Sunday, December 1, 2013

Review: "Duma Key" by Stephen King

Successful entrepreneur, beloved husband and father--Edgar Freemantle had it all. An accident on a construction site robs him of everything, and takes his right arm along the way.

Now crippled, divorced, suffering constant pain and struggling with memory loss, Edgar is a wreck of the man he was. To dissuade him from suicide, his psychologist prescribes a "geographic cure"--a change of scenery. Edgar takes up residence on isolated Duma Key off the coast of Florida, where the sunset bleeding into the Gulf and the shells whispering in the swell of the tide stir a hunger in him. For the first time since childhood, Edgar picks up a paintbrush and begins to create.

But as Edgar's eerie paintings increase in skill and beauty, nightmares stir under the clear waters of the Gulf. A ghost ship against a scarlet sky appears over and over in his art, its bow turning toward the shore. Something which has been sleeping for a century begins to wake, and reaches out to the world once more. 

  5 out of 5 stars
(grump below the cut)
 A coworker saw me reading Lisey's Story (grump forthcoming) on my break. That sparked a happy little discussion of which Stephen King works we liked. She expressed disappointment in the ending of It, saying that the payoff, the final revelation, fell short of the promise. After all the rising tension and suspenseful horror, the Big Bad turns out to just be a [redacted]?

I immediately recommended Duma Key to her. It's not one of King's better-known works, which is a cryin' shame, because it's a beautiful and unsettling novel. Note the 5/5 stars! It also boasts an entirely perfect ending, one which delivers on both the human emotion and the rising horror intertwined throughout the pages of the book.

In the interest of full disclosure, let me say that I am not a huge horror buff. My insomnia is bad enough without accumulating nightmare fuel. I read Wikipedia synopses of scary movies before watching them, so I know what's gonna jump out at me. But I chanced to read the first chapter of Duma Key at a bookstore and fell in love.

If it were only a horror story, I couldn't have read Duma Key, much less recommended it to you, dear reader. It's more than that, though. It's also a story about recovering from trauma and loss, and about the power of creativity. It's about the Man Code and the friends who become your family; how the affectionate nickname for your ex-wife might still escape your lips in conversation; a dad's worries for his daughter growing up; the grief of watching someone succumb to wasting illness; the bonds that form between survivors.
When I look back on that time, it's with the strangest stew of emotions: love, longing, terror, horror, regret, and the deep sweetness only those who've been near death can know.

I think it's how Adam and Eve must have felt. Surely they looked back at Eden, don't you think, as they started barefoot down the path to where we are now, in our glum political world of bullets and bombs and satellite TV? Looked past the angel guarding the shut gate with his fiery sword? Sure. I think they must have wanted one more look at the green world they had lost, with its sweet water and kind-hearted animals.

And its snake, of course.
King is very generous with his characters. Oh, he pulls no punches--he'll put them through the (physical, emotional and psychological) wringer--but he writes with great compassion. Like I mentioned in my grump for Fitcher's Brides, King's characters aren't puppets, they're flesh-and-blood. "There is no tyrant as merciless as pain, no despot so cruel as confusion," he writes. Given that the book was written after King's nearly-fatal accident in 1999, it's easy to see how he would write Edgar Freemantle, suffering from constant pain, with such empathy.

With so much positive, life-affirming humanity flowing through the story, the fact that it's also about a ship of the dead and a drowned dream-god-thing becomes bearable.

I don't want to draw the fangs from the horrific sides of the story. The slow build of suspense is top-notch. Readers will have their neck hairs prickling before they are fully conscious of it. It takes an agonizingly long time for all to be revealed, but when at last the truth is made plain, the horror of the book intensifies rather than diminishes.
Be prepared to see it all. If you want to create--God help you if you do, God help you if you can--don't you dare commit the immortality of stopping on the surface. Go deep and take your fair salvage. Do it no matter how much it hurts.
 I've been warned against putting too many spoilers, even vague ones, in my reviews. I'll end here. I recommend Duma Key to the horror buffs with a need for a well-drawn-out yarn, and also to the people who can stomach a little terror in exchange for the rich human encouragement elsewhere in the book. I can't praise it enough.

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