You can’t write as many books as Stephen King without returning to the same well from time to time. Whether it’s evil cars (Christine, 1983; From a Buick 8, 2002), life after death (Pet Sematary, 1983; Revival, 2014), an image of a rat in someone’s mouth cut from ‘Salem’s Lot showing up 36 years later in a story from Full Dark, No Stars (“1923”), or an abandoned manuscript from 1981 (The Cannibals) getting repurposed as Under the Dome in 2009, King believes in recycling. But it still delivers a shiver of deja vu to read Duma Key (2008) which could basically share jacket copy with Bag of Bones (1998):
“After suffering a life-altering trauma, an artist goes to a vacation destination to heal. There he befriends locals, becomes embroiled in an old mystery involving drowning deaths and a wealthy family, and his unblocked talent connects him to the supernatural.”
The big difference between the two books is that after writing Lisey’s Story, King’s wife said, “Are you ever going to write about anything besides writers?”—so in Duma Key his blocked artist is a painter. Otherwise, throw in the fact that these are both written in the first person (only five other books by King share that POV) and you could be forgiven for thinking he’s treading water. But while Bag of Bones is perfectly okay King, Duma Key is one of his best books.
After the Maine ice storm of 1998, King and his wife, Tabitha, began wintering in Florida, and in 2001 they finally bought a house in Sarasota for $8.9 million. Previously, “we never really came to terms with the idea that we were rich,” he said. Since then, Florida’s been the setting for numerous short stories, mostly found in Just After Sunset, and for Duma Key, his first and, to date, only novel set in the Sunshine State. It was while walking around his new neighborhood in 2001 that King passed a “Caution: Children” sign on a block of empty luxury homes and was struck by the image of two dead little girls following him and holding hands.
Started about six months after finishing Lisey’s Story, the novel took King 16 months to finish, although he read the first chapter just six weeks after beginning work on his book, in February, 2006, at Florida State University, and it was published as the short story “Memory” in Tin House #28 in July of that year. The name “Memory” was no mistake. King was fascinated by what he could and couldn’t remember from his accident back in 1999. His obsession with memory and the use of the first person POV leads to a bravura first chapter setpiece when his main character, contractor Edgar Freemantle, gives us a second by second account of his car being crushed by a crane. It’s as gruesome, horrific, and panic-inducing a passage as he’s ever written. Freemantle loses his right arm, and receives a closed skull injury that gives him aphasia and curses him with flashes of uncontrollable rage.
The rage is taken from his friend, Frank Muller, whose motorcycle accident left him with permanent brain damage (King says, “…one of the things about Frank is that you have to be careful around him now because he goes into rages”), and although Freemantle’s injuries are worse than the ones King sustained, as he says in the same interview, “I know enough about pain to wanna write a little bit about that, to wanna write about getting better.” And Duma Key is full of pain. The descriptions of body failure feel so drawn from actual experience that they induce on-the-body sensations of sickness, discomfort, amputation, and agony that feel acute enough to make you want to take an aspirin after reading.
Freemantle is another of King’s characters who receives psychic abilities after a trauma (see: The Dead Zone). In this case, after he loses his arm and his wife (thanks to the aforementioned fits of rage), he moves to an isolated house known as Big Pink down on Florida’s remote and fictitious Duma Key and becomes a painter. Freemantle painted some earlier in his life, but now he’s doing it to figure out some way forward after cashing out of his company and getting kicked out of his house. His paintings turn out to be electrifyingly good. They’re corny landscapes and sunsets or typical Florida still lives of seashells, but each one contains some bizarre, surreal detail that sets the whole thing off kilter and makes it come alive. They also seem to be hinting at things Freemantle can’t possible know, bringing him glimpses of the future and hinting at objects and incidents connected to the life of Elizabeth Eastlake, the other year-round occupant of Duma Key. Eastlake lives in a gargantuan mansion on her family’s old estate down at the other end of the beach. Alzheimer’s has left her both with good days when she’s lucid, and with bad when she’s barely aware of her surroundings, so she lives with a caretaker, the middle-aged hippy, Jerome Wireman. It takes the book a while to get going (until around about page 272, when a child abduction takes place, based on a real one that occurred in Florida while King was writing his book) but it’s never boring thanks to the quality of writing King brings to the table.
