Duma Key by Stephen King

(8.2/10) A brush with the undead

For some reason, Duma Key is another of Stephen King’s books which tends to get pushed to the side. Unlike Rose Madder, it doesn’t seem this is because it’s disliked, or even ignored, most reviews I’ve seen are positive, though perhaps not as effusive as with books like Under the Dome or The Stand. This is a shame, since Duma Key is certainly one of King’s better books, albeit one of this most subtle.

Middle aged Edgar Freemantle's life has suddenly taken a dramatic downturn. A horrific crash with a crane on a building site costs Edgar his right arm, his business and; partly due to the uncontrollable rage resulting from Edgar’s brain injury, his marriage. In a desperate attempt to find some sort of happiness in his life, Edgar relocates to the Florida Island of Duma Key to try his hand; as it were, at painting. Edgar however finds far more than he bargained for, from an artistic talent that goes from surreal to all too real, to a best friend in the form of wise ex-lawyer Wireman, to a decades old mystery surrounding 85 year old Elizabeth Eastlake, Since there is something sleeping on Duma Key, something whose nightmares transcend art and life, something with a long reach and an appetite for power and pain.

In some ways, reading Duma Key so soon after Bag of Bones might not have been a good idea. This is because initially, the plots of both books appear rather similar, first person tale of a successful millionaire who suffers a tragedy and travels to a secluded location brimming with paranormal influence and ghostly visitations, where their creative efforts are used to highlight a past mystery which eventually gets revealed just before the protagonist confronts the evil.

Then again, the entire flow of the narrative, the ways the elements are put together, the characters in question and even how much time and attention the various elements get is entirely different.

For a start, I found Edgar just plain nicer than Michael from Bag of Bones. Despite being equally rich, he is far more down to earth, far less snobbish, and just generally more pleasant company. the way King contrasts the honest, dry, relaxed, self-deprecating Edgar, with his occasional fits of rage, memory loss and depression, both caused by his brain injury and as a result of his tragic circumstance is really astounding.

Of course, for a writer so good at pure visceral, physical sensation that he literally has one book where the characters never stop walking, King’s ability to deal both with Edgar’s loss of an arm, (not to mention his bad leg), in a brutally honest way is not surprising. What did surprise me here was the way King dealt with Edgar’s mental state; the sleight of hand and sliding associations Edgar needs to use to remember names, places and numbers, his rising anger when this doesn’t work, and when he mangles words into tragic, almost comic spoonerisms or substitutions. Then, there is the astounding joy and almost manic energy Edgar gets from creating images on canvas, even as his body and mind strengthen, all packaged with Stephen King’s talents for repetitive themes, word play and memorable motifs; I don’t think I’ll ever hear the phrase “it was red!” in quite the same way again. This compassionately quirky realism isn’t just left to Edgar either, since the way King deals with Elizabeth Eastlake’s Alzheimer’s, and Wireman’s own issues is equally well drawn, even if we see them at second hand. Indeed, though there is little to no romance in the book, Edgar’s relationship with Wireman, a gentle, wise and slightly snarky best friend, even if a very human one with his own journey, issues and a past as unlucky Edgar’s, is the very definition of bromance, and as such is just genuinely lovely to read about. As with Matty and Kyra in Bag of Bones, one could accuse King of almost being a little too idealised with Wireman, though for me at least that was a line he never quite crossed.

Speaking of well-drawn realism, it’s likely an intentional irony that Edgar’s very painting style describes the backdrop of the novel itself, beautiful Florida landscapes with odd disturbing touches. At the start, these disturbing touches come entirely from purely ordinary directions, Edgar’s injuries and rage, and the sour bitterness between him and his ex-wife. As in Rose Madder however, as Edgar recovers  his health, finds an awesome best friend and slowly achieves artistic success, so the unnatural, and more purely horror elements creep into the story, ghostly apparitions of little girls wandering the sand, and Edgar’s experiences of a spectral, as opposed to phantom limb.

Many people have called the book’s progression slow, and this is true. However, unlike with Bag of Bones there is no single moment I can point to when the story picks up; (indeed whilst several reviews I’ve looked at try to pinpoint when the plot changes gear, no two agreed on when exactly this happens). There are distinct high points and introductions, such as Edgar’s hilarious, slapstick meeting with Wireman where their friendship is sealed by a suddenly wind born beach umbrella and a lot of laughter, however these moments were for me not so much points where the story took a different track, as simply significant landmarks past along the road, a road which gets ever stranger, darker and more weird, even as matters steadily improve for Edgar.

That being said, there are a few passages which might have been shorter, such as the rather long chapter spent on Edgar’s reviewing the police coverage of a child murder, or a fairly effusive interview Edgar has with an art critic. Even here however, the fact that I didn’t know exactly where King was going, or which details might prove significant later tended to always keep my attention, quite aside from King’s just plain well-honed ability to write engagingly, even when what he’s describing is comparatively normal.

