Scribner, 2007, 609 pages
A terrible accident takes Edgar Freemantle's right arm and scrambles his memory and his mind, leaving him with little but rage as he begins the ordeal of rehabilitation. When his marriage suddenly ends, Edgar begins to wish he hadn't survived his injuries. He wants out. His psychologist suggests a new life distant from the Twin Cities, along with something else:
"Edgar, does anything make you happy?"
"I used to sketch."
"Take it up again. You need hedges...hedges against the night."
Edgar leaves for Duma Key, an eerily undeveloped splinter of the Florida coast. The sun setting into the Gulf of Mexico calls out to him, and Edgar draws. Once he meets Elizabeth Eastlake, a sick old woman with roots tangled deep in Duma Key, Edgar begins to paint, sometimes feverishly; many of his paintings have a power that cannot be controlled. When Elizabeth's past unfolds and the ghosts of her childhood begin to appear, the damage of which they are capable is truly devastating.
The tenacity of love, the perils of creativity, the mysteries of memory, and the nature of the supernatural: Stephen King gives us a novel as fascinating as it is gripping and terrifying.
The scariest books Stephen King ever wrote were under the influence of copious amounts of cocaine and hard liquor.
I'm glad he cleaned up, because he probably wouldn't still be alive to write more books. But while I still enjoy his work, there is a certain something missing in everything he's written since he got sober. The visceral, sphincter-clenching horror of It, The Tommyknockers, Cujo, Pet Sematary, the emotional body shots of The Shining, Misery, Firestarter, and The Dead Zone, they are rarely evident in his later work. I used to love King for the raving skullfuckery; he wasn't always in control of where his story went, but damn did it go places. Now he's an aging American Master, still a damn fine writer, but I no longer feel like I'm signing up to get dumped into the creepy-crawly places in the author's brain when I read his books.
Duma Key had flashes of the old King. It's a return to the monster tales he used to write: haunting, supernatural, freaky don't-look-over-your-shoulder monsters, horror invested in mundane objects, terror transmitted by innocuous, out-of-context phrases.
I waited twenty seconds, then thirty. I had just about decided that she'd forgotten to hang up on her end and was reaching to push the STOP button on the answering machine when she spoke again. Just six words, and they made no more sense than the thing about the leaking table, but still they brought gooseflesh out on my arms and turned the hair on the nape of my neck into hackles.
"My father was a skin diver," Elizabeth Eastlake said. Each word was clearly enunciated. Then came the clear click of the phone being hung up.
"No more messages," the phone robot said. "The message tape is full."
In Duma Key, King ventures outside his usual Maine haunts and sends his main character to an island on the Gulf Coast of Florida. Edgar Freemantle is recovering from an accident that damaged his memory and verbal skills and cost him an arm and his marriage. On Duma Key, he learns that the house he has rented is owned by a peculiar old woman, sliding into senility, who actually owns the entire island. He also discovers a talent for painting... and then discovers that he can actually make the things he paints happen.
Of course, a power like that didn't come from a Fairy Godmother. Edgar finds himself facing an ancient evil that is as petty and vengeful as it is powerful. He makes some fast friends on Duma Key who join him in battling the thing.
As in any such King tale, there are scary moments and some sacrifices. King has learned to keep his monsters in the shadows longer, and he takes his time in revealing and then unleashing the horror. This is a book by a writer in control of his story. It loses a little something something for that. The fast friendships Edgar Freemantle made seemed a little too convenient: friends who will walk into hell with you to face a demon don't come easily, but Freemantle and his merry band barely knew each other before the bad juju started happening. And the ending was very derivative of other King novels.
Still, I liked Duma Key. It doesn't rip out your intestines and toss them coiled and steaming on the deck to admire, like his older books, but it still delivers a few gut-punches.
Verdict: Duma Key is almost "King-lite" compared to the monster epics he used to write. It shows all of King's writing talent after he learned to keep his id on a leash. A good story that will still give you a little frisson of fear from the old master, but for real batshit King, you need to read his older stuff.
Also by Stephen King: My reviews of Blaze, The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon, Lisey's Story, Cell, and The Shining.
My complete list of book reviews.