This is not how “Later” plays out.
As Jamie reminds us throughout, “this is a horror story,” and horror stories aren’t so much about making the world a better place as they’re about trying to get out alive, with as many shreds of your soul as you can steal back from the darkness. As Jamie quickly finds out, convincing those around him that he can see dead people is an invitation for them to make use of that ability — there’s a mad bomber menacing the city, there’s a lost manuscript, there’s fortunes only the dead know about — and this is where King has always excelled. His premises and situations extend themselves in your head just when you hear them sketched out, don’t they?
Say a struggling alcoholic with a violent streak signs on as winter caretaker for a remote, snowy hotel. As a reader scanning the back of “The Shining,” you’re already in that grand, empty hotel. Or, a brain injury gives a character precognitive abilities, as in “The Dead Zone.” Without even cracking that spine, you can already project ahead into the tangled situations waiting for that character. More important, you’re wondering what you would do if you had that ability.
This is King’s special power. We’re already participants just from hearing the setup.
And, as in “The Dead Zone,” where those special powers are triggered by touch, the dead people in “Later” are similarly “bound” by a small set of rules that feel common-sense — which is to say, they don’t feel like the story-enablers they’re soon to be. Over the course of the novel, though, these rules will provide the jump-scares, ticking clocks and emotional reveals, and, in typical King fashion, they already have their hand on your shoulder before you’re even aware they’ve been behind you the whole while.
King’s writing in “Later” is as clean, direct and evocative as it’s ever been. The short, to-the-point chapters make for quick reading, the crime-driven plot is propulsive, involving guns, drugs, bombs and kidnapping, but, more importantly, some of the lines just take your breath away. Skin “pebbles” with goose bumps. A dead person confronting Jamie is “like a burned log with fire still inside.” But crawling into the head and voice and life of this kid narrator is where King especially excels.
In the memoir “Born to Run,” Bruce Springsteen says that guitar playing and vocal ability are great if you’re going to make it as a musician, but what’s more vital than either of those is authenticity.
So, for “Later,” can the most celebrated novelist of our time, with 70 already in his rearview mirror, really hope to dial back 50-plus years to narrate this novel in authentic fashion?
Yes, he can.
With lines like, “I know more now, but I believe less.” Or, “We change, and we don’t. I can’t explain it. It’s a mystery.” This is Jamie in his early 20s, looking back to his teenage experiences that are the core of “Later.”
By the novel’s end, Jamie will have grown up, but, like King himself, he won’t have left behind who he used to be. It’ll take you maybe one afternoon to read this book — it’s hard to put down — but it’ll resonate longer. The next time you see a dog look twice at a bench, or watch a baby cry for no obvious reason, this novel will be right there behind you, its hand on your shoulder, its whisper so close to your ear you might cringe a little, and then smile, because you’re in the hands of a master storyteller.
Stephen Graham Jones is a professor at the University of Colorado at Boulder and the author of several novels and story collections, including, most recently, “The Only Good Indians.”
By Stephen King
Hard Case Crime. 272 pp. $14.95