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Book Review: Duma Key by Stephen King

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“The most important things are the hardest things to say. They are the things you get ashamed of because words diminish your feelings; words shrink things that seem timeless when they are in your head to no more than living size when they are brought out.” – Stephen King, via Gordon LeChance, The Body

I recently finished Stephen Kings epic Duma Key, electing to wait until it came out in paperback so as to better consume the story. Or, should I say, let the story consume me. Stephen King is an author I believe readers either obsessively love or passionately abhor. His imagination is something to be feared, but it’s his prose, his way of making the unbelievable real, pulling meaning out of chaos with a simple order of words that really captures a reader.

King’s characters are oftentimes every man or woman. There isn’t one that is overly dramatic or romanticized. They simply are. The tragedy and terror is less obvious in the traditional monsters that live inside of his stories — vampires, ghosts, demons, devils, even aliens — and more palpable in the simple situation of a child walking down the side of a road, a group of boys on a hike, or the secret smile shared by comfortable lovers. By the time he has introduced the Bad Guy of the story, you as a reader are already invested in the happenings of his characters, and that what once felt impossible to swallow is now a real and terrible threat.

I thoroughly enjoyed Duma Key. There were moments when my skin literally crawled, moments when I teared up, moments when I gasped, and moments when I had to close the book and take a breath before continuing on.

King writes best, I think, when he does so in first person narrative. The reader almost instantly identifies with the storyteller, as if they are being let in on a secret and must sneak away to climb inside the story and listen with eager fascination while the story unfolds.

In Duma Key, King creates a whole person in his character, Edgar Freemantle, a good deal of the author himself was revealed through Edgar’s voice. Perhaps on some level this story was King’s way of healing (both mentally and physically) from the car accident that broke his hip.

A victim of a tragic construction site accident, Edgar is forced to rebuild a life out of the debris left behind when both his body and mind are broken. Through a series of seemingly meaningless coincidences, he ends up renting a house on Duma Key that he affectionately dubs “Big Pink” (revealing King’s penchant for imbuing his love of rock music into his characters and storylines) and begins his healing process. As we walk through Edgar’s tortured nights and painful days, we see that life on Duma Key is not what one might expect it to be. Not inside Big Pink, at any rate.

Edgar once sketched. Now he creates. In a style reminiscent of Salvador Dali, he creates esoteric nightmares and dreamscapes on canvass that captivate all who glimpse them. Not only that, but through something called “missing limb phenomenon” (which actually exists on some level – I looked it up), he is able to manipulate his surroundings.

Things turn spooky, though, as King is wont to do, when Edgar is befriended by Wireman, a codger with a penchant for Spanish colloquialisms and a sad story that very nearly shattered my heart. Wireman’s phrases stuck with me, and his interaction with Edgar makes the story sing. He is one of the most interesting characters I think King has ever created, and I’ve read almost all of his printed stories thus far.

It takes about half the book to uncover the fact that this is actually a ghost story, but I was so caught up in Edgar’s “healing” process that I didn’t even notice. And when I did, it hit me between the eyes. The history of Duma Key and Elizabeth Eastlake, the elderly lady that Wireman cares for and who owns the Key and all its buildings, is at once tragic, supernatural, and fascinating.

Edgar’s past collides with his present in a storm of ghostly happenings that will have you ducking under your covers and reading with a flashlight. Characters you have grown to love for their utter realism will become a tragic part of the tapestry of a story about love, loss, and learning to let go.

There are moments of circumstance that are simply beyond belief, but the way King weaves them into the prose you’ll find yourself nodding as if you had just seen that very thing the other day. There are a couple of moments where I felt he wandered too far into cliché – a cliché of himself at one point. I saw shades of The Shining, and then another of the classic creep-out, The Monkey’s Paw, but I found myself caring enough about the characters that those moments didn’t matter.

I was sad when the book ended. It held the comfortable rhythm of The Body and the heartbreaking emotion of Bag of Bones. There were a few places I felt King’s political or religious viewpoints may have slipped out through his character’s lips, but I suppose that’s the benefit of being a well-read, widely-enjoyed author: You can pretty much say what you want.

I wouldn’t recommend reading this on a plane, alone, or away from your comfort zone, unless you really don’t want to sleep for awhile, but I do highly recommend it to anyone looking both for an escape from reality and a reason to stick around. The story will offer you the escape; it’s subtle lesson, the reason.

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About Amanda Banker

  • Kelly Hicks

    I always love your quotes, and the opening paragraph of this article doesn’t disappoint.

    I like how you keep returning to your point that King’s writing allows the reader become invested in his story no matter how far out it may be – because of his characters. I think that is so true, and you made that point very clearly and eloquently.

    This is a fantastic introductory blog, I feel like running out to the bookstore to buy this book:) Thank you for this review, and I can’t wait to read more from you!