Stephen King’s Duma Key ventures to an all-but-uninhabited Florida island where the shells groan at high tide, tennis balls appear unexpectedly and at least one heron flies upside down. Given this combination of author and setting, it’s inevitable that something terribly undead will show up before the book is over.
Creepy: This is the author’s 55th novel.
But King’s use of horror is not what it used to be. It may still be the impetus for his stories, but it is no longer the foremost reason they’re interesting. Sure, he can still use supernatural effects to scare the wits out of you. But, lately, he also shows off other interests. In the wake of the 1999 roadside accident that permanently altered his consciousness, he has turned the evanescence of health and sanity into his books’ most disturbing source of fear.
Duma Key is about characters whose near-death experiences have given them psychic powers. That may make it sound fanciful, but this novel is frank and well grounded.
King’s main character, Edgar Freemantle, is a regular Joe with only a few unusual qualities. One: He has struck it rich in the construction business. Another: He has lost an arm in an accident. And also this: Unlike many other people whose lives suddenly go off course, he knows exactly what hit him. It was a construction crane, and it smashed him to jelly.
As the book begins, Edgar is in the process of moving from Minnesota to Florida. His doctor has ordered a change of scenery. So he arrives on Duma and moves into a big pink house with what is quite literally a drop-dead view of the sunset. “Salmon Point, No. 13,” says the young assistant who drives him to his new home, in a nice display of the author’s mischief. “I hope you’re not superstitious.”
King takes his teasingly sweet time in revealing exactly what’s going on here. But it turns out that the sunsets make Edgar want to draw. And he’s good at it. And
the details that crop up in his pictures have a way of prefiguring real events or even causing them, especially when those events are deadly. Elizabeth Eastlake, the ancient grande dame in the nearby house, has weirdly powerful artistic talents of her own. All the main characters suffered some kind of head injury; each of them endures what King calls “weird slip-slides”, moments of maddening confusion.
Duma Key: Scribner, 611 pages, Rs700.
In such an atmosphere the rules of fantasy might run wild, but King constructs this story with patience and rigour.
The last third of the book goes into overdrive, leading each of the people and objects strewn innocently through the story to some kind of diabolical turn. The graphic artist Mark Stutzman has delivered yet another great-looking cover that mimics King’s hidden-in-plain-sight tricks.
Although this last part ought to be the book’s most furious, the less action-packed aspects of the story manage to be just as compelling. “Frogs the size of Cocker Spaniel puppies” are among the beastly things unleashed by King once the art appreciation stops—and the final melee begins. But his book has raised its ante in careful stages. So, foreshadowing (“or so it seemed to me then”) gives way slowly to dark nuance. (“There’s something here, and it’s acting on me. Is it possible it even called me?”) Then comes terrible certainty. (“I felt it and knew: the three of us were here because something wanted us here.”)
And then the menace is at the door. (“Horror waiting to happen. Inbound on rotted sails.”) And then it’s inside. And then, there’s no reaching forward—for fear that “something cold and wet and draped in seaweed should reach back.”
©2008/The New York Times
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