Scribner, 2006, 513 pages
Lisey Debusher Landon lost her husband, Scott, two years ago, after a 25-year marriage of the most profound and sometimes frightening intimacy. Scott was an award-winning, best-selling novelist, and a very complicated man. Early in their relationship, before they married, Lisey had to learn from him about books and blood and "bools". Later, she understood that there was a place Scott went, a place that both terrified and healed him, could eat him alive, or give him the ideas he needed in order to live.
Now it's Lisey's turn to face Scott's demons, Lisey's turn to go to Boo'ya Moon. What begins as a widow's effort to sort through the papers of her celebrated husband becomes a nearly fatal journey into the darkness he inhabited.
Perhaps King's most personal and powerful story ever, Lisey's Story is about the wellsprings of creativity, the temptations of madness, and the secret language of love.
In many respects, Lisey's Story is a rehash of themes King has mined repeatedly in previous books. He's done the "woman-cornered-by-a-monster" plot before (Cujo, Gerald's Game, and Misery with gender roles reversed), he's done a lot of "abused woman turns into a Fury" stories (Gerald's Game, Dolores Claiborne, Rose Madder), and he's also done the writer-as-a-protagonist thing before (Misery, The Dark Half, Bag of Bones).
But Lisey's Story is also one of his later-career works. He's mellowed a bit, he's not trying so hard, and at the same time, Stephen King can shit fine prose on his worst days.
The world would seem to waver, and there would be that sense of a whole other world waiting to be born, one where the sweetness curdled and turned to poison after dark. A world that was just a side-step away, no more than a flick of a hand or the turn of a hip. For a moment she would feel Castle View drop away on every side, and she would be Lisey on a tight rope, Lisey walking a knife-edge.
I have read an awful lot of Stephen King novels over the years. I've read his early stuff, I've read his later stuff, I've read the stuff he doesn't even remember writing (in On Writing, he admits that in the 80s he wrote entire novels bombed out of his skull), and I've liked all of it, though some more than others.
A lot of people seem to disdain King for being a popular bestseller whose writing is on a par with Dan Brown or James Patterson or the like. I'm going to say flat out that they're wrong: King is certainly not to everyone's tastes, and his quality has varied wildly over the years (though frankly some of my favorites are the ones he wrote during his coke-fiend days), but he is a great writer. Compare Stephen King to Dan Brown and I will cut you, man.
Which brings me back to Lisey's Story, which is a middlin' fair Stephen King novel, and it would be eligible for literary recognition and awards if it wasn't a Stephen King novel.
Lisey Landon, the protagonist, is the bereaved wife of Scott Landon, who was a Pulitzer Prize-winning Great American novelist. Scott Landon died two years ago, leaving his wife rich but lonely. Through an unfortunate series of events, Lisey becomes the focus of a violent lunatic's obsession. The sort of person Lisey and her husband used to call "Space Cowboys," deranged fans who sometimes showed up at his book signings, "Zack McCool" turns out to be a true psychopath, and a very dangerous one.
When he begins stalking her, Lisey realizes she will need help to stop him. While he was alive, her husband showed her things she would rather have forgotten: dark secrets from his violent, backwoods childhood in which he learned about bools. In order to get rid of McCool, Lisey has to cross over. She has to go back behind the purple and face the Long Boy. Also, she will need a little help from her mentally ill sister.
Lisey's Story has all the usual trademark King elements: idiosyncratic words and phrases that keep resonating with growing significance, troubled, ugly childhoods, loving literary and musical references, complicated main characters with complicated intersections of past and present, extremely colorful minor characters, and of course, a little bit of gruesomeness and a violent climax. But this is as much a romance as a horror story: Lisey loved Scott Landon, and Scott loved Lisey, and in the story of their marriage, you can see that King is also writing a love letter to his own wife, Tabitha.
It's kind of a twisted love letter, but I'm sure Tabitha King is used to that.
I really do believe King's "lowbrow" status is genre snobbery. If he left the ghosts and monsters and psychic powers out of his books, he'd be a mainstream litfic author, and if he was less plotty, he'd be in the company of Salman Rushdie and Haruki Murakami and other authors who dip into fantasy/horror but whose stuff is called "magical realism" and therefore literary. But King loves his blood and guts too much, and if that keeps him from winning Pulitzers, I guess he'll keep crying his way to the bank.
Verdict: Only Stephen King can so shamelessly reuse his ingredients so successfully. There are many Stephen King novels I've liked more than Lisey's Story, and several I've liked less, so it only rates as average for me compared to his other stuff, but it's a fine book, combining themes of madness, creativity, love, loss, and sisterhood.
Also by Stephen King: My review of The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon.