“A Good Marriage” a novella by Stephen King from the collection “Full Dark, No Stars”

I finally drew the three of spades for my “project: deal me in” on Saturday, and was thus finally ‘allowed’ to read the last of the four novellas in this Collection by Stephen King. I’ve written about the other three (1922, Fair Extension, and Big Driver) elsewhere on this blog. This last story was titled “A Good Marriage.”

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***SPOILER ALERT***
King mentions in his comments in the back of the book* that the “inspiration” for this story came to him when reading about the “BTK” killer, Dennis(?) Rader, who, if some are to be believed, carried out his heinous acts unbeknownst to his spouse. King began to speculate upon what the course of events would be if a spouse DID find out her husband was secretly a serial killer. Chapter one describes how the “happy couple” had reached this point in their lives, only hinting about “that day in the garage” where the reader assumes some discovery is made or some incident occurs.

There is good suspense as the wife goes through a natural stage of denial and then ponders what to do about her situation. Her resolution is a bit surprising, but in a way I liked the way King wrapped things up, especially with the final paragraphs involving a visit to the wife by the shrewd, semi-retired detective.

This was not my favorite story in the book though – actually maybe my least favorite, perhaps in a dead heat with the story, Big Driver. Still, King fans – and I count myself among them – are likely to enjoy it.

*One thing I really appreciate about Stephen King is that he frequently gives us a peek into his process, as he does in this collection. As readers,we’re often thinking, “Where did this story come from?!” and the like. King is gracious enough to let us know.

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Fair Extension – a novella by Stephen King

This is story #3 from King’s latest book, Full Dark, No Stars.

Short and (not so) Sweet is how I’d describe this story. I liked it better than story #2, but not as much as story #1. This one felt like it was straight out of a Twilight Zone episode…

****Spoiler Alert****
Dave Streeter has terminal cancer. We first join him in this story as he is puking up his last meal. (Nice, Mr. King…) He is on a little-traveled road driving alone and “thinking” when he spots a roadside vendor selling “extensions.” The odd man’s name is George Elvid (yes, I immediately re-shuffled the letters of that last name too). He offers to sell Streeter a fifteen-year life extension. Streeter, at first assuming the guy is mentally ill, plays along and says something like, “What’ll it cost me? My soul, right?” The new twist on the story, however, is that it won’t cost Streeter his soul. He’ll only have to transfer his “misfortune” to someone else – and transfer 15% of his annual income to Elvid’s offshore bank account. I think we’d all agree to the latter in that situation, but how about the former?

Elvid begins by asking Streeter who he hates. Streeter claims he has no enemies but when pressed admits he “hates” his lifelong “best friend,” Tom Goodhugh. Elvid is, of course, delighted and grants him his extension. The actual source of Streeter’s “hatred” is more envy and jealousy. Goodhugh stole Streeter’s first love, married her, and has been living happily ever after.

After his encounter, Streeter pays his doctor a visit and – guess what?- his tumors are rapidly shrinking. Soon, of course, Elvid begins to subject the Goodhugh family to a Job-like crash course of suffering and misery. The first lesson involves Goodhugh’s wife getting and dying from breast cancer, and it goes downhill from there. While reading, I kept thinking that somehow things would bounce back on Streeter, but they never do. I would have thought the death of his former love would at least trouble him, but no. His wife feels sorry for the Goodhughs and says as much to Streeter, but he rationalizes that it’s only “fair.” They had their time of fortune and now it is his turn. He gets promoted at his job several times, and dutifully forwards his 15% to Elvid’s account. Their children also prosper as Goodhugh’s suffer. An unpleasant story, overall, made more so by Streeter’s unapologetic acceptance of the new order of things in his world…

This is Story 2 from my “Deal Me In!” Short Story Reading Project for 2011.

Big Driver (story 2 from Stephen King’s Full Dark, No Stars)

I posted about the first story in King’s new book a week ago; this second one I wasn’t quite as taken with. “Big Driver” is the story of a female author – seems her specialty (as i imagined it anyway) is a series of “Jessica Fletcher-toned” mystery novels featuring a crime solving cooking club – who encounters misfortune returning from a bookstore appearance and book signing in a nearby town. Actually, misfortune is not the right word; she is violently assaulted and left for dead. Of course, she’s not dead, though. We wouldn’t have a story then now would we?

