A Review of Stephen King's "Full Dark, No Stars": When Dark Tales Shed Light On The Human Condition

Any "Constant Readers" of my blog will know that I am a big Stephen King fan. It would not be any surprise to those readers that I purchased his new novella collection, Full Dark, No Stars, shortly after it came out at the end of 2010, and then gobbled up the stories within days after (though the review took much longer, as you can see). There is many who associate Stephen King with monsters and the macabre; they would quickly peg him as a horror writer. I won't argue that a large portion of his tales deal with intensely dark subject matter and often do have supernatural elements (which often contain some type of horrid monster -- creature or human); I do not believe the stories are ever actually about the monsters or supernatural or horror. Almost every story I've ever read by Stephen King, and the reason I love his tales, have really been about ordinary people and how they respond to extraordinary conditions. It is about the emotions, feelings and responses of the common person. I really believe that Stephen King does such a great job on creating realistic humans and the human condition. The best way to really explore the human condition is to put people in a scenario that is unimaginable and extraordinary (and sometimes -- or even most times -- horrifying).

Full Dark, No Stars
is four novellas that have four common and relatable protagonist. They are thrown into dark and evil situations. The major connecting theme in all four stories is the unknown personality (or even person) that is hidden in all of us. The traits and thoughts that we keep deeply buried within ourselves, and if we are lucky, we are able to hide for our entire lives. What if there is such a horrid situation or a dark motivation or an unbearable desperation that forces this dark side to take over and reveal him or her self. These four novellas do a stunning job of showing what could possibly happen in such a scenario, and demonstrate decent and wholesome being plunged into situations that they do dark things against their typical nature. These are dark and grotesque tales but they do a magnificent job of shedding light on the realities of the human condition.

Okay, guess what time period this novella is set in? That is about the only predictable part of this rather macabre tale. The story is about a man who is desperately trying to cling to his farmland, after his wife is actively trying to sell her family's portion to a large hog butchery and use those funds to move into the city. The protagonist is a farmer and it is the only life he knows, and he despises the idea of his family moving to the city and having to adopt new ways. He tries to persuade his wife to remain in the country and try to grow the farm, but his arguments are complete failures at convincing his wife. This is when he listens to his other self, his very dark self. He eventually is able to convince his son to help him commit the most horrid of acts, in order to keep the farm. The repercussions of this evil action lead to even more unbelievable horror and torment.

Wilfrid Leland James, the protagonist, is a decent and likable human being, who succumbs to a dark and evil stranger inside himself after being faced with the potential of losing almost all things important in his life. This why the tale is so compelling, because you really do believe he is a good person but he just ended up doing a truly horrifying act. The story explores the idea that the potential for evil may really hide inside all of us and it just takes a certain situation to unveil itself. This story demonstrates why it is best to always keep that dark self buried, because it opens up horrors and consequences that no truly good person could ever handle or imagine.

Stephen King has written several stories that make you question the possible supernatural elements within. As I mentioned in my review of the Skeleton Crew, there are times when the reader wonders if the supernatural acts are legitimate or if it is really the delusions of the characters. I feel this works best when the story never really provides that answer for you (or at least, holds off until the very end of the story). In 1922, you are left wondering if James is really being haunted by the dark supernatural for his evil acts, or if he is just being plagued by his own deep regret for what he has done. Is it all delusions that are tormenting him for allowing the dark stranger inside him to come out or is his farm really haunted thus acting out in revenge? Either way, it is a compelling insight into human behaviour and the dark side in us all.

Big Driver

Tess is the author of safe and comfortable mysteries that appeal to grandmas everywhere. She is the stereotypical wholesome and pure middle aged woman. She is the type that is more likely to say 'Oh sugar!" rather than 'Oh shit!" after stubbing her toe. You're more likely to see her spending a Saturday night preparing her Sunday School room rather than drinking away at a bar. There doesn't seem to be a bad bone in her body, and she would be the least likely character for a revenge tale. Or at least, that is what you're lead to believe at the beginning of the story, and probably why she is the most appealing character ever for such a revenge tale. Tess ends up going on one of the darkest journeys and most drastic self discoveries, after she experiences one of the most depraved and vile acts of violation from the mammoth trucker, Big Driver.

In most revenge tales, the protagonist is a tough as nails male who talks shit and backs it up. He is someone you don't want mess with because he can kick your ass and knows how to use a gun. This is not who Tess is, and she is probably the worse candidate ever for an action movie. This is why Tess is such a wonderful character for this dark tale. You witness how a despicable act against her, forces an unknown stranger inside her to slowly take control. You wonder if this person was always there or if the vile act gave birth to this person. The interesting thing is that this person doesn't immediately arrive after the act, but this side of Tess slowly develops over time until becoming Tess.

A great strength to the story is how the incident is horrifying and uncomfortable. You feel disgusted and violated after reading it, and given a sense that justice must take place. The magic of King's writing skills are demonstrated here, because he isn't overly descriptive in the scene but you still end up putting the book down thinking you read something disgusting. He captures the emotion and feelings of the incident. It is conveyed in such a way that you can't help but feel a bit of the pain that Tess must go through. It is more proof that sometimes less is far more when it comes to writing.

