Edgar Freemantle is living the American Dream with a successful business, a great marriage and two lovely daughters, until an accident at a building site nearly kills him. Left without his right arm and prone to disturbing outbursts of anger, Edgar decamps for the Florida Keys after his wife, fearing for her safety, asks for a divorce. On the titular Duma Key, Edgar takes up a long-dormant interest in art, first with drawings and later paintings. His mood stabilized and his pain under control, he becomes friends with his hired helper and his neighbors, a rich, old woman and her caretaker, a semi-retired lawyer.
This being a Stephen King novel, of course there is something sinister waiting in the wings. There’s something off about Edgar’s paintings. Sure, it turns out he has some native talent for painting, but why do people find them so captivating? Maybe it has something to do with the trance-like state Edgar enters whenever he’s really in the groove mid-painting, or the fact that while he’s in that state Edgar could swear he feels his missing arm back where it belongs.
As Edgar investigates the history of Duma Key with the help of his friends he becomes convinced that the dark forces informing his work are connected with his neighbor Elizabeth Eastlake. Unfortunately, her advanced age and deteriorating mind leave her unable to offer much clarity on the situation. Besides, she was only a toddler when her twin sisters drowned and her family fell apart. But the ship on the horizon in Edgar’s paintings keeps coming closer to shore.
For around 500 pages King expertly draws out the tension, building up to Edgar Freemantle’s debut art show and the string of tragedies and horrors that ensues. Unfortunately, King loses his way on the road to the finish, and when the road to the finish occupies over 200 pages of text that tends to have a deleterious effect on the reader’s patience.
Yes, it’s the dreaded Stephen King ending discourse. Many have observed that the master of horror seems to have difficulty wrapping his kooky plots up in a satisfying manner. In Duma Key, the drawn-out conclusion is a real test of endurance. It’s a classic King set-up, as his unlikely gang of friends team up for one final time to take on a supernatural force they don’t quite understand. But the details are discordantly silly compared with the atmosphere of the book preceding them. As the reader’s interest in the plot wanes, it becomes easier to get annoyed by King’s little quirks. Like, why is white lawyer Jerome Wireman constantly peppering his speech with Spanish words like “muchacho”? Or, why does King insist on mentioning a character’s excess weight at literally every opportunity? Never mind his attempt to write in the “dialect” of a black maid in the 1920s. Yes, it’s as regrettable as it sounds.
If this had been a normally bad King ending I would have tried not to let it detract too much from my enjoyment of the novel overall. Indeed, there are 500 pages of this book I really liked. But when they are followed by 250 or so pages of puffed-up nonsense, I can’t let that go.