A psychic one-armed painter seems like something from a freak show. However, in Stephen King’s New York Times bestselling novel Duma Key, the protagonist starts the second half of his life as just that.
Edgar Freemantle is a successful, happy man living in Minnesota with his wife and two grown daughters while managing and owning a construction business. However, after a near-death experience with a crane, he loses his right arm, his wife and control over his life, company and memory.
After a slow, agonizing, angry period of rehabilitation, Edgar, on advice from his shrink, moves to Florida for a change of scenery. Once there, Edgar is drawn to a remote island on Florida’s West Coast, Duma Key. He rents a house on the island, which he dubs “Big Pink” because of its bright paint job. The island and the house Edgar lives in are all owned by an elderly woman named Elizabeth Eastlake.
After encouragement from one of his daughters, Edgar takes up drawing and painting, hobbies from before his construction days (lucky for him, he is left-handed). After a few weeks, his artistic skill, as well as his friendships with Elizabeth and her caretaker, Wireman, grows dramatically. Edgar soon realizes that the accident has enhanced not only his ability to draw but also a newly developed psychic sense.
Duma Key is a King novel, so the real question is where the story gets creepy. As his new career takes off, Edgar’s drawings become more abstract and sinister. He begins to fall into more trancelike states of painting, where, when he wakes up, he has no memory of what he has painted.
On top of this, Edgar begins to feel phantom itching in his missing arm. He also begins to learn of Elizabeth’s haunting past, told to the reader in short chapters entitled “How to Draw a Picture” scattered throughout the book. These chapters help move the story along and help keep the reader interested.
Although the last third of the book is action-packed and incredibly suspenseful, the beginning is just as compelling, telling the story of a complete rebirth of an already established man. King also builds suspense with the phantom itching in Edgar’s arm, the way he deals with his loved ones and his struggle to remember things correctly.
Edgar’s daughter, Ilse, who is away at college for the first time, and not taking her parents’ divorce so well, easily influences him. King paints a vivid picture of the undying love a father has for his daughter and the lengths he goes to keep her safe.
A notable feature of this novel is that it is not based in Maine, the author’s home state. A majority of King’s previous books and short stories take place in Maine, which shouldn’t be a surprise — after all, one of the first rules of creative writing is to write about what you know. On that note, it’s important to point out that King had his own near-death experience when he was hit by an inattentive driver in 1999. Although Edgar’s injuries are far worse than King’s, there are parallels between the two.
The newest King novel follows a lot of themes presented in past books and short stories (like an ancient evil resurfacing after a quiet dormant period), but King manages to mix up his old themes in a completely new and enticing way. For me, this novel resembles King’s screenplay Rose Red, where a particular setting heightens supernatural powers and in the end uses them to meet its own needs.
King is famous for his spine-chilling stories and does not disappoint in Duma Key. The novel’s long introduction to the characters and Edgar’s slow discovery of his power is the only negative part of the book, but the “How to Draw a Picture” chapters keep the readers interested. When the non-stop action comes in the last few chapters, however, the reader will not want the book to end.