There are few story forms Stephen King hasn’t played with. Sure he’s mastered most of them, but ‘played with’ is a better way to describe some of his short stories. In some of them them — some no more than a handful of pages — he seems just as fascinated in seeing what the economical use of words can achieve as he is in what happens to his characters.
He’s also accomplished in the enormous casts and weighty themes of epics like Under The Dome, It or The Stand, and as Different Seasons (1982), Four Past Midnight (1990) and now Full Dark, No Stars show, he’s just as comfortable with the mechanical freedoms and constraints particular to the novella.
A good example is A Good Marriage, the four-part collection’s last story. Depicting a contented woman discovering a terrible secret about her husband, it spends the first five pages taking us through a whirlwind tour of her twenty-year marriage, cherry picking short descriptions about the couple gradually moulding to each others’ lives. It breaks the golden show-don’t-tell rule but King knows we’ll absorb what we need from it, giving the reveal that propels the plot all the more impact.
He also knows the novella can free him (and us) from the traditional three act structure that constrains so much commercial fiction. The same overarching picture that opens A Good Marriage closes the third entry, Fair Extension. When a man dying of cancer buys the mystical power to unload all his misfortune onto someone else, the subsequent decade of his life — lived in health and happiness while a friends’ life gradually falls apart — is described in a checklist of story developments and punctuated anchors to the era (‘in June Michael Jackson kicked the bucket’) rather than the usual machinations of storytelling.
The deal has been made with a streetside vendor called Mr Elvid (an irony even the lead character comments upon to himself), so you expect a fire and brimstone-laden call to collect at the climax. Instead, the plot peters out peacefully and the hero never sees the enigmatic vendor again, the last sentence leaving you to wonder if there would have been a morality tale somewhere beyond it.
Some of Full Dark, No Stars also contains a notable departure from King’s former love of the past. Even though plenty of his books are set in the era of their release (with the attendant technology and social mores of the day) his favourite style has always been set in an indistinct past of abandoned fields containing ramshackle barns and rusting trucks or the surface kitsch of 50s/60s suburban Americana.
But in A Good Marriage, the heroine follows up on her awful hunch by doing her own research via search engines and online newspapers. King couches the appearance and use of the technology in modern terms, a world away from the usual turn of phrase that sounds like it’s come from some of meta-mid 20th century.
A Good Marriage and Fair Extension are joined by 1922 — which might be about a man going insane from guilt rather than a ghost story — and the straight revenge thriller Big Driver. In Duma Key and Under the Dome, King left the themes of suffering and loss he was consumed with during the 1990s behind. Full Dark, No Stars is another great read from him because he’s done the same, a raconteur and entertainer rather than just a thematic dramatist.