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Originally published Tuesday, January 22, 2008 at 12:00 AM


Book review

Stephen King's absorbing new thriller, "Duma Key"

Stephen King's latest doorstop of a thriller, "Duma Key," is an absorbing, and even moving, look at the creative process by way of supernatural possession, and its collateral damage to family and friends.

Seattle Times staff reporter

"Duma Key"

by Stephen King

Scribner, 607 pp., $28

Meet Edgar Freemantle, a man working to recover from a horrific accident that almost ...

Actually, if you're one of Stephen King's "constant readers," you've met him before. In "The Dead Zone." In "Kingdom Hospital." In "Dreamcatcher" ...

You get the idea. King — who suffered his own horrific accident and painful recovery several years ago — sure does repeat himself. And he still uses 10 words where five will do — I wish the editor King thanks for his "gentleness and ruthlessness" had mustered more of the latter. But his latest doorstop of a thriller, "Duma Key," is an absorbing, and even moving, look at the creative process by way of supernatural possession, and its collateral damage to family and friends.

In at least one sense, King moves out of his comfort zone, setting the tale not in his home state of Maine but a little island off the Florida coast. Freemantle has moved there on the advice of his shrink for a "geographical" cure. The self-made millionaire building contractor had been in a truck that lost in a mismatch against a big crane. That grisly accident lost Freemantle an arm, lost him some memory from brain damage, and lost him his wife after he tried to choke her and stab her with plastic cutlery in a postaccident rage fit. A change of scenery couldn't hurt.

"There is no tyrant as merciless as pain, no despot so cruel as confusion," Freemantle narrates in the wistful tone that permeates the book with doom. There's a nonfolksy cleanness to the prose that you'll appreciate if you got through King's "The Colorado Kid" and wanted to will it into flames.

Nearly isolated in the rental house he names "Big Pink," the man whose artistic scope consisted of doodling while waiting on hold begins to explode with talent. There's something powerful and sinister about the island that greatly amplifies the gifts of broken people. (See: "The Shining.") His unsettling drawings and paintings that turn prosaic Florida sunsets on their ears have more than just the visual force that floors everyone who sees them. They show him things. (Who his ex-wife is shtupping thousands of miles away, for instance). They predict the future. They kill. And one particular series, depicting various incarnations of a little girl getting closer and closer to a ghostly ship, foreshadows a horror that will cost Freemantle much more.

In King's nightmare take on the need to create, Freemantle's phantom arm itches like crazy when something needs to come out of him, and the arm increasingly manifests itself physically. He paints in a possessed fever and has a ravenous hunger when he comes out of it. And as he cranks out work at a phenomenal pace that makes him a big new celebrity in the local art scene, Freemantle's chronic pain begins to fade. But, as he learns from his neighbors, everything has a cost.

Somehow, the key to Duma Key resides in the elderly Elizabeth Eastlake, wealthy and fading patroness of the arts whose closet skeletons include those of her long-dead twin sisters. (See again: "The Shining.")

Freemantle's friendship with the great old broad's caretaker, Wireman, is one of the novel's highlights, an instant bond filled with banter, pop-culture references, fierce loyalty and a bit of perfectly normal snippiness. Wireman's constant referral to himself in the third person, along with his incessant use of muchacho, render him just slightly too cute, but well before the end of the book, you'll wish you had a pal like him. Likewise with Jack Cantori, the can-do college student who becomes Freemantle's (pardon the expression) right-hand man.


A somewhat larger gripe: King spends too much time on Freemantle's entrance into the art world. How many times does he need to show people discovering and raving over the "true American primitive"? Answer: fewer.

But the cost-benefit ratio is still on King's side in the ultimately scary and sad story about the heartbreak of divorce, parenthood and the insistence of truth in art.

Mark Rahner: 206-464-8259or

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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