by Stephen King
Published by Hodder & Stoughton UK (as reviewed)
512 pages, 2008
King’s Florida Nightmare
Reviewed by Ali Karim
I was about a quarter of the way into Stephen King’s Duma Key and feeling a sense of growing dread and dark foreboding when I came upon this passage spoken by the elderly property owner Elizabeth Eastlake. It serves as a taste of what Edgar Freemantle might experience upon relocating himself to Florida, to an idyllic beach-front residence called Duma Key:
The hairs on the back of my neck bristled and a chill fell upon the room and I swear I thought the lights dimmed for a second. The first thought that came into my head was: “some books are dangerous.” Trust me, Duma Key is one such book.
One of the factors that makes this book interesting to King readers is that it pulls together various strands from the author’s literary canon -- not to mention that of the late Richard Bachman. Duma Key is related to much of King’s earlier work. There are nods and winks in the narrative, yet he comes up with a very scary tale out of elements that usually make everyday life unremarkable. But in the hands of Stephen King, the crevices of everyday reality mask the dark shadows of Hell.
Dumas Key seems to hint that in reality there is only randomness. That life and death are purely the results of random and unrelated events. Perhaps there is no grand plan, no fate, no destiny, because hidden between the paragraphs of Duma Key, good and evil are just at opposite ends of the results of a hidden lottery game. I don’t pluck the lottery image at random here. Many of the characters in Duma Key find themselves holding winning lottery tickets. However since this is a novel by Stephen King, the prizes are not good. In fact when the balls all click into place, there will be no champagne, only blood and consequences.
Enter Edgar Freemantle -- an obvious nod to The Stand’s Abigail Freemantle. Edgar is the wealthy owner of a Minneapolis-based construction company that he built up from scratch and with his bare hands. In his 40s he is the victim of a terrible accident on one of his building sites. A heavyweight crane crashes into his truck, trapping Edgar in the cab. Edgar ends up losing an arm, having severe head injuries that reduce his mobility considerably and leave him with terrible pain.
The head injury coupled with the tremendous pain he endures during his recovery cause him to get his words mixed up, turn his temper into red rages and question the world he sees around him. His wife tries to cope, but in the end realizes that post-accident Edgar is not the same man she married. When Edgar in one of his rages, he pulls a plastic knife on his wife. She retracts herself from her changed husband and starts divorce proceedings.
Edgar’s eldest daughter, Melinda, escapes to study in France, while his favourite and younger daughter Ilse -- mostly called Illy -- prays that he gets better and that he and his wife can get back together. His doctor and nurse give him a doll to vent his rages upon: Reba. He begins a regime of exercise and pain-killers to help him cope with his new physical and emotional situation. All the while he finds that his missing arm itches terribly. These early sequences are realistically detailed and painful to read, as one feels that King was drawing upon his own memories following his own serious 1999 accident.
The next hint of trouble occurs when Edgar is brought home to convalesce. With a ghostly ripple from Pet Semetary, Edgar witnesses a neighbourhood child’s dog get hit by a car. As the child is taken away screaming by a parent, Edgar intervenes to put the dying dog out of its misery by snapping its neck. This is no mean feat for a one-armed man, and after the dog is silenced Edgar realizes his phantom limb may well have intervened.
With his life now a series of struggles and his daughters studying at colleges far, far away and a wife seeking divorce, Edgar has to decide what he should do. At the suggestion of his doctor, Edgar packs his bags and heads off to a sunny clime to paint and recuperate. Alone with Reba, his anger maangement doll, he settles on Duma Key, an idyllic beach-front leading to an Island off the Florida coast. He rents an apartment on stilts that faces the ocean. After settling into his new abode, he listens to the sea wash over the seashells beneath him and he takes up painting and watching the sunset and sunrise from his studio room.
He calls his new home Big Pink and discovers that when the itching from his phantom arm gets too hard to bear, his painting alleviates the itch and pain. Like all things in the worlds King creates there are consequences -- terrible consequences -- that will follow. When Edgar paints, looking out over the seascape, he falls into a trance-like state. The resulting work is surrealistic and seems to have sinister implications. When Edgar comes out of his fugues, he feels ravenous and eats anything he can. The paintings hold significance, though Edgar does not initially understand them. This changes when his youngest daughter comes to visit. Illy tells her father about Carson Jones, her boyfriend, who is religious and is going on a tour with a band called The Hummingbirds. The Problem is that when Illy describes Jones, Edgar realizes that one of his paintings features this young man, though not in a good way. When Illy gets sick after they explore the Island, Edgar starts to realize that there are things within Duma Key that might hold danger to him and his daughter and when Illy recovers, he sends her away.
More paintings follow and they are increasingly surreal. The painting that worries him most features an empty Mary Celeste type of galleon on the tide at Duma Key, with a small rowboat riding the galleon’s wake. There is a girl in the rowboat who could be Reba, or the figure might be his daughter Ilse. Edgar’s studio overlooks the water that surrounds Duma Key and there he creates more and more versions of the painting he calls “Girl and a Ship” and gets a better view of the feminine figure.
As Edgar’s injuries start to improve, he ventures along the beach, each day walking further and further until he finally reaches his nearest neighbor the elderly owner of Duma Key Elizabeth Eastlake and her guardian,Wireman. A friendship develops between Wireman and Freemantle, and the book is peppered with insights into life from the enigmatic Wireman. Edgar is soon made aware that Eastlake is a patron of the arts and encourages painters to stay at Duma Key, and that Salvador Dali stayed at Big Pink and even painted a surreal sketch there. As the narrative progresses Wireman becomes impressed by Edgar’s surrealistic paintings and persuades him to visit a local gallery as he is convinced as to the worth of the surreal canvases that Edgar has been producing.
Did Edgar chose to come to Duma Key or did Duma Key chose Edgar? That becomes the question that Edgar Freemantle debates. The growing friendship between Freemantle and Wireman reminded me of the gentle relationship between Andy Dufresne and Red, the main characters in King’s novella “Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption.”
There is an air of mystery about Wireman, which I will not spoil but which seems related to “The Ballad of the Flexible Bullet” a 1984 novella King wrote, that was re-published in 1985 in his collection Skeleton Crew. And the idea seems to resurface in “Revelations of Becka Paulson” a 1997 Outer Limits episode adapted from King’s short story as well as in 1987’s The Tommyknockers.
Duma Key is a slow and intense story. It unravels like a well-wrapped birthday present. A great deal more happens during Edgar’s journey, but to detail it would ruin the surprises for the reader, unwrapping King’s present beforehand. Needless to say there will be terrible consequences for all, especially Edgar, whose talent is also a curse and a gift.
Duma Key is a terrifying book about friendship and the random events that make life what it is. It chases down the idea that even though we might sometimes hear the balls in the lottery machine ahead of time, the ability to do so comes with consequences and is perhaps linked to a greater evil and to things we don’t -- can’t? -- understand. | January 2008
Ali Karim is an industrial chemist, freelance journalist and book reviewer living in England. In addition to his being a regular January Magazine and The Rap Sheet contributor, he’s also the assistant editor of Shots, and writes for Deadly Pleasures, Crime Spree, Mystery Readers International magazines. Karim is an associate member (and literary judge) for both the British Crime Writers’ Association and the International Thriller Writers. He’s currently working on a violent existential thriller.