Full Dark, No Stars by Stephen King

kings-fulldarknostarsHere we have another volume from King in the tradition of Different Seasons and Four Past Midnight – a collection of four short novels under one roof.

We open with 1922, a tale about a man who plans to murder his wife over an inheritance dispute. In order to make it work, he has to involve his teenage son in the matter. This slant gives a rather common theme a unique flavour.

Big Driver is reminiscent of the movie I Spit on Your Grave. It’s a revenge story about a woman who is raped and left for dead. Highly derivative, but superior to the film in terms of the realism of the protagonist’s actions. And it has its original moments. My personal favourite of the pack.

Fair Extension is the only tale in the volume that has a supernatural element. It’s the old “pact with the devil” scenario. A dying man gets to extend his life, only the price he has to pay is something other than his soul.

Imagine a wife discovering that she never really knew her husband. In A Good Marriage, the accidental discovery of a hardcore porn mag is only the tip of the iceberg.

These are all stories of domestic life gone awry, where circumstance has forced good people into impossible situations, where the choices they are forced to make are difficult, and in some cases unconscionable. This is the dark side of the white picket fence. King is on form.

Taming the Beast by Emily Maguire

I have a liking for stories that go places where most authors fear to tread. If the author is insightful and courageous, you end up with fiction that tells the truth about life. My last outing into this territory was Stephen King’s Rage, a tale about a student who holds his classmates at gunpoint. Emily Maguire’s Taming the Beast is a story about another school-related taboo: the forbidden sexual relationship between teacher and student.

Sarah Clark is a fourteen-year-old girl who feels like a bit of a misfit; her English teacher, Daniel Carr, is thirty-eight and is married with a daughter. Recognising Sarah’s intelligence, he pays her special attention, loaning her books. They spend lunch-times together, having private discussions, alone in his classroom. Then one day he makes a move on her, and she accepts. A passionate secret love affair develops, where they both can’t get enough of each other. On Mr. Carr’s side, there is a lot of conflicting emotion: the fear of Sarah’s naivety getting them caught, the guilt over what they are doing, the fear of losing his wife and daughter. Disturbingly, the sexual relationship between Daniel and Sarah becomes violent at times, but they both seem addicted to each other regardless. Central to the book’s theme is the metaphor of “the beast with two backs” – when two people become like one organism, and cannot be satisfied when apart, no matter how badly they treat each other. Recognising the destructive nature of their relationship, Mr Carr breaks it off, resigns from his job, and moves himself and his family to another town far away. Sarah is heartbroken.

All this takes place in a few chapters at the beginning of the book. The majority of the story concerns Sarah in her early twenties. She has become excessively sexually promiscuous, having hundreds of previous lovers in an attempt to recapture what she lost with Daniel. But no one will do. Then, out of nowhere, he reappears in her life, divorced and available. And both of them still want each other. This time the relationship becomes even more destructive and violent than before. But the two seem powerless to resist. Caught in the crossfire is Sarah’s longsuffering best friend Jamie, who has been besotted with Sarah since she was a girl.

What I got from this book was a portrait of a completely self-absorbed woman – one whose view of sex is intirely about me, me, me. Everyone exists to serve her. She even seduces Jamie, despite the fact that he is a husband and father. All around her is the emotional wreckage of the people she has vampirically drained. And central to her “psychosis” is that age-old bullshit story of finding “The One” – the idea that there’s one special person you’re meant to be with and no one else will do, and to be alone is to be incomplete. The thing is, what I’m seeing in the story is not what the author intended. By all appearances, the author defends the idea of finding The One. She just wants to replace the romantic stereotype of this age-old tale with something raw and animalistic. Frankly, I’m not convinced. In the real world, people enter sexual relationships, and for a while it’s exciting, even obsessional, but after time the sex becomes familiar. Love isn’t this monstrous thing that drains so much from people that it almost kills them. What planet are you on, Maguire?

The genuine insight of Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita is absent here. All I see is a piece of pretentious melodrama with added shock value. This was the story of a self-absorbed little tart with delusions of profundity. Emily Maguire attempts to out-Nabokov Nabokov, but hasn’t got what it takes.

