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"Full Dark, No Stars," four novellas by horror writer Stephen King

By Bill Sheehan
Wednesday, October 27, 2010; C04

There are a few indisputable signs that Halloween is upon us: The leaves are starting to turn, daylight saving time is ending soon and a new Stephen King book is about to hit the stands. This one, which comes just a year after the epic horrors of "Under the Dome," is called "Full Dark, No Stars," and it offers four satisfyingly bleak accounts of human behavior at its most extreme. For those of us with a penchant for the grisly and outre, that is very good news indeed.

The opening novella, "1922," tells the story of Wilf James, an unhappily married farmer from Hemingford Home, Neb. Unable to resolve a land dispute with his wife, Wilf murders her, conceals the body and assumes the public role of abandoned husband. What follows is a relentlessly grim portrait of guilt and retribution filled with echoes of H.P. Lovecraft's "The Rats in the Walls" and Poe's "The Tell-Tale Heart."

In "Big Driver," the action moves to contemporary New England. Tess, the protagonist, is a moderately popular mystery writer. On her way home from a speaking engagement, she is raped, beaten and left for dead. What might, in lesser hands, have evolved into an overly familiar revenge scenario becomes, instead, a viscerally effective narrative and an empathetic reflection on the consequences of male aggression.

"Fair Extension" addresses another familiar subject: Faustian bargains. Dave Streeter, a discontented mid-level executive, encounters a pragmatic devil at a deserted roadside stand. The devil offers Dave what he has always wanted: a piece of the good life. There is, of course, a catch. For Dave to succeed, someone must fail in his place, and he chooses his longtime friend Tom Goodhugh. "Fair Extension" then follows the upward trajectory of Dave's life and the increasingly tragic downward spiral of Tom's. The result is a new spin on a very old story and a mordantly satiric portrait of greed, callousness and blind ambition.

"A Good Marriage" is the story of Bob and Darcy Anderson and the secrets hidden beneath the surface of their long, supposedly solid marriage. When Bob is away on a business trip, Darcy stumbles across evidence of his kinky proclivities. It's the first in a series of alarming discoveries. Like all of the stories in "Full Dark, No Stars," "A Good Marriage" deals with people encountering the darkest aspects of themselves and those they love. Through his mastery of detail and his deceptively effortless narrative voice, King transforms this disquieting material into a disturbing, fascinating book.

Sheehan is the author of "At the Foot of the Story Tree: An Inquiry Into the Fiction of Peter Straub."

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