Duma Key By Stephen King

A late show of force from the artist of dread

It is a mistake to think that only those writers and other artists considered "major" have an identifiable "late style". The works of Stephen King which have followed his near-fatal accident of 1999 are crucially different from those which preceded it. It is not that he has renounced the tropes of pulp horror for something more cerebral – the present book is as full of menacing phantoms as Lisey's Story was with strange plants of a nether dimension.

Nor, in spite of the painter hero of Duma Key, is it that King has become suddenly obsessed with the question of art itself. As early as The Shining, his flawed protagonist was a failed novelist whose writer's block becomes the door through which evil enters. Part of what we may as well call "Late King" is a determination to explore the tropes of horror he has neglected hitherto – the zombie apocalypse of Cell; the other world of Lisey's Story – and part is his growing sense of regret, of loss: that, at any point, you might be doing something for the last time, having your last day without aching pain.

At various points King has announced his retirement and, though he has never yet stuck to it, several of these books are about the end of careers, or of life as it has been lived. Duma Key's protagonist, Edgar Freemantle, is a developer left maimed and brain-damaged by the collapse of one of his own cranes; the opening chapters deal with a gruelling course of mental recuperation and physical rehabilitation which Edgar's marriage does not survive. His therapists know he is contemplating suicide and suggest that he try a change of scene. Edgar ends up taking an isolated house in the Florida Keys. We jump to the correct conclusion that this is going to be another of King's Bad Places, and sit in anticipation of disaster.

Edgar's vague impulse to take up the sketching and painting that were previously set aside for business becomes an obsession. Convincingly, his attempts to do justice to the sunset becomes a serious commitment to making new the biggest cliché of amateur painting. Edgar discovers the fascination of what is difficult, and his commonplace life is transfigured by it.

But he is not the first painter to rent the house, nor even the first person on the island to recover their faculties through art. In a parallel narrative, we learn of the childhood of Edgar's landlady Elizabeth, who took up drawing after a bad fall in infancy, and of her sisters, who came to bad ends. Like her, and like Dali, who had the sense to leave, Edgar finds himself painting a ship, which progressively becomes a ship of the dead.

There is a price for art, it turns out, and not a price that Edgar would have paid if he had known it in advance. The inchoate malevolent force gradually revealed as the story progresses is not, however, quite as overwhelmingly powerful or smart as it thinks it is. Unusually for King, this is a book whose central figure is a Competent Man in the classic American mould; Edgar, even one-armed, damaged and distraught, is not a man with whom even Powers should trifle. Late King, it is becoming apparent, is not so much about defeats as about that category of victory which we can ill afford.

Roz Kaveney's 'Superheroes!' is published this month by IB Tauris
Hodder & Stoughton £18.99 (581pp) £17.09 (free p&p) from 0870 079 8897

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