Duma Key, Stephen King’s terrific new novel, constitutes a return to form for a beloved pop novelist who has seemed, for many years now, to be running out of steam. His recent output, though scarcely less protean than before he announced retirement in 2002, has been spotty at best. This could most readily be ascribed to the 1999 accident, in which he nearly died after being run down by a van near his home in Maine, but might as easily be seen as the result of a continual conflict between his very great literary gifts and a steadfast allegiance to the pulp fiction that formed his sensibility as a boy.
For after garnering serious critical attention in the 1990s for psychological suspense novels like Dolores Claiborne and Gerald’s Game, which seemed to be moving toward a mature and happy marriage of entertainment and literature, he returned, perhaps spooked by the attention, to the familiar comforts of the kind of horror novel that first made his name in the 1970s. Bag of Bones (1998), a big sloppy mess of a ghost story, in particular appeared a willful repudiation of the impulse toward more refined work.
These are, of course, the musings of a reviewer who knows King through only a selective reading of his vast body of work, and may well be off the mark. But when King became a columnist for Entertainment Weekly in 2003, writing off-the-cuff reactions to popular culture, it was impossible not to take it as the effort to remain in the public eye by a novelist, his creative spark ebbing, whose best stuff lay behind him.
Perhaps Duma Key‘s setting—it is King’s first Florida novel—accounts for its fresh vigor and supreme craftsmanship, or perhaps it is the courage with which he confronts the aftereffects of a horrible accident on his hero, Edgar Freemantle, a Minnesota building contractor. No matter. It’s first-rate entertainment and, the lurid cover notwithstanding, a novel the most effete reader can take up without embarrassment.
After nearly dying in a work-site mishap that takes his right arm and leaves him brain-damaged and enraged, Freemantle seeks, on the advice of his therapist, a “geographic cure” by moving to a barrier island off the southwest coast of Florida. His wife, Pam, frightened by his anger and exhausted by his arduous physical rehabilitation, has left him, and his two grown daughters, one estranged, the other close, are worried about his welfare.
On Duma Key Freemantle, always a doodler, takes up drawing, and then painting, discovering a hitherto unsuspected natural talent that astonishes him and everyone to whom he tentatively shows his pictures. He is befriended by his only neighbors, a wealthy elderly woman, Elizabeth, and her caretaker, Wireman, a former lawyer whose suicide attempt left him blind in one eye and able to read for only five minutes at a stretch. Freemantle slowly regains his health and equilibrium, painting daily in an odd trance, and soon makes other friends, whose kindly regard draws him out of his self-imposed isolation.
But Freemantle comes to suspect a supernatural aspect to his sudden artistic gifts—his paintings have the power to alter things in the real world. As King expertly peels back layers of suspense and back story, Edgar realizes he has been drawn to Duma Key, which seems to want desperately wounded people for its own occult purposes. The island, no surprise, is haunted—by ghosts, memories, and an elemental evil of immense power and malice. Freemantle, whose destiny becomes entwined with the traumas of Elizabeth’s long-forgotten childhood, must confront his own fears and disabilities to forestall further harm to friends, loved ones, and, in the end, the world.
At 611 pages, Duma Key is a hefty tome, but it reads, in the best possible way, like a much shorter book. Like J.K. Rowling, King is no prose stylist, but then, style is only one arrow in a writer’s quiver, and his gift for character, suspense and theme—and that irresistible narrative voice—are more than enough. He takes his time—the early passages deal entirely with Freemantle’s accident, recovery and family difficulties—but at no point does the narrative seem pokey or padded.
King is at the height of his powers with Duma Key, allowing him to exploit such themes as family conflict, the mixed blessing of artistic talent, the nature of masculine friendship and loyalty, and the possibility of redemption for even those most broken in body and spirit. He displays an impressive sympathetic understanding of childhood, and his depiction of the relationship between a father and his daughters is no less sound.
That all this comes in a rousing re-invention of the ghost story diminishes King’s achievement not a bit.