I’ve been reading a bit of Stephen King lately and picked up Duma Key because it was about an artist (I was a painting major in college) who relocates to Florida (I live in Florida) with some supernaturally creepy results. Duma Key started off slow, picked up a bit, and then started to slow down again. It’s clear that King was more interested in the trials of the artist, which are the best part, the central section, of the book. When the bodies started to pile up in the last third of the novel it became a less compelling read. I began to wish that he had an editor who wasn’t afraid to wield a red pencil — and get bloody with it. I didn’t want to abandon the book. I wanted to finish it and see how things came out, but I have to admit that it got tough at times to hang in there.
“How to Draw a Picture. Start with a blank surface. It doesn’t have to be paper or canvas, but I feel it should be white. We call it white because we need a word, but its true name is nothing. Black is the absence of light, but white is the absence of memory, the color of can’t remember.”
|Cover art by Mark Stutzman|
Duma Key evokes The Flying Dutchman and King’s own The Shining, as it follows protagonist Edgar Freemantle as he tries to recover from a devastating on-the-job accident — the loss of his right arm and a head injury — and nurture his artistic talent by relocating to a remote location, Duma Key, off the west coast of Florida, near Sarasota.
Stephen King’s writing always evokes a wonderful sense of place. He can write about a location, a house, an atmosphere, so well that no matter how creepy it may turn out to be, you still want to be there with the characters. This is not touristy Florida, but an old-world, isolated, overgrown with vegetation, Florida. Edgar’s house, “Big Pink,” in Duma Key may be the port of call for all sorts of not-so-nice psychic energy, but I still got into its relaxed, beachy vibe.
The more Edgar paints, the more he gets in touch with the supernatural forces that seem to surround Duma Key. He discovers that his inspiration to paint is tied directly to his missing right arm when he experiences a phantom limb sensation whenever he is working. His paintings begin to tell him things about people, and by painting specific objects and scenes he finds he can affect people’s lives. His paintings pack such power that just owning them may be dangerous.
King does a wonderful job describing Edgar’s work process and his body of work. In fact he describes Edgar’s surrealist Dali-influenced paintings and drawings so well that the reader can see the Edgar’s step-by-step progress and visualize the finished artwork. We even get wrapped up in his first art show and crowning as the next great thing to hit the Sarasota art scene.
Edgar befriends former lawyer Jerome Wireman, the caretaker of an elderly woman suffering from Alzheimer’s disease, Elizabeth Eastlake, who also happens to own most of the real estate on the island. The three are all linked inextricably to Duma Key, which has a special attraction and affection for damaged goods. They are three people who have escaped death by receiving some sort of head injury, and have been granted psychic powers.
“I felt it and knew: the three of us were here because something wanted us here.”
Edgar’s injuries are never far from the surface of the story or King’s mind. It is hard not to relate Edgar’s struggles to King’s own long road to recovery after being horribly injured when he was hit by a van in 1999. His exploration of mind and memory also resonates. As the daughter of someone with dementia (who also was a painter who dealt with primarily Florida-themed subject matter), I found it difficult to read about Elizabeth’s failing health as she slipped further and further into her disease. King has either done his research here, or been directly affected by someone he loves with memory issues.
As much good as there is in the novel, it also had some disappointments. There is so much foreshadowing of both past and future spooky events, that the secrets as ultimately revealed, and the monster, feel rushed and disappointing. When Edgar, like in a classic Twilight Zone episode, finds whatever he paints he can make happen, I immediately began to wonder why he didn’t start to manipulate his talent more. He is able to help one character who is near and dear to him by painting their portrait, so why doesn’t he try to help another who is very much in need of help? Why does he seem in control of his gift at some times, and at others his talent is just a tool, a conduit for some evil force?
I can’t say that I loved the ending. It may have worked, fit the road that the book was relentlessly following, but I still wasn’t satisfied with what happened to many of the characters. But despite its problems, there is a lot to enjoy in Duma Key, especially the description of Edgar’s process and the obsession of the artist. Edgar’s paintings are so vividly described that it is a shame to realize that we can only attend his grand art opening and visit his painting studio in our minds.
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