I’m not a Stephen King fan per se. I used to think I was back in high school when I first read Night Shift. Up until then I only knew King through his movies, but that short story collection convinced me he was a genius. I followed that up with Pet Sematary and though it wasn’t as awe-inspiring as the short stories, it was still creepy as hell and my opinion of King went unchanged.
For whatever reason, I didn’t immediately go back to check out King’s early stuff. The next novel of his I remember reading was The Tommyknockers. It still had it’s moments, but it felt overly long. I also remember being disappointed in it for reasons similar to my disappointment about Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. I went back and checked out Carrie and ‘Salem’s Lot and was much more satisfied, but the disappointment of Tommyknockers stuck with me and King had become one of those hit-or-miss authors in my head. Weird how one book will do that for you.
I kept watching the movies though and it always seemed like the best ones weren’t horror films. I mean Carrie and The Shining are classics, but the truly great movies were Stand By Me, The Shawshank Redemption, and Misery. Okay Misery is a horror film, but not in the same way that King’s supernatural stuff is. I got the uninformed notion that King had literary aspirations (and good for him if he did), but I wasn’t that interested in following him there. I’d gladly stick with the movies.
If you remember my mentioning Disney’s Marketing Rules, I said that Duma Key fails to follow one of them. That one is, “You don’t sell products, you sell an experience.” Figure out what the experience is that you want readers to have and then figure out how to give them a taste of it before they buy. The marketing for Duma Key doesn’t do that. It relies on your familiarity with (and supposed attraction to) King, but otherwise doesn’t try to prepare you for how freaking scary and cool the book is.
The front cover flap calls the book “terrifying,” but only after spending much more time discussing “a terrible construction site accident,” an ending marriage, “two lovely daughters,” “rehabilitation,” “a rented house on Duma Key,” “movement out of solitude,” “a kindred spirit,” and finally hints at “a sick old woman” and “the ghosts of her childhood.” It wraps up by telling us that the book’s about “the tenacity of love, the perils of creativity, the mysteries of memory and the nature of the supernatural.” It sounds a lot more like The Green Mile or Hearts in Atlantis than ‘Salem’s Lot, but it’s not. Because King definitely hits those other two Disney rules. Hard.
“It’s not what you see, it’s what you don’t see.” “Learn to turn work into play.” In other words, good writing isn’t something where you have to stop and think about the choices the writer made, but it is something where every page has something on it that not only makes it worth reading, but makes you excited about moving on to the next one as well.
The writing on Duma Key is very, very good, but King makes it look easy. His style isn’t distracting. I found myself admiring it, but I was never pulled out of the story by it.
More importantly though, Duma Key is really, really long, but every page is a joy to read. Rather than construct an entire community of people you have to get to know – most of whom die as soon as their four-page introduction is done – King sticks to a small cast of really likable characters. Every page is spent either showing you why you hope everything turns out okay for them, or deepens the mystery that makes you think it probably won’t.
Edgar Freemantle is the main guy. He’s the wealthy contractor from Minnesota’s Twin Cities who nearly loses his life in an on-site accident and does lose his marriage thanks to the rage he struggles with afterwards. His therapist suggests a change of scenery, so Edgar finds a rental house off the west coast of Florida. Edgar used to get some enjoyment from drawing a little, so his therapist recommends he spend some time doing that. It was this Minnesota-Florida connection that made me buy the book when I was needing something to read in Florida back in April.
The book’s told from Edgar’s perspective and King builds instant empathy for him, not only with the tragic accident, but with a sense of humor that – though occasionally, and understandably, perverse – gives Edgar a noble resiliency that you can’t help but root for.
In Florida, Edgar hires a good-natured college student named Jack to run errands for him. Jack doesn’t know the pre-accident Edgar, so he accepts him exactly as he is now without comparing him to – as Edgar calls it – his “previous life.” Jack’s easy-going affection for Edgar shows him that there’s still a lot to like about him. In spite of the rejection of his wife and one of his daughters, he still has value and realizing this encourages Edgar and brings out his better qualities even more. Jack’s a heroic character.
Down the beach from Edgar’s rental place is a sprawling mansion owned by the elderly Elizabeth Eastlake. Elizabeth suffers from Alzheimer’s and is cared for by a man named Wireman who’s recovering from injuries of his own. Elizabeth is a sweet woman who takes an instant liking to Edgar whenever she can remember who he is. Wireman likes Edgar too and the two men form a fast friendship built on the similarity of their experiences.
Wireman is an annoying character with the habits of referring to himself in the third person, spouting Spanish phrases for no reason, and following up quotes of movies and songs with the source of the quotation. But he’s a kind-hearted man and he’s exactly who Edgar needs in his life. As great and genuine as Jack is, he’s still Edgar’s employee. Wireman is Edgar’s friend just because.
The last character I want to mention is Ilse, Edgar’s younger daughter. She’s really a supporting character, but because she’s the only person in his family who still seems to care about him, she’s a joy. I should clarify that King doesn’t make villains out of Edgar’s wife and older daughter. He paints them as real people who simply can’t cope with how Edgar has – not only physically, but also mentally and emotionally – changed. And in the older daughter’s defense, Edgar freely admits that he was always partial to Ilse and did a lousy job of hiding it.
As we get to know these people, we also discover that there’s something of a mystery to Edgar’s new home on Duma Key. He begins to paint and is much, much better than he remembered being. But sometimes his right arm – lost in the construction accident – begins to twitch and he feels the urge to get out the art supplies. When he does, strange things end up on his canvasses. It’s like he’s channeling images from somewhere else. Eventually he starts to wonder if he can control the process and use it to see the future or keep tabs on his wife back in Minnesota. And if he can do that, maybe he can control it even more and use his painting to shape events too.
It’s a frightening power and Edgar is careful with it, but he’s also curious and he begins trying to figure out where it comes from. And the more he uncovers, the more horrifying the mystery becomes until you’re looking up from the book every once in a while because you thought you heard a noise. Or you’re not sure you want to go to bed because you know that when you close your eyes you’re going to replay the scene you just read and you don’t want to do that in bed with the lights out.
Except of course that you sort of do, because it’s really fun being this creeped out.
I haven’t followed King’s career closely enough to announce that He’s Back, but Duma Key certainly deserves to be on the shelf next to Carrie and ‘Salem’s Lot and that’s not at all what I expected out of it.
Five out of five Girl and Ship paintings.