Back to the dark side
Author: Stephen King Publisher: Hodder and Stoughton, 340 pages STEPHEN King has always been antagonistic to certain postmodernist qualities in fiction, and in the afterword to his latest collection, Full Dark, No Stars, he states this argument in his most forceful language yet: “Bad writing is more than a matter of s*** syntax and faulty observation; bad writing usually arises from a stubborn refusal to tell stories about what people actually do.” For writers who steer away from realism, King says, he has “nothing but contempt”.
As much as I love King’s writing, I’ve never understood quite where this anger comes from, particularly since he’s started to receive the critical attention he’s due. If a few writers want to eschew realist fiction and treat writing books as (a term King spits out with disgust) “a literary game”, so what?
He also seems to miss an essential distinction: books are books; they are not life and, besides, there is plenty of literary game-playing in his own work.
Still, afterword aside, Full Dark, No Stars is an extraordinary collection, thrillingly merciless, and a career high point. All four novellas deal with retribution. 1922 is a historical novella about a man who kills his wife and hides her down a well; Big Driver has a Hitchcockian set-up, in which an organiser of literary events lures a cosy crime novelist to come to her town and then sends her Rolling Stones-loving rapist son after her; Fair Extension is an ironic and very contemporary variation on the “be careful what you wish for” set-up so beloved of horror novelists; and A Good Marriage is about a wife who discovers evidence that her husband is a serial killer named Beadie.
King describes the novellas as “harsh” and says they were hard to write. I can believe this. But at the same time, after some lighter recent books, you can feel King relishing this return to the (very) dark side. For all King’s avowed seriousness of intent, he remains alert to the black comedy of his diabolical set-ups and more than one of his doomed characters is reduced to helpless laughter by the precision of the horrible traps into which he’s placed them.
At the end of the collection, King is purged and claims he’s happy to lead us back into the sunshine.
But I don’t believe him: as soon as our backs are turned, he’ll be back down in that cellar with his monsters, extinguishing the light and bolting the door. – © The Daily Telegraph UK 2010