A deeply spooky story of a man falling apart, this is perfect terror in the sunshine – but watch out once night has fallen
On holiday with my family in Portugal, aged around 11 or 12, I found a stash of deserted books left behind by former residents of the place we were staying (and isn't that one of the nicest things about holiday reading, picking up someone else's unexpected leftovers?). I ventured into The Silence of the Lambs, probably much too young, and was disturbed by the dark imaginings of Thomas Harris. I also, furtively, picked up a creased old paperback of Different Seasons by Stephen King, read Apt Pupil, and discovered for the first time the delights of being thoroughly terrified. So began a love of horror, and particularly of King, which lasts to this day. For me, holiday reading, and particularly beach reading, is best when it's scary, because there's little to compare to the thrill of a proper chill in hot sunlight.
Duma Key, one of King's more recent novels (it was published in 2008) more than accomplishes this. I first read it – of course I did, I'm an addict – on publication, and have a clear memory of being about halfway through, drying my hair, and having to repeatedly stop and turn the hairdryer off, it had made me so ridiculously jumpy. I've reread it over the past few weeks, and it's had just as strong an effect on me.
King is telling the story of Edgar Freemantle, a construction man who has made a fortune, but is hit by a crane and loses an arm as well as seriously injuring his head. Edgar's brain has been damaged, leaving him without the right words for things, filling him with rage. "Bring the friend," I said. "Sit in the friend." "What do you mean, Edgar?" she asked. "The friend, the buddy!" I shouted. "Bring over the fucking pal, you dump bitch … Bring over the chum and sick down!" It was the closest my rattled, fucked-up brain could come to chair."
His wife leaves him, after he attempts to throttle her. He plans suicide. His doctor guesses, stops him, tells him to try something new, somewhere else. "Edgar, does anything make you happy?" "I used to sketch." "Take it up again. You need hedges … hedges against the night."
He rents a house on Duma Key, a deserted strip of island on the Gulf of Mexico, and he starts to draw. "I scratched the word HELLO in small letters … And as names go, it's a good one, isn't it? In spite of all the damage that followed, I still think that's the perfect name for a picture drawn by a man who was trying his best not to be sad anymore – who was trying to remember how it felt to be happy."
It turns out he has talent, buckets of it – the paintings, Dali-esque sunsets, strange ships, creepy children/dolls – pour out of him. But Duma, the house where he is staying, where the shells grind in the tide at night, is tightening its grip on him, and there is something dark waiting to pounce.
"What I was doing didn't work just because it played on the nerve-endings; it worked because people knew – on some level they really did know – that what they were looking at had come from a place beyond talent. The feeling those Duma pictures conveyed was horror barely held in check. Horror waiting to happen. Inbound on rotted sails."
I'm not going to explain what the horror is, because I don't want to spoil it for you. But rest assured, if you've been burned by not-all-that-scary-when-the evil-is-revealed Stephen King novels in the past – The Tommyknockers, Dreamcatcher, I'm looking at you – the horror "inbound on rotted sails" in Duma Key is properly terrifying. Built up to slowly as Edgar makes friends with Wireman, who looks after an old lady with secrets of her own living down the beach, it's given me no end of the jitters. Just what I was after.
"Imagine a little girl, hardly more than a baby. She fell from a carriage almost ninety years ago, struck her head on a stone, and forgot everything. Not just her name; everything! And then one day she recalled just enough to pick up a pencil and make that first hesitant mark across the white. A horizon-line, sure. But also a slot for blackness to pour through."
I'm bemused by this Telegraph review, which says Duma Key "starts promisingly but descends into an overlong, self-indulgent stinker". For me, it was his best book in ages and the ending, although admittedly a little drawn out, more than justifies the slow build-up. I prefer this Guardian write-up, which calls it "real bloody-hell-I-wish-I'd-gone-for-a-pee creepy", and says that "in these scenes towards the end, King not only thickened the shadows and made things move in my peripheral vision, he kept me awake for hours afterwards while every image he'd drawn came at me out of the dark. I didn't go to sleep till it was light outside."
So there you go: horror for the beach, and even set on a beach, just to make it even more perfect.
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