Hodder & Stoughton £18.99

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.

Arts and Entertainment
Nick Hewer is to leave The Apprentice after 10 years

TV review Nick Hewer, the man whose eyebrows speak a thousand words, is set to leave The Apprentice

Arts and Entertainment
Female fans want more explicit male sex in Game of Thrones, George R R Martin says

film George RR Martin owns a cinema in Santa Fe

Arts and Entertainment
Clued up: John Lynch and Gillian Anderson in ‘The Fall’

TV review

Arts and Entertainment
The Baker (James Corden) struggles with Lilla Crawford’s Little Red Riding Hood

film...all the better to bamboozle us
Arts and Entertainment
English: Romantic Landscape

art
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump

TV

Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

music
Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

film
Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

TV
Arts and Entertainment
William Pooley from Suffolk is flying out to Free Town, Sierra Leone, to continue working in health centres to fight Ebola after surviving the disease himself

music
Arts and Entertainment
The Newsroom creator Aaron Sorkin

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Matt Berry (centre), the star of Channel 4 sitcom 'Toast of London'

TVA disappointingly dull denouement
Arts and Entertainment
Tales from the cryptanalyst: Benedict Cumberbatch in 'The Imitation Game'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Pixie Lott has been voted off Strictly Come Dancing 2014

Strictly
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Homeless Veterans appeal: 'You look for someone who's an inspiration and try to be like them'

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
    Could cannabis oil reverse the effects of cancer?

    Could cannabis oil reverse effects of cancer?

    As a film following six patients receiving the controversial treatment is released, Kate Hilpern uncovers a very slippery issue
    The Interview movie review: You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here

    The Interview movie review

    You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here
    Serial mania has propelled podcasts into the cultural mainstream

    How podcasts became mainstream

    People have consumed gripping armchair investigation Serial with a relish typically reserved for box-set binges
    Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up for hipster marketing companies

    Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up

    Kevin Lee Light, aka "Jesus", is the newest client of creative agency Mother while rival agency Anomaly has launched Sexy Jesus, depicting the Messiah in a series of Athena-style poses
    Rosetta space mission voted most important scientific breakthrough of 2014

    A memorable year for science – if not for mice

    The most important scientific breakthroughs of 2014
    Christmas cocktails to make you merry: From eggnog to Brown Betty and Rum Bumpo

    Christmas cocktails to make you merry

    Mulled wine is an essential seasonal treat. But now drinkers are rediscovering other traditional festive tipples. Angela Clutton raises a glass to Christmas cocktails
    5 best activity trackers

    Fitness technology: 5 best activity trackers

    Up the ante in your regimen and change the habits of a lifetime with this wearable tech
    Paul Scholes column: It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves

    Paul Scholes column

    It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves
    Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

    Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

    Club World Cup kicked into the long grass by the continued farce surrounding Blatter, Garcia, Russia and Qatar
    Frank Warren column: 2014 – boxing is back and winning new fans

    Frank Warren: Boxing is back and winning new fans

    2014 proves it's now one of sport's biggest hitters again
    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

    Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

    The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
    Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

    Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

    The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
    Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

    The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

    Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas