Stephen King is a writer who can do anything, but should he? Later, his newest novel out in paperback from Hard Case Crime, is an unusual effort. It is perhaps best taken as a sort of exercise that doesn’t entirely succeed. It is an attempt to write a fairly typical King premise in the style of pulp fiction.
Later is written entirely in the first person. The narrator, Jamie Conklin, is a young man relating events from his childhood through to adolescence. Jamie lives in New York City with his mother Tia, a single parent who struggles to keep her business solvent while also taking care of Jamie and a brother with early-onset dementia. Oh, and one other thing about Jamie: he can see dead people. Yes, like in that movie.
Jamie’s mother thinks her son’s ability is all in his head until their neighbor dies and Jamie is able to tell him where his wife hid some valuable possessions. After that, she rightly concludes that he shouldn’t tell anyone what he can do, lest his talents be exploited by the wrong kind of person. Unfortunately, that’s just what happens after Tia starts dating a troubled cop and circumstances force her to reveal her son’s gift. The possibilities become too irresistible and Jamie finds himself in constant danger.
This is all quite promising, especially from a master like Stephen King. Unfortunately, our narrator isn’t nearly as good at telling a story as his creator. Jamie’s language is simple and sparse and he digresses too often about what he was like as a child. He directly addresses the reader with cliche phrases and hammy dramatics. (The title of the book comes from the fact that he constantly says things like “more about that later.”)
Obviously, this is King attempting an impersonation, trying, so to speak, to get into a character’s skin and walk around in it. But however impressive a feat it might be, who does it serve? Is the reader supposed to be impressed that a good writer can impersonate a bad one?
The thought that all of this is little more than an exercise is hard to shake given the novel’s brevity (only 248 pages) and the fact that King can barely be bothered to explore Jamie’s ability or the mechanics of the visions he encounters. There is a feint in that direction near the very end of the story that is frankly absurd and off-putting in its casual mention, but otherwise King just wants you to accept that Jamie can see dead people, dead people can be dangerous, and let’s move on. Which would be fine in a better-written novel, but rankles here.
I’ve only been reading Stephen King for a few years so I perhaps have not attained Constant Reader status. Still, I was quite excited to get a new novel from him, especially since I thoroughly enjoyed Joyland, a previous King publication from Hard Case. In that light, Later is a pretty big disappointment.