Nine Stories by J.D. Salinger

From the author who penned the classic teen angst novel The Catcher in the Rye, we have nine short stories collected in one volume. The stories are univerally domestic in nature, mostly consisting of conversations between regular people. They are saved from being boring by their sheer oddness, with titles like “A Perfect Day for Bananafish,” “Just Before the War with the Eskimos” and “For Esme – With Love and Squalor.” The characters often possess eccentric traits, and Salinger tells their stories with an edgy realism devoid of any melodrama. The downfall of the stories is that most of them are anticlimactic, ending on a note that leaves the reader unsatisfied, and more than once confused. Either that, or I’m just thick.

Admittedly, the sheer oddness (yet believability) of the stories sometimes made them stick in the mind long after reading, as I pondered “What the hell was that all about?” My favourites were “The Laughing Man,” a tale about a boy scout leader who tells a ongoing saga to his boys on the bus about a disfigured superhero of sorts; and “Teddy,” the story of a ten-year-old boy who possesses a spirituality beyond his years.

All things considered, though, this was a book that I found more tiresome than enjoyable.

Branded by Robert Swindells

Put yourself in the shoes of young teenage boy, Dale Ward. You’ve got a mum, a dad, a younger sister called Kayleigh and an older brother called Gavin. Life is fairly typical for you, until one day the police arrest your older brother for raping and murdering a girl in an alley – a girl who was one of many. Gavin is found guilty and put in prison for a long time. The press have a field day with you and your family. Your family goes into witness protection. Suddenly you’re no longer Dale Ward but Glen Parish. On the surface, your life seems normal again. But underneath, you know you’re the younger brother of a serial killer.

What an absolutely enthralling premise for a novel. How do you reconcile the loving brother you’ve always know with the monster who brutally murdered girls? Why did he do what he did? Will you grow up to be just like him? How will anyone tell Kayleigh? Are you and your family safe in our new lives, or will the press hunt you down again?

You’ve got to hand it to Swindells. He can pick really his ideas. I’ve enjoyed all of his young adult novels. There’s a grit and an honesty to them that I really appreciate, and this one is no different.

The only downside I found was that, for some reason, Swindells is pulling of a Cormac McCarthy act with this novel. McCarthy (The Road, No Country for Old Men) is known for making some strange decisions with punctuation, such as omitting all quotations marks. Swindells mimics the style here. It doesn’t work for me. In fact, I don’t know that it works for McCarthy, either. All it really does is add a bit of confusion between dialogue and narration, occasionally breaking the flow of reading. Just a small gripe. Otherwise, highly recommended.

Veronika Decides to Die by Paulo Coelho

Veronika is a young woman who possess all the success that life has to offer, and yet she is empty. And so, one day she chooses to overdose on sleeping pills. What surprised me about this was that Veronika wasn’t what I would call depressed; she was just sort of empty. I know very little personally about suicidal tendencies, but I have always thought that you would have to be in a fairly tortured state of mind to choose death over life.

Then I had an odd experience while reading this novel. A young woman contacted me by email, told me she had wanted to die since she was fifteen, and asked me advise her how to do it in such a way that it would look like an accident and save her parents some shame. This request was based on a misinterpretation of an essay I wrote online called “How to slowly kill yourself and your children.” That was just a shock title for an essay about the long-term effects of food additives! We talked for a few emails before she broke contact, and all I could think was, “This is Veronika.” She seemed possessed by an inexplicable feeling of emptiness about life that I couldn’t get to the bottom of, but which was quite real to her.

In Veronika’s case, the suicide was interrupted. She was rushed to hospital and saved, but unfortunately suffered irreparable heart damage that would kill her within a week. Now she has a week to live in the certain knowledge that she will die. The week is spent at Villette mental hospital where Veronika, of her own volition, starts to undergo a change and starts to affect the lives of the other patients. Interestingly, I learned that the author has spent time as a patient in a mental hospital, and that certainly raises the calibre of book above mere fable.

