Entertaining, derivative, and occasionally straining for relevance
Does Stephen King still have it as a writer? The 73-year-old scribe churns out book after book and story after story every year, running circles around younger authors in terms of productivity, not to mention versatility. King publishes everything from works of supernatural horror to gritty crime stories to tales marked by Chandleresque melancholy and the social realism of a Russell Banks writing about New England’s losers and sad sacks.
King adds continually to a vast and uneven corpus of work. Some of his novels are powerful works of the macabre and certain of his early stories—think of “The Last Rung on the Ladder,” “Night Surf,” “Quitters, Inc.,” “The Man Who Loved Flowers,” “The Woman in the Room,” “Nona,” and “Survivor Type”—are resonant, shudder-inducing tales that compare favorably with anything by Salinger or Capote. But King has also unleashed a lot of dross on the world. Even the best writers exhaust themselves and lapse into self-parody, and some of us now are bound to ask whether the man is producing anything worth reading.
Based on his new novel, Later, the answer is yes and no. King still knows how to populate a story with engaging personae, how to keep the tale moving, and how to be funny and self-aware. But to say that Later is derivative would be an understatement. The book often reads like a greatest-hits compendium, and not just of King’s own work.
He sees dead people
Later is the story of Jamie Conklin, a boy with a wry, self-deprecating manner who lives in New York with his mom, a literary agent and recovering alcoholic. Jamie matter-of-factly lets the reader know that he sees dead people, just like, you guessed it, the kid in The Sixth Sense. He explicitly names M. Night Shyamalan’s film as an analogue for his own experiences. Like the corpses in that movie, the dead in Later wear whatever they had on at the time of death and the wounds that did them in are evident in all their gory hideousness. The difference here is that the dead people who interact with Jamie are, rather inexplicably, bound by certain rules. He can ask them questions and they must answer, though they don’t have to tell Jamie what he wants to hear.
Jamie’s gifts make him useful to cops trying to crack tough cases. It just so happens that the lover of Jamie’s mom is a troubled NYPD detective named Liz Dutton, who knows about his gifts, though they are a secret to most of the world. Before he gets around to solving horrific crimes, Jamie puts his talents to work to help his mom out with a literary project. One of her few authors to have sold well and helped keep her agency solvent has died before completing an eagerly awaited saga.
Fortunately, Jamie is able to track down the dead author, find out what the author planned to write in the uncompleted passages, and relay it all to his mom. Liz is instrumental in this endeavor and then in the case of a mad bomber who dies with one of his bombs still undetonated. But then, after Liz’s substance abuse gets really severe and derails her affair with Jamie’s mom, her knowledge of Jamie’s secret has bad consequences indeed.
The Sixth Sense, to which Later has a rather glaring debt, is a popular movie that doesn’t many any sense if you stop and think about it for a moment. Bruce Willis’s character, Malcolm Crowe, doesn’t know that he is dead until the very end of the film, and neither do we.
But the scenes that fool the viewer into thinking Crowe is alive and engaging normally with people, who for one reason or another just don’t want to respond to him (he forgot an anniversary and his upset wife, across the table at a restaurant, is looking down; his wife is upstairs and we can’t see her reaction or lack thereof when he yells at her to answer the doorbell) would not keep Crowe himself fooled. Over the course of the months following the shooting at the start of the film, there would be hundreds or thousands of occasions when he tried to interact with others, and he would quickly pick up on the fact that they cannot see or hear him.
Later has a bit better internal logic. Maybe King has learned from Shyamalan’s blunders. In Later, the dead people know they are dead, all right. One of them, the mad bomber who offed himself, decides to make Jamie’s life hell by showing up unexpectedly at various places and taunting him with dire predictions about his mom’s health. In desperation, Jamie seeks out the advice of someone with highly specialized occult knowledge and puts it to use to turn the tables on his tormentor. To say more would ruin what pleasures Later has to offer.
The reader will think not only of Cole Sear in Shyamalan’s film but also, naturally, of Danny Torrance in King’s The Shining and Doctor Sleep. While he avoids certain mistakes, King isn’t trying to break ground here. He is squeezing mileage out of a tested, popular conceit, much like George A. Romero, a onetime visionary who went on making movies about the walking dead for decades after the gag had lost what shock value it had when that zombie first ambled onto a cemetery on movie screens back in 1968 and Johnny teased Barbara that they were coming to get her.
Uneven and over-woke
King can keep a plot moving briskly, but the writing in Later is decidedly uneven. It is great to be able to narrate a story in the voice of a character who is six decades your junior, but striving to adopt such a voice does not provide an excuse to write pedestrian, cliché-ridden prose. On page 132, Jamie converses with the deceased mad bomber and tells us, “The way he was staring at me . . . you know that old saying about if looks could kill?” And, on page 228, in the aftermath of dramatic events: “I lowered my head and sobbed. Those were tears of horror and hysteria, but I think they were also—though I can’t remember for sure—tears of joy. I was alive.”
More alive than the prose in this passage. So much for the writer’s imperative to seek out new ways to describe and relate things.
Elsewhere in Later, King makes a mistake that will be all too familiar to those of us who wince at the attempts at social commentary that mar his career, when he dives into the political fray via Twitter and tries too hard to make his novels and stories relevant. The female detective Liz Dutton in Later is a complex and troubled character, whose role in the story takes a shocking turn toward the end, but King cannot resist slipping in references to a supposedly regressive attitude on the part of her male bosses at the NYPD. They do not fully welcome or support her and need, as Jamie puts it, to be dragged forward into the twenty-first century.
Here King is simplifying a complex social issue. Law enforcement officials have very good reasons to be wary of progressives’ efforts to remake, or “diversify,” the composition of police forces. King seems to care little about the well-documented evidence for wide variants in muscle mass and corresponding heft, and still less about incidents in which a male suspect has overpowered a female officer and seized her weapon, putting innocent lives in danger. Diversity in itself is not always a laudable goal.
King should resist trying to be the conscience of America—this is the same Stephen King, after all, who wrote a novel under the alias Richard Bachman that influenced mass shooters, before he had the sense to withdraw it from print—and devote his considerable talents to developing fresh concepts and writing stories that the world has never heard told before.