Art of Darkness
By Stephen King
Scribner. 531 pp. $28
Admit it: You've been a horrible snob about Stephen King. You've rolled your eyes at passengers on the Metro reading Pet Sematary. You've told your son to put down Salem's Lot and get a real book. When King won a lifetime achievement award from the National Book Foundation, you gleefully quoted Harold Bloom's crack about this new "low in the shocking process of dumbing down our cultural life."
Well, suck it up. Even that faint praise about how you can appreciate him for being good at "what he does" isn't going to cut it anymore. With Lisey's Story, King has crashed the exclusive party of literary fiction, and he'll be no easier to ignore than Carrie at the prom. His new novel is an audacious meditation on the creative process and a remarkable intersection of the different strains of his talent: the sensitivity of his autobiographical essays, the insight of his critical commentary, the suspense of his short stories and the psychological terror of his novels. (And yes, a few hairy monsters.) They're all evoked here in this moving story about the widow of a famous writer trying to lay her grief to rest.
King claims in an afterword that this character -- Lisey -- is not based on his wife, but there's no denying who the famous writer is, and King fanatics will pounce on these personal details like Cujo on a bucket of chicken wings. The story opens two years after the death of Scott Landon, a prolific horror writer almost as popular as King but more critically acclaimed. For months, Lisey has been hounded for access to Scott's papers by "the collectors and the academics who maintained their positions in large part by examining the literary equivalent of navel-lint in each other's abstruse journals; ambitious, overeducated goofs who had lost touch with what books and reading were actually about and could be content to go on spinning straw into footnoted fool's gold for decades on end." (Take that, Dr. Bloom!)
Though entering Scott's office is like scratching the scab of her mourning, once Lisey finally starts sorting, boxing and labeling his effects, the work inspires waves of nostalgia. She's drawn back into memories of her 25-year marriage with a brilliant, loving man who was haunted by childhood trauma. But two alarming events disrupt her reverie: First, her sister Amanda suffers a violent relapse in her battle against depression. Then, in the middle of that crisis, an anonymous caller threatens to kill Lisey if she doesn't immediately donate her husband's papers to the University of Pittsburgh. The caller sounds like a kook, but his threat forces her to recall an earlier insane fan who tried to assassinate Scott during a lecture tour.
Of course, this is not the first time King has written about the misery of ardent fans. We all have reason to fear zombies and demonic Plymouths, but the world's most popular living writer is especially terrified about the adulation that his gory tales inspire. The word "fan," after all, is just one padded cell away from "fanatic." King delivers a number of self-deprecating cracks here about the benefits of fame and wealth, but when it comes to the dangers of entertaining millions with fantasies of mayhem, he's dead serious.
Lisey's Story moves in several different directions at once, but everything that happens seems part of a complicated plan arranged in advance by Scott Landon to show his wife how much he loved her. Lisey finds among his papers a kind of scavenger hunt -- a "bool," he calls it -- that leads her through the major events of their long marriage, "to allow her to face in stages something she couldn't face all at once." In fact, one of the great charms of this novel is King's attention to the private language of affection: the silly phrases, lyrics, puns and pet names that Lisey cherishes as signs of their intimacy.
Her battle against Scott's mad scholar-fan lurches erratically from grisly to goofy, but fortunately much of the novel takes place in Lisey's memories as she recalls Scott's desperate courtship and his struggle to explain his father to her. He was a reclusive manic-depressive who loved his sons even as he savaged them. During the most horrific of these tales, when describing his father overcome with "endless swirling bad-gunky," Scott used to revert to his childhood voice. Read this on a bright afternoon: It's emotionally draining, and blood-draining, too -- King at his most psychologically acute, as sympathetic as he is terrifying, wielding a startling blend of affection, pathos and horror.
But there's something else lurking in this novel, something very strange, even for Stephen King. At its center, Lisey's Story contains a huge, ungainly metaphor for the source of creative inspiration. It's an otherworldly place that Scott called Boo'ya Moon, a lush garden of delights and dangers, blooming lupines and dark trees, just on the other side of our dimension. (Under its blood-red dust jacket, the book's cover sports a psychedelic painting of Boo'ya Moon.) By concentrating hard, Scott could slip over to this alternate reality to escape his father, recover from his wounds and find fresh ideas. It contains a "pool where we all go down to drink, to swim, to catch a little fish from the edge of the shore; it's also the pool where some hardy souls go out in their flimsy wooden boats after the big ones. It is the pool of life, the cup of imagination."
King works this hallucinatory vision hard throughout the novel, but it seems like a metaphor that never met a meaning it didn't like: It's an oasis of healing, but also a place of grave danger; a retreat for receiving insight, but also an island of Lotus Eaters; a sanctuary from harm, but also the realm of a piebald fiend called "the long boy," which is sometimes an embodiment of Scott's depression but other times just a scary monster that eats people.
This amorphous metaphor feels like something King has rolled around in his mind for a long time, and his willingness to lay out such an intimate vision is endearing even if it's not entirely coherent. But what works beautifully throughout Lisey's Story is the rich portrait of a marriage and the complicated affection that outlives death. Who would have thought that a man who's spent the last 30 years scaring the hell out of us would produce a novel about the kind of love that carries us through grief? ·
Ron Charles is a senior editor at Book World.