FULL DARK, NO STARS, by Stephen King. Scribner. 368 pp., $27.95.

In the afterword to "Full Dark, No Stars" - which may be Stephen King's 150,000th book, we're not quite sure - the author sounds a note of apology. The four novellas you've just digested, he tells his reader, are harsh. "You may have found them hard to read in places," King writes. But such is the price of worthy fiction. "I have little patience with writers," he continues, "who don't take the job seriously."

But if the stories in "Full Dark, No Stars" are hard to read, it isn't because they're violent, gruesome or dark, all of which they most certainly are. It's that King himself hasn't taken this particular job very seriously - not if that responsibility includes the creation of believable characters and plausible situations, even within the kind of inherently implausible universe King regularly conjures up.

Take "1922," the first and longest story in the book. Farmer-turned-murderer Leland Wilford James holed up in an Omaha hotel, imaginary rats gnawing at the walls, the memory of his wayward son gnawing at his conscience. Would a guy like Wilf, who's never left Nebraska, say that his wife's nose was making "a shape like a shark's fin" in the burlap bag that their son has slipped over her head? No, but a writer from Maine might.

A writer from Maine might also establish the background of a character like Darcy Anderson - who discovers her husband is a sadistic serial killer in "A Good Marriage" - as follows: "She was raised in Freeport, Maine, back when it was a town instead of an adjunct to L.L. Bean, American's first superstore, and half a dozen other oversized retail operations that are called 'outlets' (as if they were sewer drains rather than shopping locations)."

If King has issues with zoning in the Pine Tree State, fine. But it's hard to take a murder story seriously when the author is taking a timeout to yell, "Get off my lawn!"

In his best work, you feel that King has his chummy arm around you even while he's trying to make you wet your pants. Here, King can't get out of his characters' way: The banal observations, the petty gripes, the clumsy asides are not just distracting but annoying. And lazy: In "Big Driver," the plucky Tessa Jean, author of a successful mystery series about The Willow Grove Knitting Society (Really? Is that the best you can do?) is waylaid, beaten, raped and left for dead. Plotting revenge, she winds up having two-way conversations with her cat, her dog and her GPS, none of which has any more effect in creating thrills than the rape statistics that one character recites at story's end, as if the story were a public service announcement.

"Big Driver" is the most distasteful of the four stories certainly. It's also the one that best exhibits a creeping atrophy in King's writing, which has always been popular, frightful and literary.

The final story, "Fair Extension," is also the shortest, and involves a man who makes a deal with the devil.

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"Full Dark, No Stars" isn't a horrifying development. But it's a little worrisome.