Iconic novelist Stephen King is running out of formats to perfect. The master of horror is once again tackling the novella, releasing his fourth and arguably best volume of short stories to date, Full Dark, No Stars. The four short tales that comprise King’s latest effort take us into the depths of human darkness and despair. The title of the work never appears in the book, but operates to create an overall mood and paint a picture of the abysmal, vacant desolation into which King plunges his anticipant readers. These stories provide chilling snapshots into madness, evil, and human perversion, where no glimmer of light reaches.

As much as darkness, King’s collection investigates duplicity – the inevitable existence of the frightening, loathsome creatures within us, who quietly and constantly threaten our sense of stability. This inner monster, who commits unspeakable and sometimes unfathomable crimes, surfaces in each story’s main character and dominates throughout. In “1922,” a tale about a man who enlists his son’s help in the murder of his wife, this shadowy malevolent figure manifests as “The Conniving Man,” who can plot the most heinous acts in cold blood while simultaneously justifying them. In “Big Driver,” about a woman who exacts her own brand of revenge against her rapist, the alternate self is “the new woman.” In “Fair Extension,” the struggle between good and evil manifests physically when the antihero makes a deal with “the devil” to eradicate his cancer. In the final short story, “A Good Marriage,” the division is more literal, as a woman discovers her husband of 25 years has been leading a double life as a serial killer who blames his crimes on a split personality. Upon uncovering her husband’s sadistic and homicidal proclivities, the guilt-ridden protagonist undergoes a psychological split of her own, interpreting herself as unconsciously complicit in her husband’s dark parallel world.

King’s storytelling skills are, all always, thoughtful, creative, captivating, and terrifying. With the exception of “Fair Extension” (by far the least compelling and thankfully shortest of the four novellas), King largely veers away from the supernatural in this collection. Most of the scenarios are completely realistic, if rather unique, and the more outlandish details can usually be interpreted as the result of madness, as in “1922” when “The Conniving Man” describes being haunted by the ghost of his wife and the brood of rats who devoured her carcass. This story, in particular, has a distinct dreamlike quality, because the lucidity of the narrator is untrustworthy. It’s therefore up to the reader to determine the line between reality and fantasy.

King expertly steps aside at key points, entrusting his reader with the freedom to draw her own conclusions about the nature of the unfolding events and decide whether they are supernatural or just the product of a demented mind. King is a genius at adjusting the multiple, nuanced details of his authorship in order to maximize his reader’s comfort with the work. This is no easy task. It involves a perpetual, supersensory awareness of one’s own influence over his creative output and a deep respect for his audience. Make no mistake; King’s effort to enhance his readers’ overall “comfort” refers to his willingness to let go, encouraging the audience to interact closely with, and even appropriate the material to some extent. It in no way has to do with his chilling subject matter or his unveiled ambition to scare the hell out of everyone. Though King prefers a plausible brand of horror in Full Dark, No Stars to ghosts, goblins, and bloodsuckers, his acute appreciation for intense creepiness is never sacrificed. He inhabits the mind of the madman in the most counterintuitive, empathic, even tender way. The first-person monster is a terrifying entity, indeed.

More important than all of this, and what makes King’s storytelling perpetually irresistible and sumptuous over time, is that he seems to always be having just as much fun writing his freaky tales as we have reading them. A palpably genuine, almost boyish sense of excitement underlies each turn of phrase, as if he’s still striving to scare himself, above all, and we are just the icing on the cake. He infuses his stories with an energy that emphasizes his eagerness to share, and the fact that he still has so much to say and such obvious fun saying it is both inspiring and contagious.

About the only flaw in Full Dark, No Stars surrounds a vague yet unrelenting tone of preciousness in dialogue among familiars, and though this is a relatively benign drawback, it can be distracting enough at times to take the reader out of the fiction at hand and remind her that she is, in fact, just reading a story. Of course this is not a sufficient reason to put down this collection of page-turning novellas by someone who has, time and again, lived up to his reputation as the master of horror.

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