As a Stephen King fan for many years – I started when I was probably WAY too young to be reading some of his stuff – I’ve found the last few years hard going. I greatly enjoyed his 2002 short story collection Everything’s Eventual, which I rank as the second best of his short story collections, after Night Shift. But in terms of novels, the last one I liked was 1996’s Desperation. Everything since then has ranged from disappointment (Bag of Bones) to outright disaster (Dreamcatcher). *
So it’s with pleasure and relief that read his latest, Lisey’s Story. It’s not typical King, and I have the feeling it will never be a universally loved book such as The Shining. In fact, I think it will be very divisive book among King’s fans. But if you can click with the book’s mindset and style of storytelling, you’ll find it has a lot to offer (especially after the lurid and shallow Cell).
Lisey Landon is the widow of prize-winning novelist Scott Landon. Scott died – we aren’t told how at first – two years ago, and the grieving Lisey is only now getting around to going through his papers. It’s a hard job made more difficult by clamorings from both academics and from unstable fans for Scott’s unpublished work. It’s the unstable fans who have made their presence felt in the past, when one shot Scott and nearly killed him. Now another unstable fan has arrived to terrorize Lisey into surrendering Scott’s work, and to save not just Scott’s legacy but her own life, Lisey needs to face some truths about her past and Scott’s imagination, and go to the place where stories come from. The problem is that this place is even more dangerous, in its way, than the madman threatening Lisey.
Lisey’s Story is both atypical King and reminiscent of many past works. The unstable fans could be cousins of Annie Wilkes from Misery, Lisey’s journey to a parallel world resonates with the events in Rose Madder, and the story’s flashback-heavy style is reminiscent of It. But there’s an introspective, at times almost poetical feel to this book that’s unlike much of King’s other stories. It’s the work of an older writer looking back and exploring the themes of love and marriage, about the dark and light sides of creativity, the bonds of family, and the power to heal from the wounds of the past.
Despite the presence of the unstable fans, flashbacks to scenes with Scott’s abusive and possibly insane father, and a couple nasty bits of violence, Lisey’s Story is a gently-paced work that takes a little while to get going. It doesn’t hook the reader but beckons quietly. It’s never a thrill-ride, but it exerts a curious power. Many things – unanswered questions, strange images, musings on the use and abuse of imagination – linger after the last page is turned.
At times things become a bit too poetical. Scott Landon is a survivor of hideous childhood trauma, and in many ways remains a child his whole life; his idiosyncratic language (which Lisey has adopted much of) is occasionally cloying. King just needed to throw in something about molasses and a “rabbit where’d you put the keys girl” and parts would have read like a Tori Amos lyric sheet**.
Lisey’s Story flags a bit in the last quarter, which feels both rushed and padded – Lisey’s decision to rid herself of the madman isn’t explored sufficiently, and a subplot with her mentally ill sister slows things down. But these are minor flaws in an ambitious, moving, and at times powerful book.
*I’m excluding the Dark Tower books, because I’ve only finished the second one. Not all that impressed with the series so far, sad to say.
**I like Tori Amos but sometimes her lyrics can be a bit much.