Published in 2008, Duma Key by Stephen King tells the story of Edgar Freemantle. After miraculously surviving an accident on a construction site (losing an arm and temporarily his personality and memory), Edgar is forced to retire as owner of a construction company and takes an indefinite vacation on Duma Key, a small island off the west coast of Florida. His wife has divorced him, as the accident seriously messed up his brain, and at one point he had attempted to murder her in a blind rage. Not long after moving in, Edgar discovers that something isn’t right on the island, though it feels good in the beginning. Soon after taking up his old hobby of sketching, Edgar discovers an innate talent for producing bigger-than-life paintings, which ends up being both a figurative and literal description.
As part of my Stephen King garage sale haul, I think this is the fourth book I’ve completed. In one sentence: Duma Key is in King’s upper tier of entertaining stories. It’s not his best, but it’s definitely worthwhile, and the ending is pretty decent! This book review will talk about the novel’s plot, characters, and narrative. There will be spoilers, so if you plan on reading this one, I highly recommend skipping this review until you have done so. Don’t worry, I’ll wait.
The novel does indeed fit within the supernatural horror genre, and it was a pretty unsettling at times, though Stephen King newbies might get a bigger kick out of it. What I appreciate is that Duma Key features a unique plot, which is amazing considering King’s long career. Imagine how many horror novels and movies have been released during that time, or even everything that’s come before!
As Edgar begins painting, he discovers that not only do his paintings predict the future, but they can alter reality as well. What he paints comes true. He eventually befriends one of the island’s long-term inhabitants, Jerome Wireman, who has a special ability of his own: he’s psychic. The two speculate that there is something about Duma Key that attracts people who have suffered accidents involving the brain, unlocking supernatural powers within them.
By the novel’s end, however, we discover that there is a malevolent force behind all of this, implied to be the greek goddess of the underworld, Persephone. In the same vein as Lovecraft, this is the tale of a powerful and old god waking up and influencing human events.
What makes this story personal is Edgar. We follow him from start to finish, and all of the events as manipulated by Persephone have a direct influence on Edgar’s life, most notably on the people he cares about. The story has a bit of a mystery element to it as well, as Edgar isn’t the first to encounter Persephone, and we get the tragic story of Elizabeth Eastlake piece by piece, the original painting prodigy who awoke Persephone when she was a little girl. It’s a riveting story once you get into the thick of it, and we immediately sympathize with Edgar in the first chapter, so King has done a good job getting us invested into the plot chiefly because it’s a tight-knit storyline and because of the characters.
If I had to nitpick, I would comment that King does pull a bit of a cheap trick during the storytelling. Since Edgar also has psychometric abilities (he is able to paint events that happen in the future, in the present, and in the past), there’s this one scene where he basically explains for us what the hell is happening. A bit of dry exposition, but what can you do?
Edgar is the everyday normal dude who gets his life turned upside down, inside out, wrung out, and hung to dry. He finds himself in a paranormal situation but approaches it with common sense and justified horror. The most admirable trait of Edgar is that he loves his family, and yeah that might sound corny, but when a character has this trait and they’re in a horror novel, that makes it all the more easier to like them.
And not just the characters themselves, but their relationships are what drives the novel. With Edgar we get the strained husband-wife relationship, as well as the bond a father and a daughter can have. He meets Wireman for the first time on the island, but they quickly become bros, an ideal model for classic male friendship. The portrayal of these relationships is almost as important as the characters themselves, and King, whom I’ve always believed to excel at characters more so than plot, has succeeded once again on all fronts.
The supporting cast are all well drawn and stand out as individuals with personality and presence. My favourite side character is Nan Melda, who isn’t even alive during the present events of the novel. When Edgar meets Elizabeth, the owner of the island, she is eighty-something years old, but when she was a little girl, Nan Melda was her nanny. It is Nan Melda who discovers the method to “drown” Persephone, and we get her story near the end of the novel. The sacrifice and bravery of Nana Melda was surprisingly touching and tragic, given that she gets only a small amount of page time, reinforcing the idea that sometimes the best way to get readers to like a character is have other characters talk about them.
Nothing new here. King’s narrative is solid, to the point, emotionally charged, and profane. If you are one of his Constant Readers, you might notice the over-exaggerated analogies here and there, but those have become a staple of King literature, and they don’t happen frequently enough to be annoying.
At this point, King must be commended for his consistency. I’ve read a lot of books, and I think we all know there’s a lot more bad and mediocre writing out there than there is good writing, and even more rare: spectacular writing. Given this fact, it’s amazing that King’s work is so consistently enjoyable and immersive, as his works usually range from good to great to spectacular. I believe only one or two of his works have been universally agreed upon to be duds.
And no, his work isn’t great because he’s fighting “the man” or preaching social justice or trying to change the world. He’s telling stories about ghouls and vampires and monsters, and during the time you spend flipping through his pages, he makes you believe in them. That is why he is great.
Read it! It’s a solid read that you’ll likely blaze through given it’s (relatively) short length and easy-to-read demeanour, and it’s a fantastic story, not just because it’ll give you the heebly-jeeblies, but because there are genuinely touching moments that shows the value of family, love, and faith. I’m not sure if this is true for all horror novels, but perhaps a good scary story ought to reaffirm the goodness of the human heart. You know, contrast and all that. But let’s not get too literary.
This has been a gamobo review. Thanks for reading.