This is a horror story. Stephen King’s newest work, Later, is a publication under Random House’s Hard Case Crime. The book’s cover is attractive and reminiscent of a 70’s detective pulp magazine. Don’t let any of these bobs and whistles fool you. King deploys all the usual shenanigans to keep the reader invested and the paper turning. After burning through all 250 well-edited and sharp pages of Later, I felt like I had crossed the street — King’s Boulevard, from the menacing looming shadows and leafless late-fall cold side, over to the side with sunny and well-manicured lawns. I mean, there’s monsters and killing and drugs and dead people communicating with the living, but this is Stephen King, so the sunny side of the street is still horrific and shocking, but the change in tone and style for Later is noticeable.
We follow the fractured but stable upbringing of Jamie Concklin, a boy who can see dead people for a period of time. This is a pretty common theme for King: Jamie is a boy who is forced to grow up and face the normal challenges of youth, but he has to do it yoked with a mantle of supernatural distress. King decides not to harp on this with young Jamie. Most stories of this nature surround itself with the main protagonist lamenting their current state and just wishing for some semblance of normal — it’s the driving force. King instead gives us a young man who has accepted things the way they are. It’s a refreshing take on the usual teenage angst in novels. The reader does not have to wade through tedious hormonal outbursts about the unfairness of it all. Even though it’s a coming-of-age story, it’s driven with King’s steady hand into oncoming action and suspense.
I was reminded very much of Raymond Chandler’s famous private eye detective, Phillip Marlowe. Marlowe found himself in some bonkers situations, with dead bodies under every rock, wading through loose and dangerous women, blackjack-toting gangsters, and a quart of booze. He would shrug his tough guy shoulders and manage his burden. King does the same with Conklin, but explores the more gentle avenues of a teenager who can commune with the deceased, combat demons and navigate the challenges associated with his mother’s dangerous ex-lover. King’s use of Jamie Conklin as our first-person narrator further establishes this connection and gives a friendly nod to the pulp/noir crime and detective stories made famous in the 30’s and 40’s.
In true fashion, King does not rest comfortably on his laurels of combining a few genres and shaking them with a little ice before serving. He takes a poke at his other worlds, as well. There’s a few sideways references to other works, none so apparent as IT’s “deadlights,” but we are also privy to the idea that Jamie’s ability to speak to the dead is a genetic ability, much like the “shine” for Jack and Danny Torrance from The Shining and Dr. Sleep.
This is a horror story. Narrator Jamie reminds us every few pages that even though he’s not necessarily scared of the dead folks, and the unsettling deadlight is quiet and drifting malicious in the background, we the reader are still in for some horror. The frequent and repeated use of this declarative sets the reader up for an ending with some sort of King-esque payoff. I wanted and expected something similar to the scene in Tommyknockers when we first see Peter the beagle hooked up as an energy source — just full-on you’re-going-to-lose-sleep creepy. King spends some time establishing this same eerie background noise of scary, but much like the slugger hitting a tied game, 2 out, full count, bloop single into right, it was good, but not the towering game winning home run I was expecting for such an excellent book. The ending is acceptable and captivating to be sure, but perhaps due to King’s long held title of scariest author of all time, ever, and his consistent this-is-a-horror-story interruptions, I was expecting a face-melter.
Later is different. King explores the comfortable facets of his craft with an ease that translates into a very readable novel, while at the same time refusing to accept any one particular genre. If you’re new to King, this is a great place to start. King veterans absolutely must add this to the collection. Folks in the middle of that spectrum should take note that it’s not scary, over-the-top gory, or long winded. If you’ve strayed from the flock recently, c’mon home by reading this one. t’s an efficient novel that tells a damn good story about an exceptional young man who has an even more exceptional ability.
Of King’s recent works, I found Later to be one of the more accessible and enjoyable. The ending leaves the reader with a pretty good idea this won’t be the last we hear of Jamie Conklin, which pleased me greatly. I am already looking forward to the next installment.
5/5 King Crowns
Image courtesy of Stephen King & Hard Case Crime/Titan Books; Edits by Movie Nooz