Phantom limbs in paradise
Author: Stephen King
Cold, snowy winter is the perfect time to curl up with a nice, big tome by a favorite author. Even better if the story happens to take place in the sunny Florida Keys. Reading Stephen King’s Duma Key is like having a long conversation with an old friend – all his familiar ingredients are there, waiting to be unfolded and examined with a blanket and a mug of hot chocolate. But definitely not with a paint brush and canvas…
Because, you see, art is dangerous on Duma Key. Edgar Freemantle doesn’t discover this simple fact until well into the story, after we’ve known him for long enough to consider him a pretty regular guy despite his decidedly irregular circumstances. When we meet him for the first time, Edgar is recovering from a near-fatal workplace accident that broke his body and crippled his mind. The long, painful and frustrating road to recovery cost him his business and his marriage and a lot of his sense of self. Having made millions in construction only to be devastated by a piece of his own equipment has Edgar taking a long, hard look at what is left of his life. He doesn’t like what he sees.
His therapist suggests a change of scenery before Edgar takes any other drastic action. He has daughters who love him, he’s still got more money than he can ever spend – why not give himself a chance to heal in some new place – one without baggage from his former life? His decision to take that advice and relocate for a year to Duma Key is one that changes his life yet again – for better or worse.
Duma Key is in many ways a typical Stephen King epic – a regular guy is thrust into a supernatural situation and has to deal or die. Having lost his right arm in his accident, Edgar is as surprised as anyone when his dabbling in sketches turns into a full blown obsession with painting. Not just any old obsession, either, but one that produces work of astonishing quality – and includes some input from that missing arm. All of Florida is abuzz with the discovery of this amazing new talent.
But Edgar knows that his talent is somehow wrong, that he is doing things and waking forces that should be left alone. He simply can’t suppress the urge to paint. He has made some friends on Duma – the elderly Elizabeth Eastlake and her caregiver Wireman. They’re good people, Elizabeth slipping away to Alzheimer’s and Wireman caring for her with as much dignity as the disease will allow. The pair plays a big role in bringing Edgar back into the world – becoming emotionally invested in their well being makes him more invested in his own.
But as he realizes that Duma Key is a more formidable foe than any accident he wonders whether he can fight yet again for his own life and the lives of those he loves. I think we all know he’ll try.
Edgar is a little different than the average King hero – he’s got more flaws, more money and his obstacles are as much internal as external. We meet him quite a while before he gets to Duma, giving us a chance to like him despite his considerable shortcomings. King does a lot of foreshadowing of the bad things to come, so we know that his time on the island will not be serene. The build-up, which I admit annoyed me at first, actually does a nice job of giving the place an ominous feel from the beginning. Every little detail might be hiding something wicked, so every little detail becomes more interesting.
I really liked the peripheral characters in Duma Key – Wireman and Elizabeth Eastlake. I was afraid at first that Wireman – with his single name – was going to be a ghost or ghoul or other nasty, but he’s a genuinely good soul caring for another in his own version of a Second Life. Elizabeth Eastlake is a very wealthy woman with a long, long history on Duma Key. She could shed a lot of light on Edgar’s feverish nights of creating art, the powerful nature of his creations and how he needs to respond to Duma, but her illness is blocking her way. She is only able to give cryptic clues (very King-ish clues – I mean that in a good way). She’s also living a Second Life – a long one, with a past shrouded in both mystery and tragedy.
In general, I would have to put Duma Key flat in the middle of the pack in terms of Stephen King penned tomes. It has a nice balance of good and evil, the characters are as well written as ever and the supernatural aspects are as menacing and vague as always. It wouldn’t be supernatural if we understood it all, now would it? My biggest quibble would be with the level of scariness – it isn’t quite as frightening as some of his other tales. He spends a lot of time with Edgar as a trauma survivor – maybe still working his way through his own injury? But that costs a little bit in the plotted scares. Overall a good read. 4 stars out of 5 and recommended for King tome fans. It’s a big book – not a good one to pick up for a first time King reader, but perfect for the seasoned veteran on a chilly winter evening.
— S. Millinocket