Book review: Full Dark, No Stars by Stephen King

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Full Dark, No Stars By Stephen King Hodder & Stoughton, 352pp, £18.99

Stephen King is one of America's finest writers. Say it out loud. Doesn't sound right? The words seem to stick in your throat, your mouth involuntarily curls up into a smile. You're joking, right? You've got to be joking? Nobody could believe the man who killed a rabid St Bernard with a broken baseball bat; imported vampires to small-town America; erased the United States with a military germ; bathed a telekinetic virgin in pig's blood, and had his alter ego crippled by a psychotic woman using an axe and a blow-torch could rest his works on the same shelf as Saul Bellow, Norman Mailer and John Updike?

He's just a hack: the bogeyman of American letters. As Truman Capote criticised Jack Kerouac for his wild, rambling flows: "That's not writing – that's typing." That's it, he's a professional typist; how else could he produce 45 books the size and weight of a house brick in the past 36 years? And so it was for years.

Novelists and critics would envy his sales, but shudder at the thought of actually reading his work. They had seen the dreadful movies. There was nothing they were missing. But, like the creatures in the woodshed or the noise in the attic, over the past ten years something has begun to stir. Newspapers that previously would scarcely have stooped to give him a couple of patronising lines in their paperback round-ups now give him serious reviews. In 1997 at Princeton University, Joyce Carol Oates introduced a reading by King, referring to him as "a great writer … both a storyteller and an inventor of startling images and metaphors which linger long in the memory and would seem to spring from a collective unconscious, and thoroughly domestic American soil".

In 2000 he published On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, part autobiography, part textbook and a succinct review of his profession. King was aware of the reaction from those who feel he can't write, describing their response as if the town whore was trying to teach women how to behave. While the book offers advice such as "the adverb is not your friend", it tells the true story of how writing effectively saved his life. If he did not have it, "I would have drunk myself to death or drugged myself to death or committed suicide or some goddamn thing".

His latest book is a collection of four novellas, a form at which he has previously excelled. Different Seasons (1982) led to the movies Stand By Me, Apt Pupil and The Shawshank Redemption, while Four Past Midnight (1990) contained "The Library Policeman", among my favourites stories, in which he explores the anguish of alcoholism, the redemptive nature of recovery and the essence of faith. Lest anyone brand him a sissy, it also contains an 8ft-tall murderous ghoul.

Each collection is a curate's egg and Full Dark, No Stars is no exception. "1922" and "A Fair Extension", the first and third stories, are average entertainments. "Big D, River" is a brutal story of rape and revenge, which has the feel of an old-school pulp, but elevated by stark insights and a relentless momentum. The story of a mystery writer served up as a treat to a psychotic son by his mother is genuinely disturbing, but nowhere near as chilling as "A Good Marriage", the final tale.

As a teenager I remember the darkness that descended over my world when I first read Red Dragon by Thomas Harris. I felt it again 20 pages into this novella, when Darcy, a happily married mother with two grown children, clears out the garage while her husband is away on a business trip and discovers evidence that he is a serial killer.

The story is about the depth of deception, the reality she faces not only of his crimes, which are described with a pared coldness that genuinely shocks, but the reality that her own life, and that of her children is over, that no one will believe she was ignorant of the crimes. King, who has been married for over 40 years to Tabitha, has explored marriage previously, most powerfully in Lisey's Story (2007), which again peered into the secrets of a husband.

The genius of King is not the fecundity of his imagination, great though it is, but the empathy he can create between the reader and a character, and for all their horrors his books are accurate portraits of blue collar life. He is, I believe, our Dickens, and not a national, but global treasure.

The skill is on display in the last 15 pages, when he introduces a character around which lesser writers would create an entire series of novels, a character about which you "gotta" know more about and then, puff, the book closes and he's gone. What's he like? Well, frankly, that would be telling, just buy the book.

Trust me, you won't be disappointed.