Even before he was hit by a truck in 1999, being bedridden had frequently been one of the primal fears powering Stephen King's fiction. King has got much creative mileage out of incapacitated characters, from Paul Sheldon hobbled and trapped in bed by obsessive fan Annie Wilkes in 1987's Misery, Jessie Burlingame left handcuffed to the head board in a solitary cabin in Maine, after her husband suffers a fatal heart attack during an S&M session in 1992's Gerald's Game, to the horrors witnessed by Louis Creed while working for the University of Maine's campus health service in 1983's Pet Sematary. Since his accident, King has relived his personal horror story in a number of novels and television programmes, including Dreamcatcher (2001), Kingdom Hospital (2004) and The Dark Tower VI: Song of Susannah (2004).
He returns to this theme in his latest novel, Duma Key, which opens with his most vivid depiction of a traumatised patient to date. Edgar Freemantle, who has made his millions in building and contracting, loses an arm in a freak accident and comes round to discover that his wife wants a divorce. The scenes following Freemantle's physical recovery, of his anger and suicidal depression, are the author writing at his absolute best, immediately gripping the reader and putting him on the protagonist's side. Disability is still a taboo in fiction and film and King deals with it brilliantly, perhaps deliberately rebuffing Paul Theroux's fictional dismissal of the author in his 2001 novel Hotel Honolulu: "horror is not a dog that gets bitten by a bat and besieges a mother and son... horror is a broken leg." Or a missing arm.
While Freemantle isn't, as are many of King's protagonists, a best-selling author, he is an amateur artist, who returns to his hobby when he moves to Duma Key, a remote strip of land off Florida's West Coast, to rebuild his life. He names his new house "Big Pink" (presumably after the shared house where Bob Dylan and the Band recorded The Basement Tapes, in a subtle reference to hidden creativity in isolation) and tries to improve his artwork by seeking out criticism and studying books on Dali. He soon discovers that Dali was one of the previous inhabitants of his house, which has also been home to Marcel Duchamp, Keith Haring and Alexander Calder.
King's last novel about art, 1995's Rose Madder, was one of his most problematic, and there is something equally unsatisfying about Duma Key. It feels like two novels in opposition: an excellent one about the artistic process in the manner of his Bag of Bones and Lisey's Story, and a more hokey tale that revisits the genre cliché of an artist whose paintings have an uncanny power. As Freemantle observes when one of the characters explains the plot to him, it's "just too gothic".
Freemantle's artistic career has similarities with King's literary one, characterised mainly by an amazing facility and prolificacy, but this doesn't grip as much as his novels about fictional authors. King has become such a sophisticated writer that this novel is never less than page-turning, but it doesn't have quite the literary accomplishment of the best of his recent work. That said, every time it seems to lapse into predictability King gives the plot another twist, and it's the most stylistically sober of his books. Anyone looking for first-class beach entertainment will find much to delight them here, but for those of us who enjoy King's work most when he's challenging and dismantling genre expectations, Duma Key, for all its undeniable strengths, doesn't quite deliver.