The running theme of story is an examination of what insanity actually is, hinting that the real madness is what’s going on in the world outside the walls of Villette, defined as sanity purely by strength of numbers. Here and there, the book diverts from Veronika’s perspective to delve into the past experiences of the other patients. These were insightful journeys.

As I was reading, I kept wondering how a book with a title like this was going to end in a way that would be satisfying without indulging in melodrama. But Coeho pulls it off. The ending was delightful.

The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger

I’ve been putting this review off, because I wasn’t sure how to tackle it. I knew I liked this novel, liked it a lot, but I couldn’t figure out why I liked it. The book has certain traits that, at face value, are going to look like negatives. For one, the drama is so mundane. It’s the tale of several consecutive days in the life of a 1950s boarding school student, right after he gets the news that he has been expelled. The protagonist, Holden Caulfield, goes from place to place across New York, meeting various people in an effort to kill time, because he’s determined not to head home and face his parents before they’ve had a chance to hear the bad news and simmer down for a couple of days. Nothing earth-shattering happens during those few days. The highest dramatic point is when Holden foolishly hires a prostitute, then gets bullied by her pimp over payment. Holden isn’t even a particularly likable character at times. By his own admission, he is a habitual liar, and frequently enjoys spinning a yarn to those he converses with.

So, what’s to like? Well, despite Holden’s conversational lying, the narrative itself is brutally honest. It’s written in the first person – Holden writing a journal at the request of a psychiatrist after the events of the novel. The most interesting aspect of the story is in following his state of mind. Holden is both capable of youthful exuberance and depression to the point of wishing for death. I felt he was an honest portrait of the turbulence of teenage life. Although his was a lot more turbulent than mine, I could still relate to some of what I was reading, and I think perhaps that’s where my fascination with this novel lies. There were also some heartwarming moments, particularly the scenes with Holden and his kid sister Phoebe.

I was surprised to learn that The Catcher in the Rye has had a rocky road from its publication in the 1950s to the present day. The book has been banned here and there over the years. I honestly don’t see what all the fuss is about. Not only did the book not strike me as harmful, I would go as far as saying that it might be the sort of thing that would help a depressed reader away from a suicidal tendency.

One of my favourite reads of 2007.

Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad

This short novel chronicles an adventure in the life of a sea-faring drifter called Marlow around 1900. Most of the action takes place aboard a steamboat travelling up the Congo river. Marlow’s destination is deep into the jungle, to the farthest point any white man has travelled. His aim, to find and retrieve an Englishman called Kurtz. Along the way, Marlow learns a great deal about Kurtz, through people at the various stations along the river. It seems Kurtz has set himself up as a feared leader among the natives.

I’m conscious of the fact that I’m not making this book sound very interesting. If anything, the plot itself is fairly uncomplicated and run-of-the-mill. But the strength of the story lies in the way that Conrad describes what his characters go through. You might expect Marlow to marvel at the beauty of the jungle, but what happens is quite the opposite. The jungle is described as a terrifying place, almost prehistoric in nature. What Marlow experiences most of all is the fear of leaving civilisation so far behind. And when we finally meet Kurtz, we don’t find an Englishman who has brought civilisation to the uncivilised, but a man who has abandoned civilisation, seduced by the anarchy around him. The author himself was a mariner, and I get the feeling that some of what he’s writing is autobiographical.

I found this to be a difficult novel to understand fully. Other reviews have described it as dealing with moral struggles. I felt the story was much too vague in that respect. The novel is also difficult to read because of the way paragraphing has been handled. At one point, a single paragraph ran across three full book pages. Why? Well, the story is written from the point of view of Marlow, aboard a boat on the Thames, narrating his adventure to his shipmates. The entire story is written as one large quotation. I’ve seen this done very well, such as Stephen King’s Dolores Claiborne. But Conrad seems to feel this this format won’t allow him to space his paragraphs out in normal fashion. For instance, when two people are speaking together, Conrad rarely if ever takes a new paragraph each time the conversation switches between persons. Instead, quotes are sandwiched together, one after another, along the same paragraph.

I got some enjoyment out of this novel, but as I was reading it, I found myself being glad that it was so tiny (under 100 pages). With prose that was this awkward to read, I couldn’t have faced a longer book.