By Stephen King, Scribner, 611 pp., $28
Stephen King has built a literary genre of putting ordinary people in the most terrifying situations. Aside from some recent tedious diversions into Gothic westerns and B-movie cellphone zombies, he's the author who can always make the improbable so scary you'll feel compelled to check the locks on the front door. His latest novel, "Duma Key," is a welcome return to that kind of narrative.
Edgar Freemantle - who thanks to a terrible accident and a faithless wife has already had a pretty awful year - is badly in need of some R&R in Florida and a healthy dose of art therapy. But instead of peace and quiet, he gets an evil force channeling itself into some menacing paintings and a downright spooky oceanfront rental.
Edgar is not your prototypical King hero (usually a nice-guy teacher or writer from Maine). He's a bit edgier, a self-made construction entrepreneur in Minnesota whose prosperous life comes to a crashing halt - literally - when a crane smashes into his pickup truck at a job site. He suffers brain and body damage, loses his right arm, and endures months of agonizing rehab just to learn to speak normally again. Controlling his rage is another problem, less easily solved, and his wife abruptly ends their marriage after 25 years.
Adrift and heartbroken, Edgar takes his psychiatrist's advice and gets a fresh start on a remote area of the Florida coast called Duma Key. He returns to a long-abandoned hobby of sketching and painting, something he can do even with his recent injuries. He's a southpaw, King reminds us, a detail that will prove crucial later. Edgar's art soon attracts enough notice to earn him a gallery showing and critical acclaim, and he makes some friends along the way. Recovery, and a new chapter of life, actually seem possible.
This being a King story, we have to start wondering where the fright factor is lurking. It comes at us in several ways, fueled by the creepy, sad history of Elizabeth Eastlake, a lifelong Duma Key resident now in the throes of Alzheimer's. Then Edgar's art takes a turn for the strange: He's transported into a trance-like premonition state in which he produces macabre pictures, waking up with only the fuzziest memory of who - or what - held the paintbrush.
The book centers on the themes of unleashed creativity and the degeneration of body and mind, a topic that King, 60, who suffered devastating injuries after being hit by a van in 1999, mines with hard-won insight.
Edgar's band of misfit friends, and his two loyal adult daughters, prove to be both salvation and emotional Achilles heel, as the story rushes to a surprisingly uplifting conclusion with shades of "The Shawshank Redemption."
"Duma Key" is an interesting contrast to King's previous novel, "Lisey's Story," a character-driven tale about the widow of a famous writer. In pre-publication interviews, King's editor, Chuck Verrill, has said "Duma Key" was an expansion of a 2006 short story called "Memory," intended as a divorce-centered bookend to that story of marriage. But readers will find that the new novel leaves its comparatively ponderous predecessor far behind. At its core it's a horror story, but with enough emotional complications to keep you turning the pages.
Erica Noonan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.