Tuesday 17 July 2012

Stephen King's "Duma Key" and the Pleasure of the Uncanny

“I realized the shells were talking in a voice I recognized. I should have; it was my own. Had I always known that? I suppose I had. On some level, unless we're mad, I think most of us know the various voices of our own imaginations.

And of our memories, of course. They have voices, too. Ask anyone who has ever lost a limb or a child or a long-cherished dream. Ask anyone who blames himself for a bad decision, usually made in a raw instant (an instant that is most commonly red). Our memories have voices, too. Often sad ones that clamor like raised arms in the dark.”

Stephen King’s Duma Key centers on Edgar Freemantle, a professional contractor who nearly dies when his truck is crushed by a crane. The accident results in the amputation of Edgar’s right arm and causes him chronic difficulties with his speech, vision, and memory. As an added side effect, Edgar experiences near-psychotic mood swings and eventually attacks his wife, who promptly divorces him. On the advice of his psychologist, Edgar rents a beach house on Florida’s Duma Key for a year of rest, relaxation, and recuperation. During his time there, he rediscovers his love of drawing. He eventually finds out, however, that his artwork has broken into a world beyond his own making.

As much as any novel, Duma Key reveals Stephen King’s uncanny ability to harness – well, the uncanny. King understands the craft of storytelling as well as anyone, but what makes his fiction so ghoulishly gripping is the ability he shares with other masters of horror: the ability to seek out the dark corners of human uncertainty and exploit them in ways that are eerily convincing. Take, for example, The Shining, in which a father is driven insane by isolation and the evil that is supposedly inherent in a remote hotel. In this book, King pinpoints an aspect of human experience that is poorly understood by science and logic – that is, the effect that architectural spaces have on people. It is fairly well established that manipulations of space can have profound effects on human consciousness, yet these effects are virtually impossible to quantify or arrange into any stable body of knowledge. So when we accept that spaces deeply affect us, yet cannot specify how they affect us at a given moment, how close do we come to admitting that a building can truly be “haunted?” This is the kind of question that King’s fiction forces us to ask.

Similarly in Duma Key, King focuses on an aspect of human experience we take to be a given, yet do not fully understand – the phenomenon of the phantom limb. If I may, let me walk you through King’s magical plot point surrounding Edgar Freemantle’s amputated arm. After he loses his arm, Edgar experiences a phantom limb sensation. Then, once he rediscovers his love of drawing, he realizes that his phantom limb is actually trying to sketch something. Since this missing appendage cannot physically do the job, Edgar must roughly interpret what he is trying to draw with his remaining left, or “sinister” arm. Finally, the pictures that he creates through this process of translation turn out to have a psychic, prophetic power. At the risk of gushing, I must ask: how freaking cool is that? (Shout-out to nerds: I imagine that any Arts & Humanities major studying the philosophy of Maurice Merleau-Ponty or body theory in general might be drooling right now). Once again, King manages to isolate and explore a realm of human experience we take to be real, but have difficultly articulating in rational terms. And this is where ghosts are born.

If I have one quibble, it is that Duma Key indulges King’s Hitchcockian tendency to stretch out a story’s climax until it becomes exhausting. In King’s case, you can see this habit in stories like ’Salem’s Lot and even 11/22/63, while in Hitchcock’s case you have Strangers on a Train and North by Northwest. That said, Duma Key is without doubt an extremely thrilling read from beginning to end. The book’s opening two-thirds, in particular, just happen to contain some of the best horror writing I've ever read.


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