The first Stephen King book I ever read was "Different Seasons," a set of four novellas published in 1982. It's a hell of a collection, featuring " Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption," "Apt Pupil" and "The Body," the last of which inspired the 1986 movie "Stand by Me." The book remains, along with "Misery" and "The Shining," among the best writing King has done.
The secret pleasure, however, of "Different Seasons" is its afterword, in which King characterizes the novella as "an anarchy-ridden literary banana republic," with no clear borders — or marketability. Not long enough for a stand-alone novel, too long for a story. How do you publish work of this length? "I've got to tell you," King writes: "25,000 to 35,000 words are numbers apt to make even the most stout-hearted writer of fiction shake and shiver in his boots."
"Different Seasons" offered a strategy King has used on occasion over the course of his career, gathering four loosely connected novellas. His new book, "Full Dark, No Stars," is the latest instance. As its title suggests, the work is bleak, with an Old Testament-like sense of affliction and retribution, an assurance that every sin must be repaid.
The one exception comes in the shortest effort, "Fair Extension," in which a cancer patient named Dave Streeter cuts a deal with the winkingly named George Elvid — "Streeter, who had played his share of Scrabble in his time, had already imagined the letters of Elvid's name on tiles and rearranged them," King writes — to offload his misery onto the best friend he has secretly hated since grade school. In the process, Streeter grows ever more gleeful, as if his life had been redeemed.
Although "Fair Extension" lacks the other pieces' sense of consequence, it does portray a close relationship weighted with hidden issues and resentments and fraught by an unbridgeable divide.
This theme of intimacy gone wrong runs throughout the collection. In "Big Driver," an author of cozy mysteries is forced to reckon with a mother-son dyad straight out of "Psycho." In "1922," a Nebraska farmer seduces his teenage son into a murderous conspiracy against the boy's mother. Then, there's the relentlessly horrific "A Good Marriage," in which a woman discovers a hiding place in her husband's garage workshop, and, in the aftermath of what is revealed there, watches as the entire fabric of her life unravels.
It's no coincidence that King bookends the collection with "1922" and "A Good Marriage," both of which involve a husband's betrayal of his wife. Not just betrayal but outright annihilation, in the first case of the body and in the second of the soul.
"1922" is more ambitious; constructed as a confession by the farmer, Wilf James, it uses a Depression-era vernacular that is oddly formal, dusty even, although the story it tells is hot.
Most searing are Wilf's justifications: "I believe that there is another man inside of every man, a stranger, a Conniving Man. And I believe that by March of 1922, when the Hemingford County skies were white and every field was a snow-scrimmed mudsuck, the Conniving Man inside Farmer Wilfred James had already passed judgment on my wife and decided her fate."
This is classic King, with its evocation of possession, although, as in "The Body," this possession is not otherworldly but representative of a more terrifying darkness within. For all King's interest in the supernatural, he is at his most acute when he deals with human evil, the depravity of which we are capable and the lengths to which we will go to convince ourselves that we are good.
That depravity resides at the heart of "A Good Marriage," which is far and away the best story in the collection, on par with King's most relentless works. Narrated by Darcy Anderson, a middle-aged suburban housewife with a lovely home, a doting accountant husband, two adult children making their way in the world — it asks us to consider how well, if at all, we know the people with whom we choose to spend our lives.
I don't want to give away the plot because its power comes in revelation, but let's just say that Darcy's husband, Bob, is not what he seems. For King, this raises compelling questions: What should Darcy do about it? How does one man's corruption ripple out and stain everyone around him, leaving no one innocent? Though these issues have always been a part of King's worldview, here he frames them in the most unforgiving terms.