LATER by Stephen King, Hard Case Crime, 272 pages, $14.95
Does anybody write kids-with-strange-powers better than Stephen King? And, is there anyone on the scene who has more insider knowledge of the publishing industry? Later, King’s third installment of the Hard Case Crime series, threads both of these into a single short novel.
Jamie is a kid who can see dead people, and his single mom is a literary agent willing to do whatever she has to in order to keep bread on the table. Before you get nervous that this is that same The Sixth Sense dynamic, Jamie, our narrator, is well aware of M. Night Shyamalan’s 1999 film. More important, King seems aware that The Sixth Sense is basically a superhero origin story: A kid figures out his powers, looks around, and then tries to make the world a better place.
This is not how Later plays out.
As Jamie reminds us throughout, “this is a horror story,” and horror stories aren’t so much about making the world a better place as they’re about trying to get out alive. As Jamie quickly finds out, convincing those around him that he can see dead people is an invitation for them to abuse that ability. There’s a mad bomber menacing the city; there’s a lost manuscript; there’s fortunes only the dead know about — and this is where King has always excelled. His premises and situations extend themselves in your head just when you hear them sketched out, don’t they?
Say a struggling alcoholic with a violent streak signs on as winter caretaker for a remote, snowy hotel. As a reader scanning the back of The Shining, you’re already in that grand, empty hotel. Or, a brain injury gives a character precognitive abilities, as in The Dead Zone. Without even cracking that spine, you can already project ahead into the tangled situations waiting for that character.
This is King’s special power. We’re already participants just from hearing the setup.
And, as in The Dead Zone, where those special powers are triggered by touch, the dead people in Later are similarly “bound” by a small set of rules that feel common-sense. Over the course of the novel, though, these rules will provide the jump-scares, ticking clocks, and emotional reveals. In typical King fashion, they already have their hand on your shoulder before you’re even aware they’ve been behind you the whole while.
King’s writing here is as clean, direct, and evocative as it’s ever been. The short, to-the-point chapters make for quick reading, the crime-driven plot is propulsive, involving guns, drugs, bombs, and kidnapping, but, more importantly, some of the lines just take your breath away. Skin “pebbles” with goosebumps. A dead person confronting Jamie is “like a burned log with fire still inside.” But crawling into the head and voice and life of this kid narrator is where King especially excels.
Can one of the most celebrated novelists of our time, with 70 already in his rearview mirror, really hope to dial back 50-plus years to narrate Later in authentic fashion?
Yes, he can.
By the novel’s end, Jamie will have grown up, but, like King himself, he won’t have left behind who he used to be. It’ll take you maybe one afternoon to read this book — it’s hard to put down — but it’ll resonate longer. The next time you see a dog look twice at a bench or watch a baby cry for no obvious reason, this novel will be right there behind you, its hand on your shoulder, its whisper so close to your ear you might cringe a little, and then smile, because you’re in the hands of a master storyteller.