Copyright 2008 by Gary L. Pullman
In recent years, it seems that Stephen King has begun to think of himself as a great American writer who can write simply to please himself. In reality, most of his fiction is apt to be forgotten soon after his demise. One or two books, perhaps, will survive their author. Duma Key isn’t likely to be one, any more than the self-parody that was Lisey’s Story. His latest (and certainly not his greatest) is self-indulgent and pretentious and disappointing as hell.
The protagonist, Edgar Freemantle, loses his right arm and then his wife. He becomes suicidal, and his shrink tells him to seek a change of scenery, which leads him to Duma Key, Florida. Too bad the shrink didn’t tell Edgar to go ahead and end it all. His having done so would have spared readers his endless bellyaching.
At Duma Key, Edgar tries his hand at art. He also meets a lawyer who also wanted to commit suicide (and should have) after his wife and daughter were killed; he did manage to put a bullet in his brain, and although even that didn’t end it for him, at least he made the attempt, which is more than can be said for Edgar.
There’s something supernatural about Edgar’s artistic talent; he can use it to kill or to heal and to paint a mysterious “ship of the dead” that troubles him. From here, the plot, such as it is, sickens further, dying well before the story’s absurd denouement. Suffice it to say that this is another King-size ripoff, involving, this time, a goddess-doll that collects servant-souls and commands the ship of the dead that Edgar spends most of his days trying to paint. After the goddess-doll kills Edgar’s daughter Ilse, Edgar encounters a giant alligator, and--well, who cares, really? Certainly, King doesn’t seem to have.
For the most part, since his own death-defying accident, King’s fiction has become increasing self-indulgent and unnecessarily circuitous, losing any pizzazz, suspense, or horror. They’re just interminably boring. Maybe there’s another book up King’s sleeve that’s worth reading, but he hasn’t written one in the past 10 years or so.
What does this decline mean? If it’s only King’s decline, not all that much, but if his deterioration heralds that of horror fiction per se, then it’s noteworthy--and scary. For many years, King’s name has been more or less synonymous with contemporary horror fiction and with horror fiction that was relatively good. If anything, it’s since become tantamount to wallowing in the slime of narcissism. Dean Koontz, who cut his fangs in the science fiction and horror genres, is pretty much writing cross-genre stuff about as meaningless as Duma Key and Lisey’s Story, recycling the same sad story lines as he’s been using for the last 20 or 30 years. Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child have discarded everything but Special Agent Aloysius Pendergast and his tiresome ward, Constance. Dan Simmons has gone over to the science fiction side of the Farce, and his writing has become impossibly self-important, denser than Herman Melville or William Faulkner or Henry James on their worst days. Bentley Little has told the same story, in different settings, nearly a dozen times--and still hasn’t figured out how to end the damned thing. James Rollins’ stories, although not horror per se, are page-turners, but, again, each seems much the same as the next, since he writes, as do so many in the genre, according to a fairly rigid formula. Robert MacCammon hasn’t written anything worth reading in well over a decade. True, there’s Speaks the Nightbird, but it’s not worth reading.
It may not be merely King who’s petering out; it may be the whole horror genre. Maybe a moratorium on horror is needed. Maybe the ingredients need to steep a while or new ingredients need to be brewed.
King’s attempt to pass the torch to his son, Joe Hill, is proof that more of the same isn’t going to work; the best thing about Junior‘s book is its title, Heart-Shaped Box. The rest is of the same quality as an expletive deleted.
Unless there’s an Edgar Allan Poe or an H. P. Lovecraft waiting in the wings, the horror genre’s immediate future seems bleak, indeed.
Bleaker, perhaps, even than Duma Key.