Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Stephen King - Duma Key

When it comes to the past, we all stack the deck.

Stephen King’s Duma Key epitomizes the strengths and weaknesses of later King. On one hand, the characterization maintains that beautifully down to earth grace that King’s made to seem effortless throughout his career. On the other hand, the horror elements are a complete mess; when the book switches over from trying to draw you in to trying to scare you, it messes itself more than a little bit.

Duma Key is the story of Edgar Freemantle, who, crippled in a construction accident, is forced into an early retirement in Florida’s Duma Key. While there, he decides to try his hand at art and discovers that he’s actually quite skilled. This part of the story is vivid and lifelike. Edgar Freemantle is well drawn, both in his hurts and his triumphs. The supporting cast is painted with equal skill, and each character is as fully realized as Edgar, from his ex-wife, Pam Freemantle, to his new friend, Wireman.

This part of the book feels so real that I could conceive of it taking place across the street…or, well, taking place in Florida. A lot of this is due to King’s endless connections to the real world. Other authors may reference popular culture; King pours gallons of it into his books. Characters quote lyrics at each other, discuss politics, name drop famous artists and actors, and mention brand names. It would be easy to say that this kind of thing takes you out of the world of the story, but I think that, if done well, it doesn’t do that at all – it takes the story to your world.

The horror aspect of Duma Key is relatively laid back in the first two thirds of Duma Key, and, when it does surface there, stems entirely from the characters. This is, I think, what King does best. All of his greatest monsters have been so great because of what they represented within the characters. The Shining’s manipulation of Jack wasn’t terrifying because a hedge moved, but because of an, otherwise innocent, alcoholic’s self denial and rage; Pet Semetary wasn’t scary as a zombie story, but was horrifying because of what it said about a father’s love.

In line with those, Duma Key’s great terror is a – literal – projection of the character’s inner being into the outside world. As the Overlook Hotel offered a way for Jack Torrance to shift all blame away from himself in the Shining, Edgar Freemantle’s art in Duma Key allows him to escape his crippled body for a time and to make his mark on the people and places once dominated. The concept of an artist whose paintings control the world around him isn’t a new one by any stretch of imagination, but the subtlety and gravitas of King’s handling of it, for the first part of the book, lends the trope a new mystique.

Even more important than the supernatural, the mundane miseries of human existence decide the course of Duma Key’s beginning and middle. The realities of dealing with so tragic an event are depicted well, and there are absolutely no easy decisions in this messy reality. Reflecting on the marvels brought about by Edgar’s new abilities, Wireman asks him:

“Tell me something, muchacho. Looking at this…and thinking of all the other ones you’ve done since you started…would you change the accident that took your arm? Would you change it, even if you could?”

I thought of painting in Big Pink while the Bone pumped out hardcore rock and roll in thick chunks. I thought of the Great Beach Walks. I even thought of the older Baumgarten kid yelling Yo, Mr. Freemantle, nice chuck! when I spun the Frisbee back to him. Then I thought of waking up in that hospital bed, how dreadfully hot I had been, how scattered my thoughts had been, how sometimes I couldn’t even remember my own name. The anger. The dawning realization (it came during The Jerry Springer Show), that part of my body was AWOL. I had started crying and had been unable to stop.

“I would change it back,” I said, “in a heartbeat.”

No matter what world changing powers they’ve been given, Kings characters are, above all, human. There are no right and wrong choices here, per say, and the slow developing of relationships and lives is heartbreaking to watch. This book crosses over a rare divide, the one where the reader goes from watching a character live their life to living that character’s life right alongside them. It’s not a fun experience, no, nor an easy one, but it’s a magical one all the same.

It’s good this section of set up is written so brilliantly, because it goes on for far longer than I would normally be able to stand. Duma Key is six hundred pages, hardback, and there’s precious little that occurs in the first two thirds that I didn’t just mention. This book is a slow burn, but it’s one of the rare cases where turning up the heat even incrementally would ruin the dish. It’s the kind of novel where you almost dread something happening, because when it does, you know that, good or bad, nothing will be the same as it was ever again.

And it’s not, and it’s not better, either. When something finally does happen, it’s akin to a sledgehammer smashing a beautiful stained glass window into pieces. The climax of Duma Key begins on page four hundred-or-so, and it is one of the rare few endings that not only fails to do justice to the story, but actually manages to demean everything that came before. The solutions to book long mysteries turn out to be superficial; the action is unsuspenseful and protracted; and the reverential regard to Edgar’s abilities, maintained for four hundred pages, is cast to the wind, as his powers become akin to the Force on a particularly uninteresting day.

Most damning of all is the abandonment of what made the beginning of the novel good. In the conclusion, the jagged interplay of characters turns into a Hollywood ending, complete with big explosions and car chases. Or, if not quite that, animated objects and inimical lawn ornaments. King manages to take one of my favorite characters, and kill him/her without me feeling the slightest sorrow. Looking back, it’s hard to even see how he managed it. This was a character that I was invested with to the degree that, if he’d just said, *** tripped and broke his/her head on their way to the bathroom, I would probably have been crushed. Yet, by the time the death actually comes, it’s foreshadowed so heavily, and for so long, that my only real reaction was finally.

The first two thirds of Duma Key are among the best pages that Stephen King has ever written. As I was reading them, I was mentally listing Duma Key alongside great works like The Shining and It. And then, I read the ending and was forced to watch as everything I loved about the book was ravished and discarded. I don’t know whether I should recommend this book or not. It’s not the worst thing that King’s written, Everything’s Eventual takes that dubious honor with ease, but it disappointed me more than anything else he’s done. In the end, I think my recommendation goes like this: Buy the book, read the first portion. Then, as the art story climaxes (and you’ll know when it does), go get a black sharpie and write THEN THEY ALL DIED over the remaining pages. Trust me, the ending will be better that way.

Adam Roberts has done an interesting review of this over at Strange Horizons.


  1. I'm glad to hear that it might be good. I've sort of shied away from post-Dreamcatcher King (aside from The Dark Tower books), after getting burned on both Cell and Lisey's Story, but I'll give it a chance.

  2. I know what you mean with later King. I didn't experience it with Cell (it was my first King book, and I was around ten, so it blew my mind then, no matter how subpar it actually was), and I haven't read Lisey's Story, but it's grown depressingly obvious, for the most part. I'm almost debating just enjoying his back catalog and tuning out any new releases.

  3. "Do the day and let the day do you" A terrific example of Stephen King novel but another example from It to Blackhouse, Insomnia (excluding the terrific ending of the Tommyknockers) where Mr. Kings climax have all the excitement of a geriatric couple.