Lisey’s Story

Reviewed: September 10, 2008
By: Stephen King
Publisher: Pocket Books
656 pages, $12.99

Stephen King wants everyone to understand that the famous horror novelist’s wife in the this novel who has to deal with rabid fans, the death of her husband and the results of her husband’s peculiar upbringing, is not based on Tabitha King, nor are Lisey’s strange sisters in any way based on Tabitha’s family.

On the other hand ...

We enter the story two years after the sudden death of Scott Landon, a best-selling novelist with a penchant for dark stories, who sometimes had a substance abuse problem and a number of very strange talents besides his skill with a keyboard.

Lisey Landon has been slowly working through Scott’s legacy, deciding what to do with his papers and collections, and wondering just what her own life was about. She’d been a “famous author’s wife”, that all but invisible person who turns up, slightly out of focus, in photographs and who gets mentioned in women’s magazines in columns about “so and so’s spouse and home life.”

Lisey’s immediate problems concern her sisters and Scott’s legacy. One of her sisters, Amanda, has been subject to bouts of depression throughout her life, and her collapse into catatonia is not entirely unexpected. What is a surprise is how thoroughly Scott had anticipated this before he died and had, in fact, made all the arrangements necessary for Amanda’s care in a proper facility. That was spooky. How had he known?

The more immediate, more dangerous, problem, is the one posed by "Zack McCool". McCool" represents himself as a friend of Professor Joseph Woodbody, the University of Pittsburgh representative who had been trying to score Scott’s papers for their library, and who was a bit of pain. She’d put him off, and then "Zack” showed up, first on the phone with veiled threats; then in her mailbox with a neighbour’s dead cat; then in her very house, in Scott’s den, with malicious intent and some torture with a can opener. If she didn’t give him what he wanted, he said he would kill her, and Lisey had no trouble at all believing him.

That’s all in the present, which is given to us in the past tense.

Probably half of the novel is scenes from a relationship, tales from the life of Scott and Lisey, all narrated in a present tense voice, from her point of view, and sometimes from his, as he tells her about his childhood.

We get moments like these: the time that Scott was shot, and miraculously recovered; the night Scott and Lisey really got serious; Scott’s bizarre childhood and the reason why he had to kill his father (what?); how Scott’s brother turned into a monster (huh?); where the stories really come from (???) and what else can be found there.

Most importantly, we get some moments that Lisey has allowed herself to forget because they were too bizarre, too outside her experience, or too frightening. It is in those moments, however, that her hope can be found. Much of this lost and faded memory is triggered by a succession of messages that she discovers Scott has left behind for her, a kind of supernatural scavenger hunt (bool hunt) which opens up her mind and allows her to see possibilities. In recalling those moments she finds the power to bring her sister back from the sinister pool in Boo’ya Moon where mentally and emotionally disturbed people are lured into immobility in that other world that Scott had once taught her to visit.

Lisey also needs this power, and every ounce of courage she has, to dispose of McCool". She has to rise to the occasion, SOWISA (strap on whenever it seems appropriate) as Scott used to say, and find the strength to make everything okay.

King has written about the lives of writers several times now, but each take is a little different and each metaphor for the act of creation reveals a new facet of the thing it describes. In Misery, writing was like falling through a hole in the paper. In other books his writer/heroes have talked about being “in the zone”. In The Dark Tower saga there was a strong suggestion that the writer is somehow a conduit for the telling of events that actually have happened or are happening elsewhere or elsewhen.

There’s also a sense that the creative life is just a hairsbreadth away from insanity (The Dark Half and The Secret Garden), but somehow one is left with the impression that writing can also be something of a salvation. Certainly, in this book, it is writing that saves Scott Landon from succumbing to the darkness that that took his brother and his father.

It is in his final bit of writing, stored in a place where Lisey could find it only if she regained the ability to go there, that Scott finally explains his childhood to her. This frees her from the stasis she has been in since he died, and brings the book to a peaceful end. Stephen King believes in redemption, but in his stories you have to want it and you have to work at it.