Stephen King begets better films than books - like Cronenberg's The Dead Zone or Kubrick's The Shining - yet he remains the master of the American Neo-Gothic novel. Yes, it feels like he's more prolific than Philip Roth + John Updike. Yes, the style is at times clunky, the pace viscous, and the narratives hardly form-conscious sophisticated - but no one knows us better than King does.
King's latest is a book of four seemingly unrelated novellas grounded in the human-horrific, the horrors of our own making. None has that Kingian characteristic of the supernatural horror intersecting with the human everyday - as in Cujo, where the St. Bernard felt demon-possessed as well as plain old rabid, or the way that the teacher Johnny Smith is ambiguously clairvoyant or psychopathic, saviour or murderer, in The Dead Zone.
This intersection of the vaguely supernatural and the explainable horrific is what makes King masterful. That a rabid dog can keep you trapped in a sun-baked Gremlin is frightening, of course, but what makes it truly horrific is the implication that the dog might also be demonic. We impose our horror on the external world to understand it, and ourselves.
In Full Dark, No Stars, the novellas follow regular people through the ordinary actions that lead up to our human horror: A farmer kills his wife because she intends to sell her recently inherited 100 acres to an adjacent hog butcher. The farmer cogently pleads with his wife to keep the land in the family. She remains selfishly obdurate. He cuts her throat.
The other three involve the discovery that a tender husband of twentysomething years is a killer (recalling Russell Williams all too easily); an all-too believable back-road encounter with a mystery writer on her way to a book-signing turns cruel; and, in a story of Schadenfreude in action, a character regains health by enjoyably meting out injury to a friend. All the horror is human-made and recognizably our own.
I'd say that Stephen King has endeavoured to do one unified thing over his astonishing writing career of more than 50 books: to make his brand of art out of the quotidian horrors of (North) American living, to "make sense of our lives, and the often terrible world we see around us," as he says in the afterword. In an essay published in Playboy, Why We Crave Horror Movies, King opens with the sharp reminder that we are all capable of horror: "I think that we're all mentally ill; those of us outside the asylums only hide it a little better."
Returning to the afterword, King remarks that he wrote Full Dark, No Stars to "explore the idea that it's impossible to fully know anyone, even those we love the most." The implication is that we are all of us groping in a world that is fully dark, with little in the way of reflected illumination to guide. It makes for moderately good reading and, I suppose, helps make moderate sense of human senselessness.
But we don't read Stephen King for mimetic representations of who we are. The problem with this book is that it's newspaper-familiar: It's too recognizable. We can see our grim darkness, our horrific potential, in every story. But what's missing, and this is the thing we come to Stephen King's books for, is the faint glimmer that there is more to all the horror than simply our own actions, what we can see before us, that there might be an explanation beyond rabies, beyond a damaged teacher's premonitions, and, certainly, beyond the most base of all human motives: monetary gain. What excites us in the Kingian universe is that there might be some reprieve for the condition of being human, something beyond. But in Full Dark, No Stars, it's all human darkness visible, and that's just something we're going to have to live with.
Tim Jacobs teaches at York University, and elsewhere. He wrote a doctoral dissertation on David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest, and is completing his first novel, tentatively titled Wreckage.