Full Dark, No Stars, By Stephen King

These tense tales delve into the dark heart of a knitting society and a serial killer's last stand

Stephen King has proven himself to be one of the finest chroniclers of the dark side of the human psyche over the 35 years of his successful career. While literary snobs sometimes cock a snoot at his mainstream appeal, there is no doubt that on his day he can spin as compelling a yarn as anyone.

In a revealing afterword in this collection of four novellas, King states that he has always thought the best fiction to be "propulsive and assaultive", a phrase that nicely nails his own work.

As the title suggests, Full Dark, No Stars delves into some dingy corners of the human mind, and is one of King's most disturbing outings in some time. The four stories are linked by themes of revenge and retribution, and while they include such heavy-duty subject matter as murder, torture, rape and serial killing, there's also something deeply moral about the tales. For the most part, bad deeds don't go unpunished – and how.

The opening story, "1922", is set on a Depression-era Nebraska farmstead and takes the form of a confessional letter by Wilf James, who has persuaded his teenage son to help murder his wife. The tale is dripping with American Gothic, as the mechanics of murder and cover-up are laid bare, and there follows a deeply unsettling descent into guilt-fuelled paranoia and insanity. Utterly convincing and packed with grim atmosphere, it is a story that manages to keep you compulsively turning the pages – despite knowing early on how things will end.

In "Big Driver" we're in the present day and back on familiar King territory: it's a story which features a successful writer stumbling into a world of pain. Tessa Jean is the creator of the cosy Willow Grove Knitting Society mystery novels, a role that takes her to a book signing in small-town Massachusetts. On the advice of a local she takes a short cut home along backwater roads, where she first gets a flat tyre, then is brutally raped, beaten and left for dead by a trucker. The description of events is unflinching but not gratuitously so, as their extreme nature is what drives Tess to seek her own very personal form of revenge.

Of the four stories here, "Fair Extension" is the shortest – and weakest. It is a supernatural fable in which a man dying of cancer stops at a roadside stall run by a mysterious figure called Elvid (rearrange the letters yourself) and cuts a deal: he is miraculously cured at the expense of his more successful friend, whose luck suddenly takes a turn for the worse. It's a pretty silly parable, and one that jars with the compelling fare elsewhere. All the more so because it sits next to the collection's finest story.

"A Good Marriage", in which a happily married woman discovers her husband's secret hiding place in the garage and begins to suspect that he has been a notorious serial killer for 20 years, is King at his absolute best. Her psychology – and that of her husband – is utterly convincing, as she first investigates, then swithers, then is forced to confront him, and King fills every sentence with an almost unbearable tension, building to a visceral climax and then a brilliant, nerve-shredding coda with an old, retired policeman.

Interestingly, the disappointing offering here is the supernatural one – the territory for which King is probably most famous. But with the three other stories, he proves that he is still unrivalled at exploring modern America's heart of darkness.

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