Another major reason why I personally found Duma Key’s slow pacing bothered me less, is the fact that the plotting here is so tight, both in terms of the characters, and the overall progression of events; we’re here not dealing with Chekov’s gun (a setup plot element being appropriately used), but Chekhov’s broadside! Indeed, one especially tense moment occurs late into the story when King plays a downright cruel game of gotcha using elements he’d previously introduced, plus Edgar’s already well established memory trouble, to create an amazing edge of the seat moment, even if the action just involves Edgar’s efforts to remember a phone number and make a call. Though King does at times suffer a slight delay laying the puzzle pieces on the table, that doesn’t stop the completed puzzle being fascinating in the end, especially when I saw how all the pieces slotted together.

While the first person style doesn’t stop there from being a relatively large supporting cast, main players are few, and even those who we see at a distance such as Edgar’s wife Pam, his old workmate Tom and his daughter Ilse have their own journeys to go through; particularly since the evil on Duma Key is by no means just confined to the island. Indeed, I found my actual opinion of various characters changed throughout the novel as we saw different sides of them. Pam for example, I initially found spiky, dismissive and unpleasant, and suspected that even without Edgar’s injury, their marriage might have been doomed anyway, then later, was genuinely happy that Edgar could come to a measure of peace with her.

Another element where Duma Key perhaps scores more highly than some Stephen King books, is that whilst there is a past mystery which ties back to present horror, King teases us with this mystery extremely well. From hints about Elizabeth’s past, to her words and actions whose significance is lost by the fog of her Alzheimer’s, to unnoticed details literally hidden in plain sight in Edgar’s pictures, even the narrative digressions with Edgar telling the story of a young Elizabeth Eastlake’s own artistic talent, I found neither too intentionally obscure, nor too blatant. The final tragic events are smoothly revealed just before the ultimate confrontation, and those revelations (and the parts played by some more heroic actors in the past), of critical importance in the present. Indeed, this makes Duma Key a stark contrast to Bag of Bones or desperation, where the digressions rather served to bog things down just before the book’s conclusion.

Some have called the actual horror elements of Duma Key recycled, and it is true that walking corpses, ghostly apparitions, psychic influences and the like are all the bread and butter of horror stories, and are matters King himself has tackled in other books. Then again, such things have been horror staples since before Shakespeare, and of course King himself is no stranger to presenting traditional horror tropes with his own unique creep factor. What however makes the horror really work though, are the characters, both in terms of our empathy with Edgar and Elizabeth’s experiences (especially given that both are being confronted by the more mundane horrors of illness), and because these are ultimately people we just don’t want to lose, and feel genuinely bereft when we do.

The major issue I have with Duma Key, and the reason I knocked more than a mark from the total score is the ending.

The climax works incredibly well, Edgar and his friends; like the loser’s club in It, finally realise the evil on Duma Key needs dealing with and set out to deal with it. A confrontation ensues, the last bits of the mystery are revealed, and though putting the evil out of action seems like a comparatively simple thing, the execution of that action is wonderfully fraught, especially when it seems a last gasp of that evil might cause Edgar to fall to temptation.

However, once the supernatural influence is contained, the merely natural ending, and what happens to Edgar is nothing short of nasty. Not a sinister fall into darkness as in Pet Sematary, nor an ending with a hint of pathos as in Bag of Bones or Salem’s Lot, or even a gritty, realistic road to recovery ending like those of Misery or Gerald’s Game (after all, the entire book has in some senses been a road to recovery).

The ultimate premise of the book’s ending seems to be basically that shit happens, life is meaningless, bad things happen to good people even without extra dimensional evil, and sometimes despite all a person’s efforts to recover after an initial tragedy, you can still end up with nothing.

Early in the book Doctor Kamen suggests to Edgar that he needs “hedges against the night”, needs something to give his life some meaning, hence starting his artistic endeavours. At the end of the book all of that is stripped away entirely. Indeed, I wouldn’t be surprised if Edgar shot himself the day after the story finished.

I will admit, the idea that slowly recovering from one tragedy just to have more tragedies happen for no reason, is likely one calculated to push my personal buttons, and certainly other reviewers I’ve seen have not had quite as much a downer on the book because of the way it ends.

Nevertheless, I can’t help feeling that had King just ended things a little differently, not even necessarily with a fairy tale happily ever after, but just with a hint of authorial compassion for the genuinely decent protagonist we’d just spent 24 hours reading about, I would probably be hailing this as one of King’s best books. So many elements here work, and whilst the progression is undoubtedly slow, the way elements are put together and the way King evokes both sympathy for the book’s characters, evolves a mystery which encompasses art, friendship and recovery and interlinks the various aspects of the plot is nothing short of fantastic. Unfortunately, all of this just makes the ultimate ending feel all the more hollow, and leave an even worse aftertaste.

Nevertheless there is much here to like, including probably some of King’s best drawn together plot and some of his most engaging characters, and likely those with slightly less of an issue with capriciously cruel endings might well very much enjoy this one.

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