The stories in this book are harsh. You may have found them hard to read in places. If so, be assured that I found them equally hard to write in places. When people ask me about my work, I have developed a habit of skirting the subject with jokes and humorous personal anecdotes (which you can’t quite trust; never trust anything a fiction writer says about himself). It’s a form of deflection, and a little more diplomatic than the way my Yankee forebears might have answered such questions: It’s none of your business, chummy. But beneath the jokes, I take what I do very seriously, and have since I wrote my first novel, The Long Walk, at the age of eighteen.
I have little patience with writers who don’t take the job seriously, and none at all with those who see the art of story-fiction as essentially worn out. It’s not worn out, and it’s not a literary game. It’s one of the vital ways in which we try to make sense of our lives, and the often terrible world we see around us. It’s the way we answer the question, How can such things be? Stories suggest that sometimes—not always, but sometimes—there’s a reason.
From the start—even before a young man I can now hardly comprehend started writing The Long Walk in his college dormitory room—I felt that the best fiction was both propulsive and assaultive. It gets in your face. Sometimes it shouts in your face. I have no quarrel with literary fiction, which usually concerns itself with extraordinary people in ordinary situations, but as both a reader and a writer, I’m much more interested by ordinary people in extraordinary situations. I want to provoke an emotional, even visceral, reaction in my readers. Making them think as they read is not my deal. I put that in italics, because if the tale is good enough and the characters vivid enough, thinking will supplant emotion when the tale has been told and the book set aside (sometimes with relief). I can remember reading George Orwell’s 1984 at the age of thirteen or so with growing dismay, anger, and outrage, charging through the pages and gobbling up the story as fast as I could, and what’s wrong with that? Especially since I continue to think about it to this day when some politician (I’m thinking of Sarah Palin and her scurrilous “death-panel” remarks) has some success in convincing the public that white is really black, or vice-versa.
Here’s something else I believe: if you’re going into a very dark place—like Wilf James’s Nebraska farmhouse in “1922”—then you should take a bright light, and shine it on everything. If you don’t want to see, why in God’s name would you dare the dark at all? The great naturalist writer Frank Norris has always been one of my literary idols, and I’ve kept what he said on this subject in mind for over forty years: “I never truckled; I never took off my hat to Fashion and held it out for pennies. By God, I told them the truth.”
But Steve, you say, you’ve made a great many pennies during your career, and as for truth… that’s variable, isn’t it? Yes, I’ve made a good amount of money writing my stories, but the money was a side effect, never the goal. Writing fiction for money is a mug’s game. And sure, truth is in the eye of the beholder. But when it comes to fiction, the writer’s only responsibility is to look for the truth inside his own heart. It won’t always be the reader’s truth, or the critic’s truth, but as long as it’s the writer ’s truth—as long as he or she doesn’t truckle, or hold out his or her hat to Fashion—all is well. For writers who knowingly lie, for those who substitute unbelievable human behavior for the way people really act, I have nothing but contempt. Bad writing is more than a matter of shit syntax and faulty observation; bad writing usually arises from a stubborn refusal to tell stories about what people actually do—to face the fact, let us say, that murderers sometimes help old ladies cross the street.
I have tried my best in Full Dark, No Stars to record what people might do, and how they might behave, under certain dire circumstances. The people in these stories are not without hope, but they acknowledge that even our fondest hopes (and our fondest wishes for our fellowmen and the society in which we live) may sometimes be vain. Often, even. But I think they also say that nobility most fully resides not in success but in trying to do the right thing… and that when we fail to do that, or willfully turn away from the challenge, hell follows.
“1922” was inspired by a nonfiction book called
In 2007, while traveling on Interstate 84 to an autographing in western Massachusetts, I stopped at a rest area for a typical Steve King Health Meal: a soda and a candybar. When I came out of the refreshment shack, I saw a woman with a flat tire talking earnestly to a long-haul trucker parked in the next slot. He smiled at her and got out of his rig.
“Need any help?” I asked.
“No, no, I got this,” the trucker said.
The lady got her tire changed, I’m sure. I got a Three Musketeers and the story idea that eventually became “Big Driver.”
In Bangor, where I live, a thoroughfare called the Hammond Street Extension skirts the airport. I walk three or four miles a day, and if I’m in town, I often go out that way. There’s a gravel patch beside the airport fence about halfway along the Extension, and there any number of roadside vendors have set up shop over the years. My favorite is known locally as Golf Ball Guy, and he always appears in the spring. Golf Ball Guy goes up to the Bangor Municipal Golf Course when the weather turns warm, and scavenges up hundreds of used golf balls that have been abandoned under the snow. He throws away the really bad ones and sells the rest at the little spot out on the Extension (the windshield of his car is lined with golf balls—a nice touch). One day when I spied him, the idea for “Fair Extension” came into my mind. Of course I set it in Derry, home of the late and unlamented clown Pennywise, because Derry is just Bangor masquerading under a different name.
The last story in this book came to my mind after reading an article about Dennis Rader, the infamous BTK (bind, torture, and kill) murderer who took the lives of ten people—mostly women, but two of his victims were children—over a period of roughly sixteen years. In many cases, he mailed pieces of his victims’ identification to the police. Paula Rader was married to this monster for thirty-four years, and many in the Wichita area, where Rader claimed his victims, refuse to believe that she could live with him and not know what he was doing. I did believe—I do believe—and I wrote this story to explore what might happen in such a case if the wife suddenly found out about her husband’s awful hobby. I also wrote it to explore the idea that it’s impossible to fully know anyone, even those we love the most.
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.