onVacation: Duma Key: A Not So Light Beach Read
This installment of onVacation highlights Duma Key, by Stephen King.
This book is not a light read by any means, weighing in at over six hundred pages, and having an intensely suspenseful plot. However, I still recommend it for the beach, due to the fact that most of the book is set in the Florida Keys, on a beach.
Duma Key is one of Stephen King’s most recent books, and it is superbly written. This novel definitely has the power to make the hair on the back of your neck stand up, with deliciously creepy soundbites. In this regard, King has usually been reliable. However, with this novel, he has matured beyond the boogeyman stories he has been known for. As NY Times critic Janet Maslin notes, “In the wake of the 1999 roadside accident that permanently altered his consciousness, he has turned the evanescence of health and sanity into his books’ most disturbing source of fear.”
King’s protagonist, Edgar Freemantle, is just a regular joe who’s lucky enough to have struck it rich with his own construction business. Tragically, the book opens with his recollection of how he suffered a terrible accident that changed his entire life. A crane crashed into his truck, pinning his arm and causing terrible head trauma. This injury, coupled with the tremendous pain he endured during his recovery causes him to get his words mixed up, turns his temper into ‘red rages’, and to question the world he sees around him.
After Edgar pulled a knife on his wife in a ‘red rage’, she had “taken off the Freemantle uniform and quit the team, ” leaving him at a loss. He has two grown daughters, and his eldest daughter, Melinda, goes to study in France, not wanting to deal with the situation. Meanwhile his favorite and younger daughter Ilse- known as Illy – prays that he gets better and that he and his wife can get back together.
His doctor suggests that he decamp to a sunny climate to heal and indulge his hobby of painting, and Edgar obliges. He resettles in the Florida Keys in a ramshackle pink place on stilts, and starts to paint. However, when he paints, he goes into a trance and when he awakens, full paintings that he doesn’t remember creating appear on his canvases. Eventually, Edgar meets his neighbor living down the beach, an enigmatic wealthy old lady named Elizabeth Eastlake, who has artistic abilities as well. Edgar becomes friends with her caretaker, Wireman, who encourages him to continue painting.
However, Duma Key isn’t your typical first person narrative, as Matlin explains: “The winding narrative of Duma Key is interspersed with short chapters on the subject of ‘How to Draw a Picture.’ There are 12 of these, and they incorporate creeping, gradual revelations about Elizabeth’s fraught family history… These chapters also offer direct advice about how the artist should treat memory, but they need not be high-minded. Mr. King more readily illustrates this, to the point where he doesn’t need to explain it. However simple his storytelling sounds, it exerts a relentless tidal pull.”
Duma Key is a slow and intensely written tale. It unravels like a detailed, complex tapestry. Much more happens during Edgar’s story. However, rehashing these events in this article would be ruining the book for the Constant Reader. Of course, this is a horror story, so I’m sure it isn’t too hard to guess that terrible things start happening.
As Elizabeth Eastlake warns Edgar, ”Duma Key isn’t a safe place for daughters.”