So, Stephen King. He’s still a fantastic storyteller, and even if he’s just rehashing the same five or six characters over and over again, at least he tells stories that are interesting enough to keep a person interested in continuing to read his stuff. I’m not the diehard fanboy that I used to be for King, but the fact that this book’s release prompted me to finally get through the other two books I was slogging through to read this one should tell you that I still hold out a small bit of hope that he’s still got one more awesome book to write. Is this one it? Well, that’s hard to say.
Whatever criticisms you might levy against King, it’s hard to deny that he tells a good story. Sure, he cycles through the same five or six characters in every story he tells, and it’s no lie that some of his stories are so thin as to be insubstantial, but once I start reading one of his stories, it’s hard to stop. Part of it is his characterization, which is always in top form. With this book, though, I noticed that it also has a lot to do with his pacing. It’s not a secret that his stories run long, but it’s not necessarily wasted space; he takes the time to slowly draw the story from the pages, through his characterization and the subtle creation of atmosphere. I think that atmosphere gets overlooked sometimes (I’m not sure that I’ve ever credited him for that in any of my past reviews), but with this collection of short novels, I finally noticed it.
Specifically, I noticed his subtle art of creating atmosphere with the opening story, “1922,” which is about a man telling the story of what happened in 1922 when he murdered his wife. On the surface, the story isn’t anything spectacular, but the way King slowly creates the relationship of his main character, his wife, and his son, building it up and then tearing it down, is truly artistic. And the way he gently imbues the story with a sense of menace, both by fooling with our expectations of what’s happening, and by introducing some grim, graphic scenes of minor but significant horror, completes the atmosphere that’s required of the story. In fact, the major failing of the story came in the last quarter of the story, where King drops the atmosphere to fill in some blanks of the plot. Once he moves away from creating that sense of impending dread, the story loses its momentum, but as soon as he returns to it, it all comes back. It’s brilliant, and effective, and it reminds me why I liked “N.” and From a Buick 8 so much.
“Big Driver” is less atmospheric, but still has that slow buildup that I like so much. King excels at taking a rather ordinary day and developing it into something ominous, taking us one minute step at a time to show us how easily it can happen. The story is rather bland, though it’s a good example of an exciting, plot-driven story of revenge. It’s not a story that will linger in your mind, save possibly for a few choice pieces of imagery, but it’s a story that will keep your attention. I’ve read better stories of this type — Ed Bryant’s “While She Was Out” is probably the best example, since it has an interesting theme — but that’s not to say I found myself in a position where I could stop reading the story.
“Fair Extension” is the shortest story in this collection, and lacks a lot of atmosphere. There are a few key scenes where King plays with the details of the setting in a way to really set the mood, but the atmosphere isn’t as present here as it is in “1922.” The story is probably the darkest of the lot, not because of what happens to the characters, or even because of the apparent glee that one character gets at the suffering of another, but because the reader gets in a position where he asks himself, “Is there anyone I know that I would do that to?” This, I think, is another key to King’s success. He manages to tap into those things that we can all relate to, and asks us to question our own consciences. That he also confronts us with the darkest parts of ourselves is no small part of why he continues to be a successful author.
That being said, the final story, “A Good Marriage,” follows that same line of thinking, this time applying it to an entire family and not just to one individual. It’s an achievement that King can make his characters sympathetic, even as they do some terrible things. I think it has to do to some degree with the choices that his characters make and what leads them to their final destinations in his stories. It’s not hard to relate to someone who deals with the same kinds of stuff we do, and then see how they react to extreme situations. King himself says in his afterword that he finds stories about ordinary people in extraordinary situations to be far more interesting, and because most of his readers are ordinary people, it means that they’ll relate to his characters more effectively.
The title certainly has relevance, since the stories included here are, in fact, dark, in that they show how some people are capable of doing terrible things. I’ve always preferred King’s collections over his full novels (at least recently; his later novels have been full of a lot of bloat, and I believe he does his best work when succinct), and while not all of the stories here will be as memorable as those in Different Seasons, I think they will all get people thinking about themselves and the world around them.