Going Back to the Well
By Stephen King
When a book opens with both a dedication to the author’s wife and the main character of its first story throwing the body of his own wife down a well after she is brutality murdered at his own hand, you know you are in for classic Stephen King.
Full Dark, No Stars is his latest romp through the darkness inherent in humanity, but this time, King strips terror down to its bones just as he strips his characters down to their basest, most instinctive responses. There are no man-eating cars or aliens crashing a hunting party to offset the terror with baffled laughter; here, King grabs your suspension of disbelief in a death grip and forces you to ask yourself the question, What would I do?
No monsters, true; but there is still the presence of thematic elements that reassure the reader they are, in fact, in for another wild ride with King. This book can serve as a introduction to King’s body of work, showcasing his storytelling abilities in their purest form without bogging the reader’s mind down with such things as child-eating clowns rising forth from the sewers. But long-time King readers will also be delighted with the references to his earlier work that he continues to deftly weave in throughout his writing. Such references are far less heavy-handed here than, say, his magnum opus the Dark Tower series (in which even characters from older novels make cameos and reappearances), but they do make their presence known to those who know how to look.
The symbolic “well where we all go down to drink,” for instance, was first showcased in King’s 2006 novel Lisey’s Story, and it makes multiple appearances in Full Dark, No Stars as well, if in varying and more subtle forms. One of the main characters of Lisey’s Story, the talented but tormented author Scott Langdon, describes it as the word-pool, the story-pool, the myth-pool: a place to him both figurative and frighteningly real, which offers both inspiration and a deadly trap. For the creative artist, there is a sort of intoxication in its depths, but he can also find himself imprisoned there amongst repressed fears and memories.
The image also appears in his novel Dolores Claiborne, as yet another spouse is inspired to pitch her partner down an actual well (though this time it was in defense of the child her husband had abused, and it’s as empowering an act as it is distasteful). It appears in It, as Pennywise the Clown comes creeping up from the sewers to prey on children using the powers of their own imaginations. And now in Full Dark, No Stars we again find the imagination being used to create and to destroy.
There is no respite for the reader, much as there is no respite for the characters contained within the four novellas. Each story illustrates a once perfectly-normal man or woman flung far beyond the normal human comfort zone and forced (at least in their own mind) to react. Trapped in their psychological wells, they experience a blinding tunnel-vision wherein nothing else matters but fighting their way to that hazy light at the end.
The only lights the reader has to light their own way are King’s macabre sense of humor (I found myself laughing – perhaps inappropriately, though that was almost assuredly the point – from the very beginning of the book to the very end of the afterword) and his consummate storytelling. These stories delve to depths of the human psyche that many seem unwilling to touch for fear of dirtying their hands.
Take, for example, the first character to which we are introduced, the wife-killer in the opening story “1922”:
My name is Wilfred Leland James, and this is my confession. In June of 1922 I murdered my wife, Arlette Christina Winters James, and hid her body by tupping it down an old well. My son, Henry Freeman James, aided me in this crime, although at 14 he was not responsible; I cozened him into it, playing upon his fears and beating down his quite normal objections over a period of 2 months.
Not only are we thrust immediately into the stark, desolate mindset of a man who both murders his wife and cajolingly ropes their own child into the act, but we quickly learn that the motive for such a deed is nothing more than a simple tract of land and their disagreement on what should be done with it:
“I thought of going to Law, feeling sure that, as the Husband in this matter, any court in the land would uphold my right to decide the use and purpose of that land. Yet something held me back. ‘Twas not fear of the neighbors’ chatter, I had no care for country gossip; ’twas something else. I had come to hate her, you see. I had come to wish her dead, and that was what held me back.
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 Country 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. ‘Twas justice of the black-cap variety, too.
It is this Conniving Man who is the true main character of these stories. He appears inside a man faced with a disagreeable wife and the compulsion to kill in “1922”; he activates the desire for revenge of a woman who has been brutally assaulted, raped, and left for dead in “Big Driver”. He whispers in the ear of a man in “Fair Exchange” who is told he can escape the ravages of terminal cancer only by agreeing to watch his best friend’s life become ravaged instead; and in “A Good Marriage” a woman who, in a neat flipping of “1922,” discovers that her seemingly mild-mannered husband is in reality this murderous Conniving Man made flesh, and realizes that the decision of whether or not he is stopped and brought to justice lies solely in her own hands.
However horrible their actions themselves may be, the characters are not entirely left without the readers’ sympathy. The wife-murderer from “1922” has a strangely sweet attachment to a cow from his farm, even moving her inside his house as if in apology for all the suffering it endures on his self-tainted land, as if to say, Even I have a capacity for humanity, too. (Though in its own way, his stronger empathy towards a cow than to his own wife illuminates his pathology even more clearly.) The rape victim from “Big Driver” is entirely sympathetic, and root for her on her spree of revenge; indeed, she has an almost-honorable motive in attempting to prevent any further women from falling victim to her rapist. The man from “Fair Exchange,” though he wished a heinous fate on his long-time best friend, is a staunch family man, loving his own wife and kids and fighting to stay with them. And the woman in “A Good Marriage” is as relatable as the woman in “Big Driver,” both for her initial reluctance to bring her husband to justice, and her final decision to exact that justice herself, and so still keep the dark heart of their marriage a private thing.
These are not characters and the situations the reader will want to find themselves identifying with. You don’t want the feeling of rancid breath wafting over your shoulder with every flipping of the page, as if to murmur, Well now? What would you do? King’s popularity in curious for that reason, because the sensations he evokes so well tend to be disturbing and painful.
But that is surely what readers are responding to: King’s point is that darkness is everywhere, especially inside us, and it is not a thing from which we can escape. We can only face it head-on, and hope to have the fortitude to walk away stronger, if not unscathed. It is this message that raises King’s stories from the horror genre or the typical B movie.
In his charmingly snarky afterword, King seems to refer again to the suffocating well into which he’s plunged his characters and readers:
All right, I think we’ve been down here in the dark long enough. There’s a whole other world upstairs. Take my hand, Constant Reader, and I’ll be happy to lead you back into the sunshine. I’m happy to go there, because I believe most people are essentially good. I know that I am. It’s you I’m not entirely sure of.
The paradox inherent in so much of King’s work is again at the heart of Full Dark, No Stars: you can’t live without water; but if you’re not careful, you’ll drown in its undertow.
Jacey Faye Jacey Faye is a hippie librarian sort in Boston, who can be found tweeting as @jaceyfaye on Twitter. This is her first piece for Open Letters.