Edgar Freemantle is a wounded man, both physically and emotionally. A horrific jobsite accident has left him one armed, with a busted hip and a busted memory. The complications of life following the accident and his long, difficult recovery causes the disintegration of his marriage and after the divorce, he rents a house on Duma Key in Florida to recover and to see if he wants to continue living. Here he meets his landlady, Elizabeth Eastlake, who’s descending into the dark mists of Alzheimers and Jerome Wireman, her factotum, caretaker and friend. On Duma, Edgar begins to draw, then paint and he's good. Really good. So good that he paints the truth, even when his paintings are surreal, which most of them are. The more he paints, the better he gets and the better he gets, the weirder things get. I'm not going to ruin the plot in any way, because just like with sex, if you know too much about what's going to happen, it isn't as much fun.
King's later books - Bag of Bones, Lisey's Story and now Duma Key - are the books I call "adult horror". There is nothing wrong with classic King or with his recent more straightforward horror (like Cell) - they're well written, scare the bejeesus out of you and are a thoroughly enjoyable read. However, these three books are something different. They are about something more, explore grown-up issues, don't get to the horror aspect until the third act or so and are closer to what I would call literature. I'll admit to not being able to remember much of Bag of Bones right now, although I plan to reread it sometime this year, but both Lisey’s Story and Duma Key delve into very deep things. King has called Lisey’s Story his book of a marriage and this new one his book of a divorce and that is true. They are also musings on pain, grief, being wounded and living wounded, on recovery and how you get there - inspired, I expect, from the aftermath of his own horrific accident. It resonates deeply with my own experience and there’ve been moments where I think I've learned something about living with pain from his writing.
What is also true is that both books have another theme - creativity. Where does it come from, how does it drive you and then they dip into that place where sometimes, rarely, when you are expressing yourself creatively - be it through painting, writing or whatever floats your boat - there are moments where you go somewhere else. Where you're not exactly sure where things come from, it feels like something else, something unconnected to you, takes control and although it is an incredibly neat feeling when it happens, it's also sort of scary because if you're honest with yourself, you can see the touch of madness. It is beautiful madness, but when it takes over, you're aware of the knife's edge between the beauty and the dark kind of madness. Stephen King being Stephen King, he then twists the knife, plunging you in to the dark place and makes it even scarier. And what I love about these "new" books of his is how he blends the supernatural horror with a more human one and how although it is the former that makes you decide not to read the book too late at night, it is the latter that frightens you more.
The book that compelled me to compare horror to sex was The Ruins - a book that everyone in North America (including King) appeared to think was the cat's pajamas, but which I hated for its clunky, overly descriptive language. It was lifeless and completely non-scary. What I've since come to realize is that I think part of the reason I hated it so much was because I read the audiobook, not the regular kind of book, because reading aloud shows better than anything else whether something is working or not. The Ruins was akin to reading many, many hours of an instruction manual, whereas reading Duma Key is 21 hours of sheer poetry. Listening to it has been a strange experience in dualities - on one hand, I'm completely swept up in the story, on the other, I am noticing King’s technique. He is a master storyteller with an unbelievably sure grasp of language, of rhythm, of pulling you into a story, of making his characters three-dimensional, real people, in a few strokes telling you everything you need to know. And then he builds on it, slowly, pulling you into a place where you can't wait to see what happens next, while at the same time you're terribly afraid. I would love nothing better than to spend a few hours talking to the man about writing. A master class over a cup of coffee or a beer. It would be amazing.
A review of Duma Key is not complete without a review of the narrator, John Slattery. Initially, I hated him. Felt like he was going for world weariness and instead ended up with petulance and I was beyond disappointed, because I couldn't see how I could continue reading the book. And then I realized that I should have had faith in my uncle Stevie and the quality that follows him, because it was not the narrator that was petulant, it was the main character. Slattery narrates with a deft touch for cadence, the music of language, how our emotions are expressed vocally when we speak and how a sentence of seven words can contain as many emotions. Listening to John Slattery reading Stephen King’s words was like watching Baryshnikov dance and doing so on my iPod, being surrounded by the story, made it all the more real and all the more deliciously scary. The best narrated books I have ever read are the Amelia Peabody mysteries read by Barbara Rosenblat. Duma Key shares that number one spot of being the perfect storm of brilliant storytelling and equally brilliant narration. Do yourself a favour - run, don't walk, to the nearest bookstore and get this book. And when you do, consider buying the audiobook. It’s a perfect introduction to the medium.Just don’t read it too close to bedtime.