Stephen King has been getting mixed reviews for his recent fiction: King fundamentalists have praised his recent novels regardless of quality, as might be expected, whilst more disinterested critics have been, broadly, dispraising. Lisey's Story received negative reviews from many outlets, including Laura Miller at Salon, Adam Mars Jones in the Observer, and Farah Mendlesohn here at Strange Horizons; the reviews for Cell were at best hit-and-miss; and, actually, peering down King's vertigo-inducing back catalogue, it's starting to look like a long time since he wrote an undeniably popular classic. The Dark Tower sequence banged its barnacle-encrusted prow into the reef of "The Reader No Longer Cares" at about vol 4; Everything's Eventual and Hearts in Atlantis have had little impact. It may be that we need to go back to Insomnia (1994), or perhaps Doris Claiborne (1992), to find a novel that really worked the full, penetrating King magic. King is rarely actively dull, of course, but it's always possible that, like Heinlein (a writer he resembles in several ways) his late period will track a descent into narrative senility. This danger makes the pleasure of Duma Key double, partly inherent in the novel itself, which is a splendid return to form, and partly in our relief that King's career isn't over yet. This novel reads like classic King; and his one-armed naïf-painter protagonist Freemantle whose phantom limb is more phantom than most, is a compelling and memorable creation.
My review copy of King's new book happened to arrive whilst I was in the middle of reading my six-year-old, as her bedtime story, Catherine Storr's peerless Marianne Dreams (1958). In that story (don't know it? But you must read it! It's a true classic of 20th century children's literature) a young girl, ill and confined to bed for several months, discovers that when she draws pictures with a certain pencil the things her pictures come vividly alive in her dreams. She draws a house and in her dreams she visits it; she draws a boy and he is in the house—a polio-sufferer who also, it seems, lives in Marianne's waking neighborhood. In a fit of childish pique she draws one-eyed menhirs watching the house, and they become nightmarishly real. She draws a lighthouse, and the children are able to escape to it.
In its own more corpulent (or, if you prefer, more muscular) way Duma Key is a 600-page reworking of Storr's novel. Edgar Freemantle, a self-made businessman and multi-millionaire, gets crushed in his car by a rogue crane. He suffers brain damage and loses an arm. The novel is set during the period of his recovery, mostly in the isolated Florida location of the title, a recovery that involves exercising his battered body, and getting used to phantom limb syndrome, but also coming to terms with his mental impairments. These latter (nominal aphasia and mood changes), and Edgar's severe rages in particular, compel his wife to leave him. He can't bring words to mind, or says the wrong words, and struggles furiously with his own incapacities of speech. King is superb on the contorpulations of rage as a feature of our emotional landscape—the earlier sections in particular, where Freemantle has the greatest difficulty controlling his rage.
To deal with his anger, and to give himself something to do rather than commit suicide, he follows his therapist's advice and starts painting, discovering a talent for the visual arts that goes beyond the ability to make pretty images. A supernatural ability, amplified by his spookily deserted location, means that his images begin to affect reality; predicting or even generating events in the real world, especially sinister and death-related events. He rents his beachside house from an elderly woman called Elizabeth; and it turns out that she also suffers from mental impairment—Alzheimer's—and also has supernatural artistic abilities. There are mysteries in Elizabeth's past that the narrative eventually brings to light; various spooky and apparently inexplicable things happen, Freemantle's stump itching, usefully, as an indicator that the uncanny is present, and a ghostly version of an arm sometimes snapping into place onto the joint.
There are some very clever touches, too (and I especially like clever). So, for example, King neatly figures the tropes of dismemberment, of Freemantle's severed arm and lopped-off mind, into the textual fabric of the novel itself. He returns in various ways to truncated words—the way a child will say "irds, irds" instead of birds (p. 32), or a ventriloquist, will say "hello oys" instead of "hello boys" (p. 505), for instance. The book is a memoir that elaborates the thesis that "art is memory. There's no simpler way to say it" (p. 367), and so it actualizes in itself text with incomplete narration and unreliable memories. As the narrator says at one point: "do you know what's queer? Remembering forgetting. It's like looking into a hall of mirrors" (p. 327). Something happens (that's an awkward way to avoid spoilers, I know, but there you go) to Freemantle's family that gives the novel's ending a deliberate and emotionally amputated feel. It is a narrative disposed into four acts, even though characters within it insist there are "five acts in American lives … same as every Shakespearian play" (p. 575). The novel begins slowly (though grippingly) and ends quickly, something I take to be a deliberate device on King's part.
