IN this collection of four novellas, that is, longish short stories, each of which is constructed from real-life scenarios, as Stephen King reveals in the afterword, we find depiction of gruesome and monstrous behaviour, especially in the opening story ‘1922’ of the quartet and which is the strongest in the bunch. In this story, the husband Wilfred James Leland is shown to plumb to the utmost depth of darkness in the human condition, when he murders his wife Arlette, who is tired of living down on the farm and wants to move to the city. Unable to convince the husband, Arlette decides to sell off the portion of the land left to her by her father. She plans to accept the generous offer for a 100-acre and the farm to the Farrington combine, a hog-processing plant and move to the town, with or without Wilfred. He loves farming and foresees the hog business bringing with it putrid odours, noise and ruination of his property. Wilfred wants none of it but his wife is bent on leaving. And leave she does, but not without a chilling help from her husband, who entices their teenage son to help in killing her and then cover-up their crime.
This marks the beginning of Wilfred’s descent into hell. He admits about using his son’s services, “I cozened him into it, playing upon his fears and beating down his quite normal objections over a period of two months,” he reveals. “This is a thing I regret even more bitterly than the crime, for reasons this document will show.” After killing her, he disposes her body in a well which marks the beginning of his travails with far-reaching consequences for James, his son and for their neighbours. He realises that when he thought that things couldn’t get any worse, he finds they do.
This story is like reading a horror film, made all the more horrible with the narrator’s mournful language wringing suspense out of the tale’s many surprises. It is the most gruesome tale describing the real and imagined horrors that visit the murderous husband as his wife and that of his son gradually unravel. This story of Wilfred’s journey into madness finds Stephen King at the height of his writing prowess.
The second story is ‘Big Driver’, which features Stephen King working outside his comfort zone and the results while compelling, don’t entirely hit their mark – the heroine’s response to the traumatic event at the story’s core seems tailored to fit the plot’s needs, as opposed to the other way around. In this story, Tess, a writer of a series of uninspiring mysteries which are popular with women’s book clubs, though they are not fond of the ‘ooky’ parts of mysteries, drives down to give a talk to them, when on her way back, she takes a short cut at her hostess’s suggestion. She is brutally raped and almost murdered by the eponymous ‘big driver’. Stephen King says the following about this incident, possibly to lessen the impact of brutal assault, “Somewhere people were listening to music and buying presents online and taking naps and talking on phones, but in here the woman was being raped and she was that woman.”
‘Fair Extension’, is somewhat like a comedy, aiming for the high satire and just managing to succeed.
The last entry is ‘A Good Marriage’ in which Darcy Anderson, who has been married to Bob Anderson, discovers that sometimes it doesn’t pay to be too tidy or too curious. Her entirely happy, if somewhat humdrum, world comes crashing down when she stubs her toe on something beneath her husband’s work-desk. It is like opening the Pandora box as Darcy finds herself visited with knowledge best left unknown.
In all, the four stories shine in their macabre radiance as the mere mortals struggle with the events of their own making and which alter the course of their lives. Not only that, they cast such a fear in the mind that the reader tends to double-check the locks to the doors and peep under the beds before retiring after a long day.
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