I am, of course, a long-time Stephen King reader. Lisey’s Story, his latest novel, is a bit of a departure for him in that it’s primarily a book about how a woman deals with the loss of her husband. But don’t worry; it’s also got a psychotic killer and a giant, man-eating worm-slash-monster thrown in there just to keep you on your toes and your finger poised to turn the next page.
The short version of the plot is that Lisey Landan is a widow whose husband, Scott, was something you don’t see often these days: a superstar writer who achieved both critical acclaim and public adoration rivaling that of any movie star. At the start of the book Scott Landon has been dead two years, and when a violent and mentally unhinged fan shows up asking Lisey to turn over her dead husband’s unfinished works, the book starts to flip through flashbacks that tell us how Scott got to be what he is and how the very real and very magical world of “Boo’ya Moon” proved to be both his sanctuary and his hell. Through it all we get personal insights into Lisey’s relationship with Scott and her sisters, and what it means to her to be alone now.
There are a lot of cool ideas here, some of them very core to what it’s probably like to be a writer. It’s like King engaged in some naval gazing and took a lot of whole cloth from his own life so that he could use it to craft this book. Where do writer’s ideas come from? What’s it like to be the wife of a famous writer? What would happen to his wife after he dies or if he had died in that awful car accident he went through a few years back? What if one of those kooky fans goes too far and crosses the line to stalker? What price has he –and his family– had to pay for his success? These questions are all worked into the novel pretty well, and I loved the idea that there’s some magical “word pool” where writers go, at some level, to cast their nets and hunt for stories like big fish. In Lisey’s Story that pool is both figurative and literal, and the idea just clicks.
The writing is generally good –a few irritating overuses of home-brewed private language like “smucking” or “SOWISA” aside– but one complaint that some people may have is the pacing. King’s standard operating procedure is to build slow to a huge crechendo, but here he’s all over the map, with action interspersed through flashbacks and quick cuts. We also see him do one trick he’s done before, cutting back and forth between two scenes –one flashback, one in “real” time– in rapid succession, and it kind of works if you’re willing to let go of the old King formulas and give him permission (so to speak) to do something different.
Ther’s a couple of points where that’s a little hard, though. At one point the psychotic fan, who had filled the role of the antagonist and main threat, is …well, he’s dealt with and taken out of the picture. Thing is, the book kept going for quite some time after that, following Lisey’s life after that event. At first I was ready to criticize this as a flaw in pacing, but by the end I realized that this wasn’t a book about determined widow vs. crazy fan, and the resolution of that conflict wasn’t the climax of the book. This is a book about a woman dealing with what her husband was, accepting that, letting go of him, and moving on with her life. The point where Lisey does that is the true climax of her story, and it’s in just the right place. King’s attempts to write a middle aged woman came off as stilted in a few spots, but he really nailed the relationship between the Landons to the point where I found it touching in a few places.
So, different kind of book, but a good one. I like that this is a Stephen King story where the universe is not emperiled and a whole town is not being stalked by a supernatural terror like in some of his more popular books. There are elements of the unnatural fear and horror here (I may not look at the reflections in the curves of a juice glass the same way for a while), but it’s really a small-scale story with characters you can latch on to.