But most of all this is a novel that builds very compellingly indeed; not rushed, but intensely readable, accumulating by its end a very considerable momentum. It's a book that denies you the option of putting it down, which, as we all know, is King's great skill. I'm often struck, reading King as a writer myself, by just how very technically proficient he is at the business of putting novels together. He's celebrated for his stories, of course, and with some justice, for he's a perfectly capable plotter, and his characters are always more-than-pasteboard; but this is not where is true genius is. Nor is it to be found in his prose as such, which is serviceable but by no means remarkable; nor even, I think, in his premises, which ring the changes on a fairly standard set of neo-Gothic concepts.
King's real genius is pacing. That might look like a small point of praise, but it really isn't. If you're a writer you'll know (and if you're not, take it from me) that pacing a story properly is a ferociously difficult business. This is because writing a novel is a much slower process than reading a novel; and because different readers read novels at difference paces. A novel needs to be ratcheted to the reader, not the writer's, apprehension. What's needful is a sort of 52:1 metaphorical gearing to adjust the pace of a year-long writing process to a week-long reading experience. But it doesn't work that way, because some people will read a novel in an afternoon and others in a month; and because a year's writing a novel involves a complex patchwork of sessions when the writing flows and sessions when it stagnates, passages that are ready after two revisions and passages that take a hundred.
What King does better than almost any writer I know is structure his story to move with a Chaplinesque grace and timing, so that it hits all the right beats for the reader at the right moments. It's this, as much as the mood he generates, that makes the experience of reading him so engrossing. All the beats are there in Duma Key, and the pages fly by under your fingers. Indeed, the novel's biggest weakness—its denouement—suffers in part because the tension has been so effectively built. Because we care so much about the characters and are so curious about the mysteries, the payoff is almost bound to be anticlimactic.
Certainly I'd say King's instincts do go a little awry at the book's ending. The supernatural props that he works, often cannily, into his narrative work better when they're understated—tennis balls, a biscuit tin, a child's rag doll—and work less well when they seem to have wandered over from a film lot, even, or perhaps especially, from a film lot where they're reshooting a number of classic King novels. So there's a deal of business with spectral twin girls which mostly serves to remind us that The Shining's twin girls were scarier; and when some ocean-going marauders wade ashore the whiff of Pirates of the Caribbean distracts us. Other spooky-ish things—there are frogs ("a line of five frogs the size of Cocker Spaniel puppies", p. 481) and there's a china figure that bites Freemantle ("the china doll in my pocket came to life," p. 552)—simply struck the wrong note for me. Perhaps that's a personal thing.
But it brings me back to Storr's book, and to the remarkable fact that with nothing more than a child's pencil drawing of Cyclops-eyed standing stones and the phrase "not the light!" she managed to send far profounder chills up my spine than all of King's bells and whistles, howsoever brilliantly he tinkles the bells and toots the whistles. In turn this got me pondering King's enduring appeal. He is of course famous for his ability to scare his readers. To a large extent this is a question of the willing suspension of our skepticism. We want to be scared; that's why we're reading. It's not unlike the notion, around which the TV quiz show The Weakest Link is structured, that Anne Robinson is scary. But of course she's not; but we play along with the fiction that she is because it's more fun. There's a whiff of this with King, and perhaps it undermines his conclusion.
Storr's novel, because it is for children and about a child, connects with our experience of childhood, when scary means Scary. King's books are more often than not about adulthood, when scary means (actually) "how will I make the mortgage payment this month?" or "what's this growth in my colon?" There are significant questions, but they are simply not as visceral as the terrors children experience in bed at night contemplating the shadow in the corner of the room. Our readerly willing suspension does carry us through this book, I think; although it is edged about with the temptation to say "pull the other one, phantom limbs are actually symptoms of neurological distress, and have nothing to do with phantoms in the sense of ghosts," or "it's a pretty foolish mistake to confuse representations of the world, like pictures, with the world itself." We tend not to do this, because it would spoil the fun. But when we read a book like Marianne Dreams we tend not to do this because the child inside us understands that the world is indeed fraught with real, terrifying and incomprehensible threats. King's book is good; it's just not, quite, that good.