Monday, 31 March 2008

REVIEW: Duma Key by Stephen King

This review was published in The Star on 23 March 2008.

Everyone’s favourite horror writer is on the road to a return to form.

DUMA KEY

By Stephen King
Publisher: Scribner, 612 pages
ISBN: 978-1416552512

HORROR meister Stephen King is now in what could be called his “post accident” era. Since his near-fatal accident with a truck in 1999, he has divided his fans, and had critics sitting on opposite sides of the spectrum. Either they completely deride his recent work, or applaud thunderously.

The novel he released in 2006, Lisey’s Story (pronounced “lee-see”), seemed to be King’s attempt to break into the literary crowd, and it seems he’s proud of the book – his fans, though, were not so approving.

Perhaps King sensed their disappointment, because he dusted off a story he originally wrote in 1973, polished it up, and released it into the wild last year under the name of his previously declared “deceased” pseudonym of Richard Bachman.

This novel is Blaze, and its release placated King’s fans somewhat. The novel took readers back to an era when King was still raw, on the cusp of reaching the peak of his writing faculties.

His latest novel, Duma Key, written “post accident” and published this year, might not win back his fans’ hearts completely, but it could be taken as a sign that King is on the way to returning to form.

The novel begins by introducing us to Edgar Freemantle, a successful contractor who is recovering from a near-fatal accident.

A crane had backed into his truck while he was on a construction site, and, as a result, he lost his right arm and suffered brain damage that has left him unable to form proper sentences.

Although the damage is not permanent, it’s frustrating enough in the short term that Edgar lashes out at his wife, which soon drives her to ask for a divorce.

At the end of his rope, Edgar decides to take the advice his psychologist gave him to try a “geographic cure”, that is, to start life anew and away from his life as a contractor in Minnesota.

Seeing a lovely beach house in a brochure, he falls in love with it and arranges to lease it for a year.

The house is set on Duma Key, which is off the west coast of Florida, and when he sees it for the first time in real life, he fondly dubs it Big Pink.

Duma Key proves to be a beautiful and exotic place, lush with undeveloped land, and since this is Stephen King, it soon works its magic on the newly arrived, still hurting Edgar Freemantle.

The first amazing thing he discovers at Duma Key is a totally unexpected talent for painting.

Starting with simple sketches, he soon graduates to watercolours, and then to oils. His inspiration seems to be the view of the sea from his room – but sinister events soon suggest something else.

The second amazing thing Edgar discovers at Duma Key is that these strange paintings of his seem to predict the future – and, usually, not a bright future.

Edgar also discovers his neighbours, Elizabeth Eastlake, an elderly lady who has deep ties to Duma Key’s history and who is also Edgar’s landlady; and her caretaker, the erstwhile lawyer, Wireman, with whom Edgar quickly becomes fast friends.

Like Edgar, these two people also seem to possess their own strange secrets. However, since Elizabeth is very old and suffering from Alzheimer’s, it will take Edgar quite some time to unlock her secrets, which ultimately are intertwined with Duma Key itself.

What follows is a story that isn’t just about the strange and mysterious, it is about how people deal with life-changing events, how they manage with the second chances they’ve been given, and its consequences.

This is, of course, clearly linked to King’s own encounter with death: he and Edgar were both given second chances after near fatal accidents involving pickup trucks.

This personal connection, combined with the brilliant characterisation and the intriguing way the story unfolds, may very well make Duma Key the best so far of King’s post accident novels.

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