By Stephen King
“There were strange things kicking around Duma Key, and I had reason to believe they weren’t all nice things.”
So says Edgar Freemantle, a multimillionaire building contractor recovering from a near-fatal accident – and subsequent divorce – on a quiet stretch of Florida’s Gulf Coast. Reason enough for his unease is the fact that he is the hero of Stephen King’s forty- or fifty-somethingth novel (there are different methods of counting), and the strange things King writes about rarely are very nice.
This time out the not-nice things include demonic dolls, toothy frogs, and a family of semi-aquatic zombies – all being controlled by a newly awakened force of immense evil that was probably “old when the Children of Israel were still grubbing in the gardens of Egypt.” How this powerful entity – “something other, something beyond human understanding” – came to be reduced to scavenging for souls among the wealthy retirees of Duma Key is one of many imponderables that our author, hustling things along as usual, does not have time to explain.
In any event the resulting screw-tightening is what we have come to expect, from the classic rock playing in the background to the pair of ghostly twin girls who seem to have wandered in from The Shining. The vernacular prose has a bit of an air of the 80s about it – King’s finest decade – but his gift for disarming domestic vulgarity is undiminished. We can be confident that there is no horror an author who describes ranch dressing as looking and tasting “like slightly sweetened snot” will spare us.
Two themes that are constant in King’s fiction again predominate. In the first place there is his belief that horror is grounded in childhood anxieties. Related to this is his still under appreciated role as the great elegist of the disintegrating nuclear family. And so plucky children placed at risk and absent or threatening parents are front and center once again. Will Edgar be able to protect his own daughters from the evil of Duma Key? You won’t know until the end.
As enjoyable a thrill ride as most of it is, Duma Key is not one of King’s best efforts. The spirits communicate through sketches and paintings, and the narrative clumsily shuttles forward as these pictograms are drawn and then interpreted. The suspense is artificially prolonged as Edgar simply forgets to follow up on important clues or has to stop at the most inopportune moments to explain what is going on. And the backstory involving his daemonic transformation into a celebrated painter of kitschy sunsets drags us through a lot of dull and rather pointless art-talk.
Although for King it may have a point. For years now this most talented and successful of popular writers has carried on an unbecoming struggle for recognition by the literary establishment. Why he even cares any more is a mystery, but in Edgar Freemantle he has created another conflicted alter ego, someone who relates art to both inspiration and constipation, a higher calling and a bowel movement. It’s a telling juxtaposition, inviting the patronizing critical attitude that only recognizes the best genre fiction as great crap. And while King has written some truly great books that will last as long as anything by his more literary contemporaries, in the case of Duma Key that smaller shoe is the one that fits.
Review first published in the Toronto Star February 10, 2008.