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Duma Key

Reviewed: September 29, 2009
By: Stephen King
Publisher: Pocket Books
770 pages, $12.99

The worst enemy any fictional character can have is the writer who created him. Since it is the nature of stories that they are built around conflict and problems, every writer eventually inflicts some kind of pain on his or her creations. In the case of Stephen King, physical trauma has become a big piece of his character creation toolbox ever since his near fatal accident in 1999. He spent months in therapy and on drugs at that point in his life, and the protagonists of his recent novels seem to undergo many of the same problems.

Edgar Freemantle was a very successful contractor until the day when a crane smashed into the side of his pickup truck. The impact cost him his right arm and the partial use of his leg, shattered his hip and left him in rehab for an extended period of time. Worse still the impact to his head left him with a type of aphasia, a lingering inability to find certain words when he needed them, along with some short term memory problems that gave him trouble with people’s names and recent events.

Accompanying the mental stress was a shortened temper and a tendency to rage, character changes for a man who had never been prone to those problems. That, as much as anything, cost him his marriage and left him wondering if such a frustrating life was worth living.

It was his psychologist who suggested that he move to another part of the country, get away St. Paul. Minnesota, and from things that ought to have been familiar but somehow weren’t. He also suggested that Edgar take up art, an interest he had set aside during his years in construction. If Dr. Kamen had known where that would lead, he might have thought twice about that advice.

Edgar rents a house on DumaKey, one of the many islands linked to the Florida mainland by a chain of bridges. Settled into the house he calls Big Pink, he embarks of a journey of recovery and self-discovery, assisted by a young man named Jack Cantori and by his next door neighbour, Wireman.

The latter fellow is a retired lawyer, also the victim of a head trauma, who is currently the caregiver for the elderly woman who owns DumaKey and all the houses there, including Big Pink. Elizabeth Eastlake is heading towards late stage Alzheimer’s when we first meet her - or maybe she isn’t. She’s had a fascinating life, including a brief period as an artistic child prodigy.

Edgar becomes something of a prodigy himself, moving from simple sketches to complex paintings in an amazingly brief period of time. To his amazement it appears that his burgeoning and compulsive talent has a psychic component, that it not only allows him to experience things from a distance, but also to influence the course of reality. Over time he comes to suspect that his muse is not altogether benevolent, but he really has no idea how right he is until its almost too late.

Eventually we learn the background of the Eastlake family, of events that happened when Elizabeth was a toddler, the name of the muse that once possessed her and is now influencing Edgar and just what it is that this rather Lovecraftian being wants.

This is not the first time that King has mined the territory of the elder gods in assembling the plot for a story. There are ways in which this novel resembles IT, one his earlier forays into this territory. I was also reminded on Lisey’s Story, a more recent book, in which the heroine survives personal tragedy and rebuilds her life.

Edgar is a well meaning and essentially good man whose struggle against physical limitations may well have had something to do with his ability to struggle against the malign force which is trying to use him. Still, he would never have begun to be successful in this battle without the help of Jack and Wireman just two members of an interesting supporting cast that helps to make this an interesting book.

There is tragedy here, of course. It’s not possible to have a horror novel in which there is no tragedy, and if bad things only happen to unsympathetic characters then the reader is not inspired to care about them.

DumaKey is not a fast-paced novel. The speed of the narrative doesn’t pick up until about 100 pages in, but once it begins to gather a head of steam it chugs right along, and once past the halfway mark I found t hard to put it down.

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