A UK hardback first edition/first printing of Duma Key by Stephen King, published by Hodder & Stoughton in 2008, with a front cover image by Lisa Kimmell. Now, the thing about Stephen King is, I’ve read a lot of his books. Back in the 1990s and 2000s I devoured every Stephen King book I could get my hands on, from Carrie (1974) to Insomnia and more recently, 11/22/1963. Only Dean Koontz, Anne Rice and Susan Elisabeth Phillips (! I know, no horror) approached King in terms of the number of books from their oeuvre I consumed.
Duma Key is about a writer who loses his arm and his marriage and decamps to Duma Key, Florida, where, encouraged by his youngest daughter, he begins painting pictures which turn out to be dangerously predictive…
Most Stephen King fans will admit that the last couple of novels by the international bestselling author, while selling well, have been somewhat lacking coming from the renowned horror writer; one might even go so far as to use the term “mediocre,” and don’t get me started on Cell. Thankfully, with the arrival of Duma Key, the slate has been wiped clean and the master of horror is back! King’s first novel set in his alternate home of Florida weighs in at over six hundred pages, and while it reveals a more laid-back and matured author, with the terrifying days of It perhaps over; Duma Key is nevertheless an incredibly well written novel with some wonderfully deep and complex characters, and a world that is just as complicated but in many more ways real.
Enter Edgar Freemantle. An entrepreneur who started a construction company and developed it into a multi-million dollar business; loving husband of two adult daughters; until he is involved in a freak on-site accident that should’ve killed him, but leaves him missing his right arm, a couple of slowly healing broken ribs, and a damaged mind that results in outbursts of anger and violence. The strain becomes too great and Freemantle’s marriage falls apart, leaving him an angry, empty shell.
“Talent is a wonderful thing, but it won’t carry a quitter. ”
Seeking escape, he leases a beautiful house on the island of Duma Key. While watching the breathtaking sunsets, Freemantle decides to try his hand at some artwork, having sketched a little throughout his life. He discovers the more he works, the better he gets, soon switching to paints and canvasses; he also discovers that painting satisfies the seemingly insatiable itch in his missing right arm. Freemantle’s work is of the sunsets and the beautiful coastline, along with the occasional abstract object added in to offset it; he is eventually tagged as an American Primitive, but as more and more people discover his work, they are amazed by it and at his first gallery showing all works listed for sale are sold.
But beneath the art, there is a sinister plot at work, because this is after all a Stephen King novel. Freemantle discovers a psychic ability in his work, painting items he should know nothing about, as well as the eventual power to paint events that come to fruition: whether it be the restoring of blindness, or the forced suicide of a serial killer. And then there’s something wrong with the sold paintings: death follows them. The plot thickens, deepens, and becomes darker as the enigmatic history of Duma Key is discovered. It seems Freemantle isn’t the only person in its history to come to the island with a fragile mind and a special ability expressed through art. Then there’s the south side of the island which has become an overgrown and seemingly impenetrable jungle. The last time Freemantle and his daughter, Ilse, took a trip headed in that direction, Ilse immediately felt nauseous and horrible sick, while Freemantle felt the insatiable familiar itch that grew to an unstoppable buzzing; upon driving back north, they mysteriously found their ailments disappearing. Clearly something evil and powerful doesn’t want them getting to the south of the island.
“I realized the shells were talking in a voice I recognized. I should have; it was my own. Had I always known that? I suppose I had. On some level, unless we’re mad, I think most of us know the various voices of our own imaginations.
And of our memories, of course. They have voices, too. Ask anyone who has ever lost a limb or a child or a long-cherished dream. Ask anyone who blames himself for a bad decision, usually made in a raw instant (an instant that is most commonly red). Our memories have voices, too. Often sad ones that clamor like raised arms in the dark.”
Duma Key is not just a novel for the fans, but a cathartic response from King over his near-death accident in 1999; no doubt he relived his agonizing recovery while writing about Freemantle, and yet it is because of this firsthand experience, that Duma Key feels much more personal and empathetic.
“If I kept saying it; if I kept reaching out. My accident really taught me just one thing: the only way to go on is to go on. To say ‘I can do this’ even when you know you can’t.”
Also being King’s first foray into his new sometime Florida home, one might think his fellow Floridians a little unhappy on this introduction, or being Stephen King, they may feel the opposite and expect this. Regardless, Duma Key was a welcome return of the great horror writer, with an extra development of character and setting that King seems to have discovered in his later years, making this book one of his best, and one of my personal favorites.