Cleolinda Jones (cleolinda) wrote,
Cleolinda Jones

So I read the new Stephen King

...because the two or three weeks after Christmas are my traditional Book Wallow. And I really like Stephen King's short stories, which tend to be more high-concept and less tangential than his novels. That is to say, you get a handful of really interesting ideas, rather than one idea that goes on for three hundred pages longer than it should. Full Dark, No Stars is actually another one of his novella quartets, like Different Seasons and Four Past Midnight. But still: short stories, less rambling, more skillful endings. So I curled up with this one and plowed through it in one sitting, as I tend to when at all possible.

I will say, even an hour's contemplation has made me feel a little kindlier towards the stories. They're not badly written. They're just really, really unpleasant. You get to the afterword, and King even says, "The stories in this book are harsh. You may have found them hard to read in places. If so, be assured that I found them equally hard to write in places." Well, GOOD, is all I have to say about that. But we'll get there in a moment.

Major spoilers:

"1922": This is an incredibly depressing, elegiac story set in the last year before the Depression (or at least before it hit the farmers, we are told). I mean, it's written as a confession: we know from the beginning that things are going to turn out badly. I think the character I really latched onto here was quiet, tender-hearted Henry, his teenage son, whose downfall takes a romanticized turn I (at least) didn't expect. King may be at his best when he's writing about parents and children, particularly fathers and sons, and I think that comes through here. I just wasn't all affected by the use of rats as a physical source of horror. If I had a nickel for every time King has brought out the rats in his fiction... well, I'd have at least twenty cents. Rats just don't resonate with me as a horror trope, for some reason. Now, put in some cockroaches, and I'm not sure I'd be able to make it through the story. But that's a personal preference, not a valid criticism. A valid criticism, I guess, would be, "He does use rats effectively, but--seriously? Rats again?"

But then again, I think I'm always more interested in emotional horror. What happens to Henry--and Wilfred being the agent of it but unable to stop it--is far more awful to me than whatever does or does not happen to the corpse of a woman he came to hate.

"Big Driver": If you have rape triggers, skip this one. This is not a story where rape is an incidental plot point; this is a story about rape, about the physical and mental trauma of it, and then an ensuing revenge drama. I don't even have triggers and it was upsetting. It's supposed to be upsetting. I think, in fact, that the real reason I'm writing out a book discussion entry is because I want to warn people about this one. Unlike most of King's stories, this isn't even about something that could happen to people; it's about something that does happen to people, and statistically has happened to some of the people who will be reading this book. It could have been worse, I suppose--at least he does treat rape seriously, rather than a trivial or incidental plot point we just move on past, tra-la-la. And I think the first half of the story--particularly Tess's mental trauma--is effective, or it wouldn't be so upsetting. I'm just saying: maybe on this particular day you don't want to read a well-written story about something horrific that too many women do, in fact, experience. If I hadn't noticed the word "violated" on the book jacket, I would have been in for a very ugly surprise. At least now you can skip it if you'd rather.

Actually, the first half, the really upsetting parts, is the half that's better written. It's the revenge part where I started to roll my eyes--there were two reveals that got an out-loud "OH, COME ON." In fact, there's an entire character who is one big walking "OH, COME ON." Some of it's interestingly done with the voices and all, but--I don't know. I just suspect there's a reason they give away "violated" on the inside flap, and it's because the publisher knew there needed to be some kind of warning.

(The book jacket is also a bit heavy-handed in point out that the theme uniting all the stories--supposedly--is each main character discovering THE STRANGER INSIDE EVERYONE, which is also explicitly mentioned in three of the stories--maybe all four, I'm not sure.)

