When I moved to Stephen King’s home state of Maine, I thought it would be fun (if a bit cliché) to finally read his books in earnest, and discover how I really feel about his work. For this installment, I packed up my shorts, sandals and ghost pirate repellent and cracked open his 2008 novel Duma Key.
On June 19, 1999, Stephen King was staying at his camp in Western Maine, enjoying a bit of a family reunion on the lake. He was planning on taking everyone to the movies that evening, but figured he still had enough time for his daily four-mile walk. It was a decision that almost cost him his life.
While walking against traffic on Route 5, a van swerved directly in his path. King smashed into the windshield, flew 14 feet into the air and landed on the pavement, breaking his leg in nine places. In his 2000 memoir/manual On Writing, King describes being helicoptered to the hospital in Lewiston, a ride during which one of his lungs collapsed:
“… as I lie in the helicopter looking out at the bright blue summer sky, I realize that I am actually lying in death’s doorway. Someone is going to pull me one way or the other pretty soon.”
Eight years later, the author completed a novel seemingly inspired from that realization, giving shape to that entity whose unseen hand has the power to pull us back from the brink, or push us off a cliff. In Duma Key, this entity is definitely not something we would call God.
This is the story of Edgar Freemantle, a successful Minnesota developer whose entire existence is upended by a horrifying construction site accident, which claims his right arm and rattles his brain to the point where he has trouble finding the right words for things. In the early stages of his against-all-odds recovery, Edgar is physically and verbally abusive to his wife Pam, who divorces him. Broken in more ways than one, Edgar contemplates suicide, until his therapist asks him if there are any creative outlets he can use to build up “hedges against the night.”
Edgar immediately thinks of sketching. Soon, he’s asking his realtor to find him a rental in a warm, remote place, so he can continue his recovery and maybe even stumble across his muse. Once he arrives at a remote, largely uninhabited island, Duma Key transforms from an exploration of the grim aftermath of physical trauma to something of an anti-ableist superhero origin story. As Edgar experiences a remarkable artistic reawakening, he realizes that the phantom itch in his missing hand is maybe more than a phantom. The more he understands its power to not only make goosebump-raising works of art, but also right the occasional wrong in the real world, Edgar feels like he’s risen from the dead. Problem is, he’s not the only one.
“Some questions I have never answered to my own satisfaction,” Edgar admits in one of King’s “How to Draw a Picture” interludes, “but I have drawn my own pictures and I know that when it comes to art, it’s perfectly okay to paraphrase Nietzsche: if you keep your focus, eventually your focus will keep you. Sometimes without parole.”
On the rare occasions when King sets his stories outside of Maine, it’s usually for a good reason. Duma Key is no exception. The author and his wife Tabitha began spending their winters in the Sunshine State in the late-’90s, after a falling icicle almost killed their dog. “We never really came to terms with the fact that we were rich” until that moment, King told USA Today. They got a place in Sarasota, a short drive over the bridge from islands like Siesta Key. Duma Key is a fictional place, but it is set off the coast of Sarasota. So when King writes about visiting tourists blasting Toby Keith and ruining his day, it’s safe to say that we’re reading the very real complaints of an honorary Floridian.
More importantly, the geography of Southwestern Florida is integral to this story. Edgar’s transformation into an up-and-coming “American primitive” artist is sparked by his terrifying paintings of the Duma sunset, as seen from the porch of “Big Pink,” his rented beach-house-on-stilts. And the book’s most important relationship, between Edgar and his Duma neighbor Jerome Wireman, is a result of the former’s daily beach walks. The first time they interact, Edgar can’t quite make it all the way to Wireman’s beach chair. When he finally gets there a few trips later, Wireman has a celebratory drink waiting for him. In a book full of arguments that you can’t age out of creative inspiration, King also shows that it’s possible to forge meaningful friendships late in life as well.
The first time Wireman and I actually met he laughed so hard he broke the chair he was sitting in, and I laughed so hard I almost fainted … It wasn’t the only time we laughed together. Wireman was many things to me – not least of all my fate – but most of all, he was my friend.
Wireman is only one of a handful of colorful-yet-haunted characters that populate this story, including the octogenarian art patron and wealthy heiress Elizabeth Eastlake, whose tragic family history is tied up with the ancient evil that resides in Duma Key’s ominous psychotropic jungle. Edgar’s wife and daughters play critical, life-saving roles, a vision of how post-divorce bonds can transcend bitterness. A boozy Tampa art critic steals a few scenes, and Edgar’s pseudo-assistant Jack is a lovable and supportive kid with a knack for keeping his boss sane. It’s a classic King strategy – make you care about people as they become closer and closer friends, and then seal that bond with a healthy dose of shared trauma.
Horror movies will always go back to the “child draws something super scary” well, as a way to depict an innocent being’s mind being overtaken. In Duma Key, those scary drawings are more than just drawings. It’s kind of amazing that King hadn’t explored the terror of that idea before, given his penchant for writing about haunted creative types. Yes, this book has some pretty clear callbacks to classic moments from It and The Shining and Pet Sematary and John Carpenter’s film The Fog, but on the whole, it’s a fresh take on the entrancing, healing qualities of the human imagination, and how they could make any of us susceptible to the darkness. Especially if a powerful evil was somewhere trapped out there, straining to transcend whatever’s blocking it, like one especially bad idea.
“THE “CATCHING UP WITH KING” RANKINGS
1. Pet Sematary
4. The Shining
5. Duma Key
6. Doctor Sleep
7. The Talisman
8. Nightmares & Dreamscapes
10. On Writing
11. The Stand
12. The Dark Tower I: The Gunslinger
13. The Dark Tower II: The Drawing of the Three
14. Bag of Bones