What I liked: I enjoyed King’s early descriptions of the nature of the book store event, and all of its associated routines and rituals clearly aggregated from years of his own personal experience. I enjoyed the device that King uses to share the protagonists internal deliberations. Her cat, the dog of one of her perpetrator’s accomplices, and even her own Tom-Tom GPS system (creepy!) all take turns serving as her foil as she decides what she is going to do in the wake of her attack. I liked her spunk after being a victim. She decides to take action, rather than the route so many victims of sexual assault apparently take – not reporting the attack. According to the statistics referenced in the story, two-thirds go unreported.

What I didn’t like: The violence. Not a big fan. (of course, there was also plenty of violence in the first story in this collection, which I really liked, so I guess violence is not a deal breaker) I also thought things worked out a little too easily for her towards the end of the story. I mean ***Spoiler Alert!*** are we really expected to believe she’s going to get away with her vengeful killing spree? And her one “loose end” too easily agrees to be complicit in her crime. (fortunately – not surprisingly, though – this particular loose end was also a victim of sexual assault earlier in her life. Overall, not a bad story and an easy read at just over one hundred pages. I suspect, though, that this story will be one I remember almost nothing about a few years from now. Although, now that I’ve started blogging about what I read, I find I’m remembering a LOT more than I used to, so we’ll see…

(above: a Peterbilt 389; the newest truck in the fleet of Red Hawk Trucking (“Big Driver’s” Company)

This is the first short story of my “Deal Me In!” Short Story Reading Project of 2011.

“1922” -Story #1 from Stephen King’s “Full Dark, No Stars”

Santa brought me this:

“There on the great high-backed carved oak chair by the right side of the fireplace sat an enormous rat, steadily glaring at him with baleful eyes.”

Stephen King’s knowledge of the canon of horror literature cannot be disputed. I learned this years ago when I read his non-fiction effort, Danse Macabre, a sweeping review of the horror genre. It’s not surprising, then, that I found many elements of this new story that recalled to me several of the horror classics. The quotation above, for instance, isn’t from “1922”, but instead from a classic Bram Stoker (yeah, the Dracula one) short story entitled The Judge’s House. I was also, on other occasions during reading, reminded of The Monkey’s Paw and The Tell-Tale Heart.

Stephen King’s Danse Macabre

***Spoiler Alert*** A quick summary of the plot: the story is presented as a written confession (told eight years later, in 1930) of a man who murdered his wife. Wilfred James was a contented farmer. He had a wife, Arlette, and an almost fifteen year old son, Henry. (I guess that would make the murderer “the father of Henry James”… Not sure if that has hidden meaning or not) Anyway, Arlette is NOT a contented farmer’s wife and wants to sell the farmland and move to The Big City (as in Omaha or St. Louis). Wilfred is legally powerless to stop her, as she owns the majority of “their” land herself. He calls upon his inner, so-called “conniving man” and decides to kill her and dump her down an old well on his property, planning on explaining her absence by saying she “ran off” to The Big City. Somehow he convinces his son (who also loves and doesn’t want to leave the farming life) to become complicit in the murder.

They figuratively (and literally!) make a mess of it though, and returning to the well a couple days after the deed find her body seemingly animate (turns out it’s rats(!) though, who have already begun to feast on her) and with her head in an odd position which seems turned upwards to laugh and mock Wilfred. Poor Henry struggles to deal with the secret of their crime and begins to view Wilfred with contempt. His life speeds “down the tubes” after he follows a neighbor girl (who he’s gotten “in trouble”) to an Omaha “home for girls” where her parents have sent her.

Wilfred struggles on alone, but is haunted by Arlette’s spirit (or her literal corpse, if we assume he’s not hallucinating) and her minions (rats!). Her visit to the house is eerily reminiscent of the W.W. Jacobs story, “The Monkey’s Paw,” and his guilty-conscience-driven hallucinations of seeing rats everywhere reminded me of Poe’s “The Tell Tale Heart.” All in all a great short story/novella (it’s 130 pages) in classic Stephen King style. Of her corpse’s visit he writes:

“I can see it now, as I write. I told myself to die, but my heart kept pounding. Her hanging face slid alongside mine. I could feel my beard-stubble pulling off tiny bits of her skin, could hear her broken jaw grinding like a branch with ice on it.”

Wow, doesn’t get much creepier than that.

P.S. Reading this alone at night is not recommended.

Horror master Stephen King: