Earlier in his career, Stephen King famously joked he was the literary equivalent of a Big Mac and fries. The idea being that he was none too precious about his work, which was regularly produced in value-sized editions and was of a consistent and satisfying quality. That was then. At various stages since, the horror author began side-stepping away from the homicidal St. Bernards and paranormal Plymouths upon which he’d built that early reputation and started getting more ... lit’ry. Stories began appearing in which not a single supernatural thing occurred, his books included quotes from the likes of Salman Rushdie, and King even wrote the occasional piece for The New Yorker and the New York Review of Books. While still cranking out the boogeyman tales, King also branched out into fantasy and hard-boiled crime fiction, and published a scrupulously honest autobiographical guide to the writing life. He started receiving awards and more glowing praise from hard-to-please critics, and came to be seen, in his omnivorous delight in all manifestations of literature, as one of the preeminent public faces of American letters.
None of this came easy: there was always a schizophrenia inside King about how populist he should be. From The Dark Half to Misery and multiple other creations, King utilized authorial protagonists caught in a tug of war between their desire to write serious fiction and the need to please their fans. King has usually gotten around this problem by writing mostly in the latter category while occasionally shifting over to the former. Earlier this year, he made a solid entry in the populist category with Cell, a zombie bloodfest and modern technology satirical mashup ala George Romero, which seemed so off-the-cuff that it could signal nothing but a Big Serious Book around the corner. Fortunately, King’s newest novel, Lisey’s Story is neither too studied or too frivolous; in its weaving together of well-etched character study and phantasmagorical fantasy, the book is an unusually careful creation from an author who has too often let himself run on automatic.
Instead of King’s disgruntled writer as hero, the book is told from the perspective of a dead writer’s widow. Lisey Debusher Landon is an average Maine woman who landed herself an honest-to-God famous author as husband in Scott Landon. He’s “the Pulitzer Prize winner, the enfant terrible who published his first novel at the age of 22”, and who inspired packs of self-proclaimed literary experts to come sniffing around his estate in the wake of his death. They come looking for unseen papers, letters which could provide valuable clues for career-making dissertations, and they don’t believe for a second that Lisey is doing anything but keeping these materials from them. It’s a nonstop flood at times, these “pagan worshippers of original texts and unpublished manuscripts” bothering her for clues to their literary puzzles while she’s still trying to figure out, two years after Scott’s death, how to live in a world without him. One of the manuscript-hunters turns the corner to full-on psychotic stalker, but that’s the least of Lisey’s worries.
For Scott, the great writer, had a secret that only Lisey knew about. Writers often talk about the place where they go to get their ideas, a metaphorical wellspring of inspiration; but Scott’s was real. It exists in a sort of twilight half-world, where the sun is always setting in a blood-red sky, mad creatures called the laughers lurk in darkling woods, and Scott knows something waits, “that lord of sleepless nights, [which] will turn its unspeakable hungry head.” This all wouldn’t be a problem if Scott’s secret—one that points to an horrific family past and inner demons of unquenched fury—had died with him, but it hasn’t, and now Lisey has to journey there and complete some unfinished business.
If it were a question of building nightmare worlds and dark hauntings of the soul, then Lisey’s Story wouldn’t be quite so remarkable as it is. What King does that is so exceptional here is to get out of his comfort zone and dig deep into the skin of his main character until he’s conjured up on the page a living, breathing human such as is rarely found in his pulpier creations. Lisey’s narrative is an all-too-recognizable inner loop of private jokes and obsessive memories that moves the book forward only in fits and starts. She doesn’t just mourn Scott, she repeatedly conjures him without even trying, using all his dumb slang and repeating his awful jokes for no reason other than that, after a quarter-century of connected lives, his ghost is imbedded so deep within her that she couldn’t exorcise him with a priest and a gallon of holy water. He’s there to stay, as is the sadness of his being gone, and it’s that inescapable reality that proves particularly terrifying here.
In Lisey’s Story, King finally gets past the preoccupations of his previous books and gets down to exploring true grief:
The kind of hope-ending thing cancer patients glimpse in their bleary bedside waterglasses when all the medicine is taken and the morphine pump reads 0 and the hour is none and the pain is still in there, eating its steady way into your wakeful bones.
This is the sort of thing that would be unendurable were it not for heroic Lisey. With her stolid, quietly sarcastic and salt-of-the-earth manner, Lisey is the sort of woman who keeps civilizations running, and exactly the one you would turn to when all else is lost. She’s easy to over-praise, as is this novel. Both deserve it.
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