“Duma Key” by Stephen King (Scribner, 2008)

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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 The Tommyknockers and 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. 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 horribly 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.

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.  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 is 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.

If you liked this review and are interested in purchasing this book, click here.

Originally written on January 27th, 2008 ©Alex C. Telander.

“Blaze” by Richard Bachman (Scribner, 2007)

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Stephen King puts the questioners – including those who might be wondering why the name Stephen King is larger than Richard Bachman on the front cover – to rest in his introduction explaining his use of the pseudonym during the 1970’s.  He also goes on to explain how when he originally discovered the manuscript for Blaze, he wasn’t that impressed with it, and left it to “mature” with time, perhaps.  Recently, King decided it worthy for publication with a few minor modifications; Simon & Schuster is now calling Blaze “Fargo meets Of Mice and Men.”

Clayton “Blaze” Blaisdell is not a very clever fellow, in fact you might go as far as saying he is mildly retarded, due to his father throwing him down the stairs when he was a kid, cracking his head, gaining an ugly dent in his forehead, and spending weeks in a coma.  Upon finally recovering, Blaze was considered a “special” person.  He is currently very much down on his luck, flat broke, and looking to make some money fast, whatever it takes.

Blaze is essentially two stories about one man’s life.  One story is of Blaze’s history, his childhood, his life-changing experiences, his time spent in foster care, the good times, and mostly the bad.  The other story told concurrently with his biography in separate chapters, is Blaze’s plan to kidnap a baby from a rich family, hold the child for ransom, and then make bank on it.  The problem is that Blaze is a con artist; he’s never been a very good con artist, because he used to have a partner – George Rackley – who was his best friend and always looked out for him.  George got killed in one of their cons and Blaze is all alone now.  Sort of.  Because in his mind, he hears the voice of George, telling him what to do, how to carry out the kidnapping, how to cover his tracks, and how to make the ransom.  Only, as I said, Blaze is a few sandwiches short of a picnic, actually make that a few cups of coffee short of the thermos too; so he keeps making mistakes.  He also starts to really like looking after the baby and even becomes pretty good at it.  And now the police are on his tail and he’s not sure what he’s going to do.  The made-up voice in his head – which he knows isn’t really George – isn’t helping.  He’s going to have to make a decision for himself, which he hasn’t really done before.

After the unpleasant disinterest I had with Cell, and the unimpressive Lisey’s Story, Blaze is a welcome return to classic Stephen King with a gritty reality that we’ve all come to look for in his work.  The characters are interesting and well created; the plot while somewhat predictable, still riveting.  Blaze will probably go on to become a favorite novel for many King fans, and will no doubt start attracting movie producers for option rights in the near future.

If you liked this review and are interested in purchasing this book, click here.

Originally written on June 14th 2007 ©Alex C. Telander.

“Cell” by Stephen King (Scribner, 2006)

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Cell is Stephen King’s first horror novel since he completed his epic Dark Tower series. In the middle of writing the last two books in the series he was asked what he’d be writing about next and his response had been something to the effect of: “I’m never writing another book again!” That’s what happens when you ask a guy about writing when he’s drowning in thousands of pages and hundreds of thousands of words. But now some years and much needed rest and recovery later, Cell takes technology and cell phones to a whole new level: zombies!

With the opening line, “The event that came to be known as The Pulse began at 3:03 p.m., eastern standard time, on the afternoon of October 1,” the reader is immediately dragged into the thrall of the book, which is unusual since King usually takes up to fifty pages to get started with his books. “The Pulse” is an electromagnetic signal sent through cell phones, so anyone using their phone at that point is immediately affected, the result being their mind is completely wiped. What’s left? Our primitive, primordial thoughts and reactions, which are little to none; the result: zombies!

Clayton Riddell has just landed his first huge lucrative comic book deal and is ready to return home to Kent Pond in Maine to his wife — who is drifting away from him — and his son to tell them everything is going to be okay, but then the pulse hits and pandemonium erupts: zombies!

Clay has only one goal in mind: to get to his wife, and more importantly his son and make sure he’s alive and well. He consoles himself with the terror of knowing his son has a shiny red cellphone, though the last time Clay saw it, it was under his son’s bed, forgotten; then again with everything that’s happened, his son might have chosen to keep his cell phone handy. With the help of a middle-aged man and a fifteen year old girl, they make their slow journey north through New Hampshire and on to Maine. Somehow the reader is supposed to just take it for granted that the other two have little interest in going anywhere else except to see Clay’s wife and son. They soon discover that the zombies are very human in one way: they sleep at night and for some reason like easy listening music while they are in this “resting state,” which involves packing together like sardines in a big arena or gym and just lying there, eyes open, doing nothing. Strange zombies!

As the novel progresses, through a process of elimination, it is discovered that the zombies are telepathic, working on a “hive mind” system, and also possess some psychic power that allows the “phonies” to talk through “normies” using their mouths. It is also revealed that there is a protected reserve in Maine called Kashwak where there is no cellphone reception (KASHWAK=NO-FO), and therefore a place of refuge for the normies. It is there the group is headed (other members are added), destroying “flocks” of phonies along the way, and are in fact pulled there with the psychic power of the phonies, who’s spokesperson is a zombie they call the Raggedy Man. As Clay discovers that his wife and son are already near Kashwak, they all head there, knowing that the reserve will be the final showdown between the normies and the phonies. The question is whether humanity will triumph, or whether homo sapiens sapiens will be reduced to zombies!

As Cell gets into full swing, I was hoping for something a little more epic, though I kind of figured this wouldn’t happen since the book was only 350 pages, I knew it couldn’t get too “big.” Nevertheless, I would have liked a little more depth to it. My biggest complaint with cataclysm stories is that they tend to focus on such a small scale. I know opening this up nationally or internationally would make the book three times the size, but I at least want to get an inkling of whether this is just happening in New England or whether the entire world has been affected. My other complaint, which is a common one with some of King’s books, is I like explanations for how and why things happen. It is hinted that The Pulse might be a form of attack by terrorists, but that’s as far as King goes to explaining why all this is happening. But this is a King novel and I certainly enjoyed it for his first big post-Dark Tower endeavor, and we mustn’t forget, following in the vein of George Romero, this is ultimately a book about zombies!

P.S. Favorite dead body description of the book: “He looked at a headless woman, a legless man, at something so torn open it had become a flesh canoe filled with blood.” All I can say is: zombies!

If you liked this review and are interested in purchasing this book, click here.

Originally written on January 29th, 2006 ©Alex C. Telander.