toward rape victims. I won’t give away the rest of the story, but I’ll just say it’s satisfying and Tess ends up with a little bit of the support she deserves.

Next was the short story, which was good but didn’t quite fit with the rest of the book. And finally, the third novella once again takes up violence toward women and once again handles it well. Reading about the violence in all four pieces was uncomfortable at times, but once I figured out that King was exploring violence as an idea, I began to enjoy the reading more. I have to say this is not what I expected, to read Stephen King for the ideas. But I think I’ve been unfair to him. I can’t say I’ll read him again very soon, since even with the psychological focus, violence and horror really aren’t my things. But I’m much more interested in him than I was before, and that’s a good thing.

12 Comments

Filed under Books, Fiction

12 responses to “Full Dark, No Stars

  1. My husband is currently reading this book and he says so far it is good. I’ve read a few of King’s books, the less scary ones, and have not been disappointed. He definitely knows how to write tell a story!

  2. I’m so happy to hear that you liked this. As I think you know, I’m very much a fan. King definitely tends to use violence as a way to explore ideas rather than for pure shock value. (There are exceptions to this, such the The Dark Half, which I just read and found to be unnecessarily gruesome.) And not all his novels are particularly violent. I don’t remember much graphic violence in The Dead Zone, for example. And The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon is just a survival story–a harrowing one because it’s about a child–but not at all violent.

  3. I’ve read a few of King’s novels but when I was younger–The Shining is the one that sticks with me the most, though probably because of the famous movie that was made. I suspect that I read them more for the thrill of being scared, but I like the idea of thinking about what’s behind the way he tells his stories. I should really try one of his newer books, but reading about violent acts really can be uncomfortable. Of course mysteries and crime novels are in an entirely different category… ;)

  4. I’ve not read King because of the violence, but after reading your review, I have a new respect for him. Exploring violence as an idea vs. throwing it in for shock value at least gets people thinking. But I still don’t feel compelled to read his work.

  5. Stefanie — he does indeed! I’m glad your husband is enjoying the book.

    Teresa — I read The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon a while back and really liked it — yes, a harrowing tale, but not violent at all. I will have to read more of the less-violent work, which won’t be a problem, as my husband owns everything he has written!

    Danielle — good point about mysteries and crime novels! In certain types of mysteries, at least, the violence isn’t as gruesomely described or as detailed, or something like that. King makes a point about different types of violence in the second story where his character is a cozy mystery writer. She keeps thinking about how the things that happened to her would never happen to her characters. It’s interesting.

    Debby — I have a new respect for him too. But I agree that it’s still not a reason to read him if you don’t find the subject matter appealing. Even a nonviolent book like The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon is still pretty harrowing and suspenseful. I’m not sure I want to put myself through that very often.

  6. Interesting – I’ve ended up with a copy of Under the Dome, and am hesitating over reading it. So glad to know that you found more in his work than shock horror, which isn’t my favourite thing!

  7. It’s been eons since I read a King book. Glad to hear you are discovering him and liking him! I thought some of his early books were really good but then I read a couple that I didn’t like and just haven’t picked up on his newer ones. This one I think I”d like to check out.

    And, happy holidays! Hope you are having a great time with your loved ones.

  8. You have really made this book sound interesting — I’ve seen it on display at the store so much. Now I have a better idea of the contents, I may pick it up. At first, reading the title of your posting, I thought this was the ASSESSMENT of the book. And I thought “I know Steven King ain’t exactly a Nobel-Prizer, but…….. NO stars at all?”

  9. Ha, Cipriano’s comment made me laugh.

    I keep reading people’s reactions to King in which they’re impressed with his story-telling power and psychological insight, and it’s good to have that repeated here. Especially gratifying when a male author handles rape sensitively and not just for shock value or as a shorthand for “extreme violence.” David and I keep swearing that we’re going to start the Dark Tower series on audiobook someday; this post is one more log on that slowly smouldering fire. :-)

  10. Litlove — I was eying Hobgoblin’s copy of Under the Dome the other night, and felt a little intimidated by its bulk! But I’ve heard great things about that book, and yes, King is definitely more than shock horror (and he reads really fast).

    Iliana — happy holidays! I’m glad I decided to read another King book — well worth it! I’ve heard good things about some of his more recent books, so he might be worth a try again.

    Cipriano — ha! Actually, I gave the book four stars on Goodreads, so I liked it quite a bit! I’d love to know what you think if you do pick him up.

    Emily — now that would be interesting — the Dark Tower on audio. Hobgoblin doesn’t listen to audiobooks, but if I said I would listen to that, he might be tempted to join me!

  11. King is an author that I have never read. When I was little my dad used to read his books but they were always “off limits” to me… and for whatever reason, that didn’t make me want to read them (what a obliging child I was… ;) ) and I stayed away. I feel like I should try at least one of his books just so I can say I’ve read something by him, but I honestly can’t say anything of his really sets me on fire. This does sound rather interesting, though, as I do tend to prefer psychological horror more than anything else so perhaps I should keep it in mind!

  12. Steph — I’m no Stephen King expert, but it does sound like he has written quite a bit of psychological horror, so you might like him after all! I wouldn’t have picked him up if it weren’t for having met him and Hobgoblin’s being such a big fan. I’m glad I finally read him, though.

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