King insists on moving at his pace, not ours, and that can be frustrating to some readers. But you have to let his books unfold at their own speed to get the most out of them, and Duma Key makes it easy to surrender thanks to King’s style. Lisey’s Story used an arsenal of made-up words to convey the intimacy of a marriage, but it really over-egged the pudding, spraying annoying baby talk like “smucking” and “badgunky” all over its pages. At one point in Duma Key, Freemantle is trying to get through to his (understandably) angry wife and out of the blue he calls her “Panda” and it breaks her. It’s a name he hasn’t used in years, the reader certainly hasn’t heard it in the book so far, but the way it pops up with no fanfare is simple and effective. In one sentence, King does better and more effectively what took him an entire book with Lisey’s Story. Freemantle’s injuries cause him to lose words when he’s scared or stressed and King does it subtly throughout, letting the stylistic tic alert us to changes in Freemantle’s emotional temperature. It’s a neat trick that doesn’t call attention to itself, and sometimes even slips by unnoticed, but it puts the reader inside Freemantle’s head. Sometimes he doesn’t notice he’s done it either. It causes you to make sudden, alarmed little pauses, unsure of what exactly you’re reading.
King has always loved foreshadowing in his books, and he uses it more in this book than in most, possibly worried that the massive length (611 pages) might discourage some readers, so he’s constantly prodding them along, but it’s often executed in an elegant, off-handed manner that elicits real chills of concern for the fate of a favorite character. King dishes out the suspense and after all these years it’s easy to forget how good he is at this. There’s a moment when Freemantle is trying to remember a phone number that’s as tense as anything Hitchcock ever did. And when he brings one character to a particularly nasty end, you don’t realize until it’s over that he’s laid his trap dozens of pages before, then gotten you to lower your guard via expert misdirection. By the time the door swings closed, you’ve walked into the trap way too deep to do anything but take a gobsmacked pause and then applaud a job well done.
On the down side, when Freemantle meets Wireman for the first time (a long setpiece about walking up the beach that unfolds over a series of days) he trips and the two of them laugh so hard. It immediately breaks the ice and puts them on a more intimate footing, and it’s only when you realize how often King uses this device that it seems cheap. In It, Cell, 11/22/63 and numerous other books, King uses characters bursting into helpless laughter soon after they meet as a cheap shorthand to signify bonding. It’s a quick, easy, non-sexual way to forge intimacy and once you notice it you bristle as a reader when the King universe seems to suddenly lapse into a world of half-wits falling all over themselves busting a gut, helpless with laughter, unable to breathe, often taking a pause, exchanging meaningful eye contact, then bursting out with the giggles all over again.
Memory hovers over this book, especially since King has stated repeatedly in interviews that the one thing he truly fears is Alzheimer’s. Here, Elizabeth Eastlake’s condition feels hideous, even dangerous, as she drowns in her own failing mind, trying to shout out clues from the past to stop history from repeating itself. As King said in an interview, “About three years after the road accident I had pneumonia. This was around the time of the National Book Award and I had an intestinal bug that was a hospital germ that I picked up and when I was done with all that it was like my memory kinda took a hit, it was hard to remember things and that was really scary and I wanted to write about that.” To do that, he’s delivered a book where rotting ghosts and shameful secrets crawl out of history to punish the living for forgotten sins. King deals familiar items and situations from his own books — a female demon right out of Rose Madder, a 13-page sequence of guys engaging in speculative exposition lifted from ‘Salem’s Lot, an evil reanimated dead child cut and pasted from Pet Sematary, a childhood talent used to fight evil like Richie’s voices in It, a residence that summons the psychically sensitive like the Overlook Hotel in The Shining, a dangerous disused well from Dolores Claiborne — but the iconic quality of them coupled with the fact that the book itself is about memory gives them the totemic quality of Tarot cards, rather than feeling like a cheat.
King is getting older — he turned 66 while writing this book. A lot of writers at his level write young, keeping their main characters in their thirties or forties. Dan Brown’s Robert Langdon is always in his mid-thirties, and Lee Child’s Jack Reacher will forever be in his forties, I suspect. Editors also pressure their writers to make their main characters younger to increase reader identification. Add to that the cult of youth currently infecting American culture, and it seems bizarre that Freemantle and Wireman are both in their mid-fifties. King is unique among popular fiction writers in that his characters age with him. As King gets older and his body fails or gets injured, his characters age and undergo trauma. And because of that, it keeps his books honest, makes them feel lived, makes them feel alive. After so many years of doing this job, King’s still not phoning it in. He’s still opening up his chest and dipping his pen into his own memories, his own pain, his own bright red ink, the kind that leaves a mark on the page that feels so vivid and sharp, so real. So alive.
Grady Hendrix has written for publications ranging from Playboy to World Literature Today; his previous novel was Horrorstör, about a haunted IKEA, and his latest novel, My Best Friend’s Exorcism, is basically Beaches meets The Exorcist.