Know when you're finished, and when you are, put your pencil or your paintbrush down.
- Stephen King Duma Key
I may not be your average Stephen King reader. I'm not enamored with the author, but I have thoroughly enjoyed some of his tales. Others have left me cold. The stories I tend to like are not the ones most of his readers go for—the only two I thought worthy of five stars were “The Body” and The Long Walk. Despite what some in the literati might say, King has some talent. He also writes to sell. That's a combination that can bring very mixed results.
Duma Key shows the author at his best and his worst. Well, maybe not his absolute best and worst—the complete, unedited version of The Stand did that. Duma Key shows the King who is a masterful storyteller and who can get in the mind of a broken man, as well as the King who has no internal editor (seemingly, no editor at all) and no understanding of how humans speak to one another.
The first two-thirds of this novel are not bad. The dialogue from Wireman is continually cringy, but otherwise, the tale of broken people finding a new life on an island in the Florida keys is satisfactory. Most of this novel is based on some version of reality. Sure, there's a little bit of strangeness, but it feels more like magic realism than King's signature paranormal horror. It works. It's not the author's most gripping or well-written tale by any means, but I think had it ended earlier, been given an ending where the magic had some beauty or relevance, I would've been happier.
Instead, King steers the final hundred-plus pages into the horror-filled paranormal. I know, it's Stephen King: it's to be expected. I just didn't think it worked for this book. It's in these pages that King loses any connection with reality. Suddenly, characters are able to pull the most outlandish conclusions from the sky. Terrible events occur that should emotionally destroy these characters, but they jump right up, quoting movies and attempting to outwit one another. Characters in a story should not act like characters in a story, unless we're talking metafiction (sadly, I somehow got the idea that this was King's foray into metafiction and I was disappointed with its exclusion). Finally, the “scary stuff” just wasn't all the interesting. For a Stephen King novel, that's damning.
I was excited to start Duma Key, but I must say I'm very disappointed in the end. There's just not much here in these 600 pages that made an impact. And yet, because I know King is so hit and miss, at least for me he is, I'll pull another one of his novels off the shelf in two or three years, and I'll find a sloppy narrative, some juvenile dialogue, and the possibility of a very engaging story.