Tracing The Trails : Duma Key
It was years after graduating from college that I finally allowed myself the luxury of reading for pleasure. Absent was the need to force myself to read and pretend to understand fairly thick intellectual texts. The time had come in my life to remind myself how much joy books could bring me.
At the time, as I was commuting a fair amount to work and I had several hours in the morning by myself. I turned for the first time to audiobooks. It was a great way to remind myself of books I had loved in the past. I listened to the works of Michael Chrichton and John Grisham and most importantly, the books of Stephen King.
I started with the classics I had grown up with. Salem’s Lot, The Shining, The Stand and so forth. I picked up a few others I hadn’t read but still from that time period. Then I decided that I should take the plunge and try some of his newer books. I was getting them from the library after all so what did I have to lose?
Duma Key was the first one I tried and I can confidently say that it was this book that really turned me around when it came to his newer work. When I was in college in the mid-nineties I had come to the fairly uninformed opinion that Stephen King had either lost his touch or simply I had stopped responding to his words. It all amounted to the same thing though. I wasn’t that interested. Adding to this was the fact that I grew up in a fairly progressive literary community and therefore felt actually guilty that I had ever indulged in genre fiction. It was like if I was a chef at a four star restaurant but hit up a gas station for microwaved tacquitos on my way home at night.
Duma Key was a great, entertaining read and I still felt that way, reading it again after all this time..
I immediately liked the character of Edgar, the wealthy building contractor who is in a bad accident and loses his arm. As he struggles emotionally to deal with his loss and his accident, his marriage crumbles and he starts a descent into depression. Recognizing this, his physician suggests an extended vacation. Edgar decides to go along and this is how he ends up renting a house on the beach on the small island of Duma Key.
While here, Edgar decides to take up the art of painting and immediately begins some stunning recreations of the landscape and ocean around him. But his paintings aren’t simply beautiful. This newly discovered skill could very well be something more, something that sets off a darkly supernatural journey through the rest of the book.
Duma Key bears distinction also as the first novel to be set in either Minnesota or Florida. The King family had made the move to Florida so we were starting to see a bit of a shift away from the traditional Maine locales of his books. I thought King did a good job bringing his normal level of attention and detail to a part of the country that had previously not seemed to be on his radar.
There are a few things in particular I liked about Duma Key. First, I thought much of the imagery and mood was evocative of some of King’s earlier, pure horror books. Like Bag Of Bones, Duma Key seemed to be a return to the style of writing we had all come to love from King. There are some beautifully creepy moments throughout the book and I thought King did a much better job than in previous titles in making me feel the story happening in front of me.
Second, I loved the characters. I already spoke of Edgar but I also liked his closest neighbor, Wireman. The relationship and friendship between the two of them reminded me a little of Louis and Jud from Pet Sematary. Both characters were great on their own but there was also a nice back and forth between them in their dialog and interactions.
Third, I thought the supernatural elements of the book were very well done. There’s the spirits of people killed on the island, there’s a ghost ship that Edgar sees in his visions and underneath all of it an all-consuming dark force that is actively working and orchestrating people in a way that’s pretty frightening.
The story itself isn’t perfect, I’ll be the first to admit that. For some reason, following his accident, Edgar seems to develop a kind of extra-sensory, psycho-kinetic ability that is never really explained. Wireman also seems to possess some psychic abilities following a head trauma. We seem to be left with the implication where we are just expected to accept that head trauma can lead to supernatural abilities. And while I know that sometimes you don’t get an explanation for everything, considering how the story comes out, this smacks a little too much of deus ex machina to me.
The pacing of the story is a little off as well, in my opinion. Once the book gets legs, it really gets moving but until that point, it is a bit of a slow burn. So while I feel like the second half of the book is outstanding, I have to concede that the first half struggles a bit. Still, there are some occasional moments that are creepy enough to keep me moving. Plus, I feel invested and interested enough in the characters to stay engaged. Ultimately, it is going to be up to the individual reader in terms of how much work and time they want to put in to work their way through the story.
The final third of the book has a great feel of Shakespearean tragedy to it. It is a chain of events kicked off by the night which Edgar finally commits to displaying his work at a local art gallery. The paintings sell out but he soon realizes that he may have been responsible for sending something off the island, other than just paint on canvases. It’s a gut-wrenching sequence that unfolds, one that hit me particularly hard as a parent and in typical King fashion, he seems to suggest that everything is going to be okay while at the same time, he’s sneaking in behind you to yank that all away.
I may be somewhat lenient on this book as it does hold a certain amount of nostalgia for me. Still, reading it now through a different mental filter than I had back then, I still thought this was a strong book and a big step up from the titles leading up to it. In all the books of his I have read from the new millennium, I would place this in my top five. I love ghost stories that are actually dark and scary. I also love ghost ships.
There’s a lot in this story for me to love.