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REVIEW: Duma Key by Stephen King

REVIEW SUMMARY: One of Stephen King’s most interesting novels.


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.

About Peter Damien (33 Articles)
Peter Damien is a busy writer who lives in Minnesota because he just really likes frigid temperatures and mosquitoes. He lives in the crawl-spaces between heaps of books and can be seen scurrying out at dusk to search for food and ALL the TEA. His wife and two boys haven't figured out how to get him out of the house, so they put up with him. He as astonishing hair.

11 Comments on REVIEW: Duma Key by Stephen King

  1. Dean Stevenson // January 9, 2010 at 9:41 am //

    Great review.  This is by far the best King book I’ve ever read.  It was engaging and thought provoking with a bit of that good old creepiness thrown in the mix.  Very good read.

  2. Any Stephen King book longer than, say, five hundred pages bores me to tears–with a few exceptions, of course (The Tommyknockers and The Stand being the most…uhh, exceptional). I liked the premise of Duma Key. I liked the characters. But King pads his fiction with so much meandering, unnecessary fluff (which most people call “character development” for some reason, even though most of it does nothing more than repeat and reinforce the exact same character motifs ad nauseam) that his longer works simply cannot hold my attention. And that takes some serious effort, considering most of my favourite books–such as Dan Simmons’ Drood–are 900-page character studies. King’s really at his best when he bothers to restrain himself, as in Cell, for instance–which, though it certainly had its hokey “You’ve got to be shittin’ me” moment, was still a tight, nicely-paced narrative that managed to develop its characters very well without going overboard.

  3. Roddy Reta // January 9, 2010 at 3:38 pm //

    I enjoyed this novel a lot.  I personally think it’s Stephen King’s best novel since THE GREEN MILE.  Far better than the overhyped UNDER THE DOME, although I enjoyed UOD also.

  4. I’m about a hundred pages into Under The Dome, and enjoying it quite a lot. Which is not to say I’m recommending it, not quite yet. Stephen King and I always have our problems at the END of books, so I may still get to the end and stomp around the house roaring and shouting. 

    Personally, I think most of King’s best work is in the realm of short stories. I think he’s just razor sharp when he goes into short fiction. 

    Harlan Ellison, talking about Stephen King, was explaining that “he’s a very good writer, but what he essentially does is take a short story idea, maybe a novella idea, and then pump it up to these huge novels, and what he fills it up with are these character studies.” that’s always stuck with me, ’cause I think that’s pretty spot on. When I’m in the mood for it, I like that aspect of the books. 

    I probably still count as a Bad Stephen King fan, though. I’ve never gotten through “The Stand.” And I puttered out after book three of the Dark Tower series. 

  5. Although I am more of a hard science fiction fan than “horror”, nearly thirty years ago my girl friend insisted I read Stephen King. She started me with Pet Sematary, Christine, and The Shining; all of which I enjoyed immensely. Then I read The Stand, The Talisman, and The Dead Zone. With all of these, King’s writing drew me in, but left me highly unsatisfied, and I haven’t read a Stephen King novel since. Perhaps I am shallow, but I can do without all of the “fluff” as Mr. Pegritz referred to it. All that said, any recommendations of his work that more closely resembles his earlier work would be appreciated.

  6. Peter Damien // January 10, 2010 at 5:33 pm //

    I thought “Cell” resembled his earlier work, in that it was more horror than, say, Bag of Bones, or Lisey’s Story, or what-have-you.

    Ironically, when people are looking for stuff like early King, I begin strongly suggesting Joe Hill’s HEART SHAPED BOX, which is (in my opinion) a far stronger, sharper first novel than King’s “Carrie” was. Amazing book. And his next one, Horns is coming out pretty soon. 

  7. Thanks for the review, Peter, I’ll definitely give it a shot. And here I was thinking I was the only person having issues with King. Beginnings, brilliant … middle, mind-blowing … ends, meh. But, like you, I always keep going back to him. Adding the title to my list of books to get now.

  8. Hey PeeDee,

    Nice review (as usual).

    I read this in a hot tub in Arizona in the middle of a brutal Boston Feburary, which I managed to avoid a few weeks of. I don’t remember loving it as much then as I do now, in retrospect. Your review actually reminded me of many thing I likeed (loved) about this book.

    King does this to me quite often in fact, which is why I think he might be a much better writer than people think.

    I can’t wait to see what you working on now though, Pete. You are one of the hottest young writers that no one knows about.

    Forget The King! Hail to the Tzinski!

    (or the Pete Damian, or whatever you are calling yourself now.)

    (Don’t forget the face of your father.)





  9. Peter Damien // January 11, 2010 at 7:59 am //

    1) You are so weird.

    2) You would not believe how often people misspell “Tzinski” on contracts, and not “Damien.” (which is just my middle name, so may not count as a pseudonym.) Plus, I like the sound of it. 

    3) The BIGGEST thing that always makes me think of King as mediocre, now and then, are the movies. The last time I went off Stephen King books, it was because I saw “The Mist,” which was a fine movie, up until it had the single stupidest ending possible, short of “it was all a dream!”, and it made me so cranky that it colored the books and left me not reading ’em.

    The interesting thing is, some Stephen King books I read only once, and some I revisit with increasing pleasure. I’ve read “Bag of Bones” two or three times now, and I can imagine doing likewise with “Duma Key”

    And if you’d tried reading “Under the Dome” in a hot tub, you would have drowned. 

  10. 1) I’m in a hot tub right now. I always look at SF Signal from a hot tub.

    2) I like Damien better too, but you’ll always be a Tzinski to me.

    3) Those *&^%’s changed the ending in The Mist to make it much, much, more horrible. If you ever read the short story it ends totally differently. Let’s not forget The King has had some incredible movies based on his stories as well:

    The Green Mile

    The Shawshank Redemtion

    Stand By Me



    (OK. The hot tub might be frying my brain.)


    I’m waiting until the spring for Under the Dome. That one I’m going to read while skydiving.

  11. Peter Damien // January 13, 2010 at 10:28 pm //

    I dearly hope you’ve got swim shorts on, because the idea that you’re reading my book reviews in the nude is more than my feeble mind can process.

    Anyway, you’re spot-on about not only the GOOD King movies, but the GOOD ending to the Mist. It’s just that sometimes I’m off-again with King anyway. I was already closing in on it, and the horrible, worthless, stupid, stupid ending (to what was otherwise a really good movie) had a rub-off effect and put me off on King. I should have explained that better, maybe.

    I have to say, I have a special place in my heart for Stephen King’s “Rose Red.” Not because it was especially brilliant, just because my wife and I had a lot of fun watching it. (were we married yet? I can’t remember. Hmm.)


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