In my circles, which are mostly academic, it’s not exactly a badge of honor to say you’re a fan of Stephen King. I don’t hide it, though. I’ve been reading his novels for 19 years now, which doesn’t exactly make me his oldest fan – he published his first novel the year I was born – but gives me some credibility where he’s concerned. Some of what he’s written is only mediocre, and some of it is unreadable schlock. That’s to be expected in a long career. Even Dickens didn’t hit them all out of the park. But some of his books are terrific: he has an ear for dialogue, a sense of humor, and most of all a feel for what real people will do in frightening situations. His best books are not really about ghosts and vampires and reanimation, they’re about grief and writer’s block and alcoholism.
Duma Key, though it is not one of King’s best books, falls into this category. The narrator, like so many of his heroes, is an artist (though not an author this time.) Ed Freemantle has lost his right arm in a terrible accident, his wife has divorced him, and he has retreated to Florida to try to heal. While he’s there, he begins to paint. Even though he hasn’t painted for many years, the art begins to flow from his brush with urgency, beauty, and talent (though with barely restrained horror, as well), and soon Ed is dealing with unpleasant forces he didn’t count on when he headed for the sun and sand of the Gulf.
It would be easy to point to King’s own life for sources of inspiration here, since he was in a terrible accident himself, and has a home in Florida. Go a little deeper: King is talking about the nature of inspiration, the way creation comes from places you don’t expect and can’t predict or control. The creative process can be good or evil, can heal or harm, can sate hunger or create it. This is the most interesting part of the book, by far, although the descriptions of paintings are a bit flat. This kind of thing was much better done in, say, Cat’s Eye, by Margaret Atwood, when she goes from the protagonist’s childhood to her adulthood as an artist. That way, every detail of the described paintings was meaningful to the reader. In Duma Key, it’s the other way around: the paintings are prophetic, so they are meaningless when painted and take on meaning later in the book, when it’s too late to be really interested. King does better when his narrators are authors, and he can write chunks of their fiction. That’s always fun. In any case, this portion of the book, exploring the truth and danger of creation, was interesting, and the characters engaging.
Then King started phoning it in. (Or was that Cell? Ha.)
The last part of the book, when Ed Freemantle has to deal with the rather nasty goddess, or whoever she is, who has been guiding his paintbrush, conveys almost no sense of fear or danger at all. There are one or two frightening moments (two little drowned girls pay a visit) that are borrowed from some of his other books. The rest is frankly a bit silly. I never got the sense that the main characters were in any real danger, even at the climax. The one person who dies isn’t a surprise. I found myself imagining ways he could have done it better, and at 600 pages, that’s not good. King has been accused of running at the mouth before, and I’ve defended him: he writes long novels, that’s just what he does. But this one should have been trimmer, and it should have gotten closer to the jugular. He’s repeating tropes. I’d like to see him follow some of his ideas from this book to their logical conclusion. I’d like to see an unhappy ending (though he has only written one, or perhaps two, to my memory; he’s a good-guys-win kind of an author.) I’d like to see him experiment more.
Duma Key had its moments, and it’s a fast read, so I won’t say it wasn’t worth reading. But he’s done better. Try It, if you want his full style (now that is a scary book), or Desperation, if you want fear in a handful of dust.