The story has a mystery that slowly reveals itself, and in some ways, it is a far fetched and a little too convenient. The thing is, the story itself and the development of Tess is so compelling that you are able to quickly ignore the unrealistic mystery and rather big deus ex machina. Even though such a thing would normally pull you out of the story, it actually helps push you deeper in and leads you to the much more important part, the dark change in Tess. I'm sure King could have gone in a different direction or gone a different way to still lead to the same end goal, but he didn't and it still allowed for a gripping story that really makes you question if you're capable of acting out the same kind of revenge. The world isn't black and white and good people aren't always going to do pure things, but when they do act out in a dangerous way does that really make them bad people? The story brings up this question but the reader may not have an easy answer at the end.

Fair Extension

Everyone has that person that they hate. Sometimes you don't even realize that you hold hate and ill will for this person. Shockingly, sometimes this person is actually one of your best friends. This friend is seemingly always more successful than you; this person has way more money, and has a beautiful and happy marriage, and has successful children, and has a rich and fulfilling life. This person ends up showing on a daily basis how his life is better than yours by either lending you money or offering you a job in his company or having you over for dinner at his mansion. He is your friend and so you spend time with him, but deep down there is a hatred and jealousy that grows. Because you know you deserve all the things he has and fate has been unjust.

But what if you could change fate and switch the roles between the two of you. What if you get all his success and he gets all your pain.

This is exactly what is explored in the story, Fair Extension. The protagonist has the opportunity to get rid of his cancer and pass it off, instead now enjoy all the success once belonging to his best friend (the person he hates).

It is an interesting concept, because I think often the biggest resentment is held towards those close to you. Those people you know so well, and got to see them before they were successful and wealthy. You wonder why they got so blessed while you suffer with a terminal disease or an unhappy marriage or doped up kids or a miserable job. You know deep down that you deserve what they have, and even deeper, you may wish ill will upon them. Of course, this is a dark side of us that we would rarely ever admit to or even want to think about. I swear right now that I would never think or wish ill will upon a friend, but I also have never been offered a deal where I could switch my fates with someone.

Fair Extension is a gruesome story that explores something that may hit much closer to home then anyone wants to admit. It explores a protagonist that has terminal cancer, but is given the chance to extend his life. The extensions will happen only if he is willing to transfer his suffering to someone else, the person he hates (his ultra successful best friend). The story is revealing and intriguing because I really do believe that true hatred is usually reserved towards 'loved ones.' The harder your life is, the more it seems unfair that someone close to you is enjoying their life so much. The ultimate question is, would we switch lives if we had the chance, even if it meant very bad things for this person you call a friend. It is a story that is very revealing, but it is definitely not a morality tale. It is just a tale. It is up to the reader to decide what is right and what is wrong and what will they learn from what is presented in this devilish story.

A Good Marriage

Everyone has secrets. Even in a good marriage, the partners will keep some information to themselves. This doesn't have to be major information, but just the type that doesn't need to be discussed with your spouse. It's just a little secret that is better off hidden away. Darcy Anderson knew that there were secrets in her marriage, and believed that some were better kept that way. She knew her husband splurged large amounts of money on hair growth concoctions and felt it was better to just let him believe it was still a secret. She had her own secrets, such as scarfing down several 'Baby Ruth' chocolate bars at night when no one was around. In the big picture, these type of secrets don't matter and cause very little harm. Letting them remain secrets will help a marriage remain good (because why discuss such trivial things). Unfortunately for Darcy, her husband had some other secrets; secrets that were much more dark and far less trivial. What do you do when you discover that your spouse has been guarding an evil secret? A secret that actually makes you wonder if you knew anything about your spouse.

The story is classic King, the reader watches Darcy try to deal with the revelation of her husband's dastardly actions. The story has grotesque moments and is as scary as any horror movie, but like most King tales, that isn't the important part. The important part is watching Darcy evolves as she tries to cope and deal with her now shattered world. Darcy questions if she ever knew her husband, and also starts wondering if she even knows herself. Often when a relationship is crushed, you must start trying to figure yourself out, because often you invest so much time in a person that you start blending with them and becoming a piece of them. This story explores what a wife must do when she no longer knows her husband or even the world she is in.

You can never know someone fully. This includes ourselves, because there is always that time we do something that surprises ourselves. In a marriage, you like to believe you know everything about your spouse and you have complete trust in him or her. So many times, marriages fall apart because the trust proves to be fantasy or you learn something that horrifies. This story ask the question, how much do you really know about the people you love or even more importantly, how much do you actually want to know?


Full Dark, No Stars is a riveting collection of novellas. It makes you question how much you really know about yourself, and what is a person really capable of during certain circumstances. More importantly, these are really good and entertaining stories. These tales may be morbid and dark and horrifying, but they are also extremely compelling and enjoyable. You will be disturbed and scared and unsettled, but that all helps with the cathartic experience you want in a good page turner. You will think, and you will get insight into the human condition. You'll also wish the experience will never end, because these are four of the best written stories in a long time.