Duma Key by Stephen King
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
And this is why adults shouldn’t play with dolls…
Edgar Freemantle used to be the quintessential American success story. He was a self-made millionaire who built a thriving construction business, and he had a long and happy marriage which produced two daughters. However, Edgar’s good luck ran out one day when he had a brutal run in with a crane at a job site that cost him an arm, screwed up a leg, and cracked his skull. The brain trauma left his eggs slightly scrambled and made him prone to fly into furious rages that his wife couldn't endure so the accident also ends his marriage.
While trying to recover from his injuries and the divorce Edgar decides to relocate to Florida and indulge in his long dormant hobby of drawing and painting pictures. Edgar rents a house at isolated Duma Key on the Gulf Coast where the gorgeous views and long walks on the beach inspire him to amazing artistic achievements and a rapid recovery of his health. In fact, Edgar’s progress in both areas could be termed as too good to be true if not downright spooky.
I read this for the first time shortly after it was originally released in 2008, and at that time I was intrigued by the story of a damaged man turning to art to heal his body and mind which is a subject that King has intimate knowledge of after being run down by a car. (King wrote movingly about it in the non-fiction On Writing.) However, I found the supernatural stuff lacking, and I’d kinda wished that King had written just a straight up character piece about a guy discovering a latent talent following a tragedy.
Since then I’ve seen what happens when King tries his hand at non-horror genre piece (Mr. Mercedes) so I no longer think that would have been a good idea. Overall, I found myself more intrigued this time by the supernatural aspects and less enamored of the story about Edgar’s recovery and development as a painter. This is probably because I’ve find myself more sensitive to the tics of his that I dislike which this has several of.
First is that there’s a general lack of focus. King has always been willing to throw the kitchen sink at a reader, but he really seemed particularly unwilling or unable to pick a path and stick to it here. There’s elements you see from other stories like Dead Zone with a brain injury leading to weird abilities and there’s the ghost story in an isolated locale like The Shining as well as bits and pieces from other King works. All of this leads to the typical case of King bloat where it seems like a couple of hundred pages could have easily been shaved from the finished product.
The character of Wireman is a prime example of something else I’ve grown irritated with in King’s work where he creates a wise and quirky character and then fills their mouths with overblown dialogue. Here, Wireman frequently refers to himself in the third person, sprinkles his conversations with Spanish jargon, and he’s full of meaningless sayings that are treated as profound by Edgar. Seriously, if someone ever told me, “Do the day, muchacho! And let the day do you!” then I’m going to flip them off and walk away. Which is a shame because there was much about Wireman in this best friend role other than the way he constantly expressed himself that I really liked.
Another King trope that has increasingly irked me in recent years in his habit of creating situations where the characters are fighting the clock but then waste huge amounts of time talking instead of acting. In this one there’s a point near the end where hell is gonna be unleashed at sunset which is coming fast, and yet Edgar feels that’s the ideal time to sit the other characters down and tell them a long rambling story about what he’s discovered. And then of course they find themselves screwed at sunset. How about for once you let them get the job done and save story time for afterwards, Uncle Stevie?
However, despite these gripes I did enjoy this book. King hits the melancholy tone of Edgar, a middle-aged man with a broken home and broken body, perfectly. Doing one of his stories on a bright Florida beach rather than the spooky Maine woods was a nice change of pace, and it fits the way that there’s an underlying tension. There’s also an extremely wicked irony at play here in that most of the stuff happening seems like a good thing rather than evil. Edgar is healing and he’s creating amazing art, and he even uses his newfound abilities to do some good. You can see how he’s willing to push aside any warning signs because so much of what is happening to him is legitimately changing his life for the better without any of the usual dark down side you’d immediately see in most horror books.
It’s not quite as good as I found it in 2008, but it’s still one of the better later era King novels.
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