BRIEF SYNOPSIS: With his life, and mind, in shambles after an industrial accident, Edgar Freemantle retreats to an island in Florida, where both the island, and Edgar, are deeper and darker than he had imagined.
PROS: As with any King novel, it’s full of strong dialog, sharp characters, and a slowly-building mystery which makes it hard to put down.
CONS: A few King-isms creep in (the tendency for characters to laugh uncontrollably, to tears, in odd places, as one example).
BOTTOM LINE:Sharp, poignant, scary, mysterious, funny, with a terrific ending, this is one Stephen King novel among a few others that I would hand to someone and say “Here, you might like this author…”
I don’t remember where, or when, I bought my copy of Duma Key. I know I bought it along with Lisey’s Story , because I’d found nice hardcovers of both and snatched them up. I have a big collection of Stephen King books, lots of paperbacks and lots more in hardcover, most of those first editions. It’s murder anytime I move and have to haul boxes of King books down the stairs, but I’m still proud of the collection.
The reason I don’t remember when I bought it is that I didn’t read it right away. Although I love King, I definitely have an on-again-off-again relationship with his fiction, and every now and then, he and I will have such a bad encounter that I’ll go off his books for a bit. But I always come back.
The week before, I’d made a second attempt on Lisey’s Story and was rebuffed yet again. So, wanting to read King nonetheless, I picked Duma Key off the shelf and gave it a whirl.
I wish I’d gotten to it sooner, because to date, Duma Key is my favorite Stephen King book.
The story begins with the collapse of Edgar Freemantle’s life. A successful Minnesota contractor who suffers a major accident on a work site and loses his right arm and parts of his memory. It leaves him prone to sudden red-hot rages, which are almost as bad as the memory loss. Because of the accident and the rages, Edgar’s marriage falls apart. His doctor suggests he go to Florida to recuperate and he agrees, renting a house on a little coastal island called Duma Key. And his doctor also suggests that he take up drawing again, to use as protection. “You need hedges…hedges against the night,” the doctor says.
And so, on a small and mostly empty island, trying to pull his life back together, Edgar begins to draw again, and to paint. It rapidly becomes evident that not only are his paintings more than paint on canvas, but Duma Key is more than just an empty little island.
Perhaps Stephen King’s greatest strength is his ability to write amazing dialog, something which is on display most strongly in any of his books which are written in first person. This is one of those, and the voice of the novel makes it both a delight and an effortless read.
Another of his strengths is the ability to create characters. Likable or not, brief appearances or ongoing, they are all of them well-shaped and interesting. Again, this is on full display here. It doesn’t take long to not only care about Edgar, but Wireman, and Libby, along with Edgar’s wife and daughters, and a whole host of minor characters. They’re a pleasure to get to know, and as the tension and danger in the book increases, what kept me reading was less about wanting to solve the mystery, and more wanting to make sure that these characters would come out okay.
Something else King does very well is spook me. He’s always been really good at that. There were a number of times when I would be reading this one late at night, reading a lovely scene and twist it, just so, and suddenly I’d be putting down the book and wondering if, maybe tonight, I’d sleep with the light on. While I do love it when he goes gleefully over the top with gore and carnage and horror (Cell for example), it’s when he writes quietly scary moments that I’m most impressed. And ultimately, those are the ones I remember longest.
Something I noticed early into Duma Key was how much it felt like another King novel, Bag of Bones which was, perhaps unsurprisingly, my previous favorite of his novels. The books don’t necessarily show a strong similarity in actual plot, but the tone was the same. In a lot of ways, it felt like King hadn’t satisfied himself when writing Bag of Bones and was now coming around to that set of ideas and themes again. It’s common enough, and it’s bound to happen with any author who’s prolific enough. Sometimes, it can make for dull reading, in that the author needed to revisit the idea, but the reader doesn’t. In this instance, though, I’m glad he came back. Of the two books, I really think that Duma Key is the stronger, smoother book.
One problem I consistently have with King’s books are the endings: from the time when the slow-build stops and the book begins to accelerate through to the end, that’s usually where we have trouble and I find myself not reading his books for a bit. The plot suddenly seems to strain, more blood is thrown at the reader, and at least once, a cosmic turtle appears (not in Duma Key; that was another book). So I was very pleased, and a bit surprised, to discover that Duma Key built logically and steadily all through the ending. Nothing felt like an abrupt gear change, and the ending solution, when arrived at, made good sense and paid off the long book leading up to it.
If you aren’t already a Stephen King fan, this is definitely a very good place to start. Much like Bag of Bones, I think it’s too internal a book to really work as a movie, so waiting for a silver screen version probably won’t do you too much good. Pick this one up, read it, take pleasure in reading someone flex all of his considerable writing muscle to not only write loudly, but also to write quietly in some ways, a goal of good storytelling.
And now and then, when you find yourself wondering whether or not to sleep with the light on, I’d leave it on. I don’t blame you. After all, some things in the dark have TEEF.