"Fair Extension": A Deal with the Devil story that seemed really strange yet simplistic to me at first. Dave Streeter has cancer! George Elvid (NO REALLY) can offer him a life extension! However, Dave has to choose someone else to get screwed over to balance things out. Who is his worst enemy? His best friend since grade school. The devil, once he stops laughing, is like, OH MAN, THIS IS GONNA BE AWESOME. The problem with Dave's best friend is that he's perfect, with a perfect life, and much of that perfect life achieved at Dave's expense. And so Dave gets not only another 15-20 years on his life, but incredibly good fortune for himself and his family. His best friend? Has his life torpedoed in the most horrific ways. Not just his own life, but his family's. And by the end, Dave is like, "You were right, Mr. Devil, that was TOTALLY AWESOME." No remorse, no second thoughts, no ironic payback, nothing. And he makes sure to stay friends with the guy so he can witness every miserable moment of it. It's like every fantasy of schadenfreude you've ever had taken to its purest, most vicious logical extreme. I kept waiting for some kind of something to happen to Dave as a consequence of the deal, and--it never came. All you're left with at the end is this incredible horror at the discrepancy between this guy's glee--not just at his own good fortune, but specifically at his friend's misery--and the outrageous overkill of what happens to Tom. All I can think is that the real message of the story is--you were totally with Dave when he first started reciting how Tom had wronged him, weren't you? I was, certainly. And if all the jealous, spiteful things you ever imagined in your worst moments about your Tom came true, you would be a horrible, horrible person. Because, oh my God: SUCH A HORRIBLE PERSON. Maybe that's ~THE STRANGER~ Dave discovers inside himself: a complete and total asshole.

"A Good Marriage": I actually liked this one a good bit, and if I were to go back and reread any of the stories, it would be this one. King says in the afterword that it was inspired by the BTK killer and his wife, and it's actually something I've wondered about--I think any girl, any woman, who's interested in true crime asks herself at least once what she would do if she realized she was married to a serial killer. Or at least a criminal of some kind--some kind of ongoing crime, the Mafia, a hit man, a bank robber--something that isn't just a blip in his past you can try to rationalize away (he was a ~different person~ then, u guys!), but something you have to make a moral choice about, something that could save lives. Or, for that matter, get you killed if you try to turn him in. And that question is complicated when children are involved--are your innocent children's futures worth the lives (and horrible deaths) of strangers? I mean, reading this story, I was like, YOU ASSHOLE, TURN HIM IN, but if it's actually happening to you, I imagine you're going to be blinded by so much emotion--so many conflicting emotions, and perhaps clinging to a desperate attempt at denial. Or an attempt at moral bargaining (which I imagine you see in a lot of romantic fanfic about serial killer characters): could I keep him from killing again, if I were a good enough wife? Could I hold him at bay? Could I even change him for good? And I've already discussed why something like that is appealing at least as a fictional fantasy. And the reason it only works as a fantasy--aside from the fact that it wouldn't work at all in real life--is because it ignores the crimes that have already been committed, victims who already deserve justice but won't get it. In real life, trying to love a killer into submission isn't just stupid (or, more to the point, impossible); it's selfish.

Which does not necessarily reveal Darcy's choice in "A Good Marriage"; her situation is on the "realistically awful" end of the spectrum. I'm just saying--and you long-timers know this already--that I'm fascinated by the psychology of the other end of the spectrum, the fantasy of loving someone dangerous, and why it does (or does not) work.

Anyway. Rats: not my thing. Moral quandaries involving murderers: apparently my thing.

Also my thing: King's stories that deal more with glimpses of the weird. "Mrs. Todd's Shortcut" and "Strawberry Spring" have always been two of my favorites, and I really liked "N." in the last collection; I think I like the secretive club in "The Breathing Method" (but not much of the rest of the story itself) almost more than anything else in Different Seasons, and I like that book a lot. But I tend to like glimpses of the weird more than an onslaught of weird, I notice--I love the first half of "1408," where the writer is being told the history of the hotel room, but the part of the story that takes place in the hotel room doesn't live up to that glimpse for me. Which may be one of the reasons I like "L.T.'s Theory of Pets" so much: I mean, you can do the math and figure out what probably happened to the wife (which itself is pretty weird), but there's just this gaping hole in this guy's life where he will never actually know for sure. Whereas Full Dark, No Stars is almost completely weird-free. It's got plenty of horror, but not very much weird, and you used to get a lot of that in the earlier King stories, even though they weren't technically as well-written. So. I guess what I'm saying is, if you like real-world, humanistic horror, you will probably enjoy at least three of these stories.  

Next up: I have to choose between The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and Matched, which is apparently the new big YA thing recommended for "people who liked The Hunger Games." I have not yet read The Hunger Games, but I need to keep up with The Big Things better than I have. Even though Matched's fans seem to already be divided into Team This Guy and Team That Guy, which sets off my Sparkle Motion sensors. On the other hand, the original title of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo was Men Who Hate Women. But at least I know that going in.

And yes, we will get back to Varney. Sometime this week, I hope, although I think I may take this week off from Secret Life to spend some time working on the entries themselves.

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Tags: book discussion, books, stephen king, the girl with the dragon tattoo

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