Stephen King (stephenking.com)
Hard Case Crime (hardcasecrime.com)
Looking back on it, I sometimes think my life was like a Dickens novel, only with swearing.
From a young age Jamie Conklin has been able to see dead people. Sometimes it’s difficult to tell, because they don’t look like anyone’s conventional idea of a ghost, but it’s hard to deny the facts when they’re standing over their own dead body. Jamie’s mother, a New York-based literary agent, knows about his special gift and has told him to keep it to himself. But when they’re in dire straits and Tia’s only remaining client dies before finishing a series decades in the writing, she asks Jamie to help her out, unwittingly revealing to her lover – NYPD detective Liz Dutton – the existence of Jamie’s strange gift. Liz, determined to make her mark in the department, involves the young boy in a case that has cost many people their lives and stymied detectives for decades, and in the process exposes him to something that will affect him long into adulthood.
I’ll say it now, because it’s been playing on my mind since I read King’s latest novel, the first of two due this year, and the third to be published by Charles Ardai’s Hard Case Crime imprint: this is an odd choice for Hard Case. Yes, one of the central characters is an NYPD detective; and, yes, there are several crimes that take place both during and around the narrative. But – and it’s a point that Jamie makes several times in his first-person retelling – “this is a horror story.” In fact, Later is most closely related to King’s epic 1986 masterpiece, It.
Later opens in early ’90s New York, and we’re introduced to the world through the eyes of Jamie, who lives with his mother in a nice apartment in a nice part of the city. Like The Sixth Sense, a film that Jamie himself references, we only find out about his gift after the fact, when he’s already mid-conversation with his dead neighbour. The location of the deceased lady’s wedding ring is enough to prove to his mother that Jamie is not a normal child, though she has seen inklings in the past, including one notable incident when Jamie was no older than 6. When the financial crisis hits, Tia Conklin loses almost everything to a thinly-disguised Ponzi scheme that has been taking the agency’s money for years. Forced out of their nice apartment and forced to get rid of her office space, the death of her cash cow client is the last straw, and Tia asks Jamie to help, to act as a proxy for the dead writer so that she can finish the series that he left without a closing volume.
When Jamie’s mother discovers that her lover is couriering drugs on the side, she kicks her out, but Liz knows about Jamie’s abilities, and uses him to help her find a recently-dead serial killer who has promised one last big posthumous event. But this time, while Jamie speaks to the dead man, he witnesses the exact moment that the ghost is taken over by something else, something that Jamie can tell is ancient and evil.
As you would expect, Later is grounded through King’s ever-present pop culture references. This isn’t your average ghost story, and King creates a boundary around these ghosts through a series of “rules” that Jamie builds up over the years: these dead people aren’t see-through, so it’s only by talking to them that he knows they’re dead at all; they always wear the clothes that they died in; and they begin to fade away – grow more distant and harder to hear – after a day or two, completely disappearing within a week. So, when one of the ghosts breaks these rules – an inevitability, wouldn’t you say? – it’s as much a shock to us as it is to Jamie. Throw in a reference to “deadlights” – a word that will send a shiver up the spine of Constant Reader when they encounter it – and we’re suddenly in familiar territory, and much more frightened than Jamie can ever hope to understand.
So, a return, after a fashion, to one of King’s best-loved early novels and once again that question: why Hard Case Crime? Don’t get me wrong, a new King novel is a new King novel, and I’ll always be front of the queue to get my hands on a copy, but it’s a far cry from the more “apt” The Colorado Kid or Joyland. The It references are circumstantial at best, and the books aren’t related in any other way, but even the tangential relationship, this brief return of it, will send long-time readers into paroxysms of joy.
King is on fine form and the voice of Jamie – the Jamie of the future who is looking back on the events of his younger years – is easy and engaging, bearing that something that King finds so easily and does so well. The story is an intriguing and engaging one that ends up going in all sorts of unexpected directions and, weighing in at a paltry (for King, at least) 250 pages, is just long enough for the story he wants to tell. An excellent jumping-on point for King virgins, there’s plenty in Later that speaks to long-time fans as well. Another excellent addition to the Stephen King canon, I think Jamie sums it up best:
I think this is a horror story. Check it out.