In the week I finally got around to watching all nine episodes of CBS’s recent adaptation of The Stand, it seemed apt that I also took the time to read the latest publication from the Master of Horror himself, Stephen King. Later is the third novel King has published under the imprint of Hard Case Crime, the other two being The Colorado Kid and Joyland. It’s notably shorter than most of King’s output, but at 248 pages, I was left with the feeling that it could’ve been a longer book. That’s not to say that I felt cheated — King, as an author and a human being, has never cheated me as a reader, regardless of what you think about how he closed off his magnum opus, The Dark Tower.
Drawing immediate comparisons with M. Knight Shyamalan’s The Sixth Sense, Later is the story of Jamie Conklin, who narrates with a style that’s a mix of sardonic wit and knowing irony. He’s a Gen Z kid, basically. Jamie has the ability to see dead people, “but not like that movie with Bruce Willis,” he hastens to add. He’s the son of Tia, a literary agent who, through a series of calamitous circumstances, is close to losing the family’s livelihood. Her brother, Jamie’s Uncle Harry, is in a home suffering from early-onset Alzheimer’s. His care bleeds whatever income Tia gets from her business. But she takes solace in her son, her off-and-on lover, NYPD detective Liz Dutton, and maybe too much wine. Jamie’s abilities come to their aid, though. While he’s only able to see and speak to the dead for a short while before they fade away, whenever he asks them a question, they have to answer truthfully. This comes in handy when Tia’s sole money-maker, author Regis Thomas, pops his clogs while working on the manuscript for the book that would save the business.
If only all of Jamie’s contacts with the dead were as lucrative. When Liz runs into trouble at her department, she needs the boy’s help in solving a big case, where the main suspect, a serial bomber known as “Thumper” is found dead by suicide. There’s one last bomb out there, and Liz needs its location to save her career, as well as the lives of innocent people. This is when the horror comes into play, because Thumper is reluctant to tell the truth. Jamie and his family find themselves up against a force that is more powerful that death itself.
Later follows Jamie, Tia, and Liz over a period of ten years or so. Jamie becomes a young man, still grappling with his identity; Liz and Tia have numerous fallings-out, with secrets and betrayal sapping the love out of their relationship. A final desperate throw of the dice from Liz leaves Jamie facing the monster that’s been haunting him for many years. It’s a brutal but necessary conflict in which there can only be one winner.
Reading Stephen King is, to me, like slipping on a pair of comfortable shoes. He’s been around for practically all of my readling life, and while most of would agree that his current output lacks anything that comes close to his classics (The Stand, It, The Shining, ‘Salem’s Lot), there is always much to enjoy and examine whenever he publishes a new book. Writers swear by his non-fiction masterpiece, On Writing, and I would be in agreement here. I love that book, and relish picking it up everytime. As infuriating as The Dark Tower can be at the end, it’s still a monumental piece of fantasy literature, one that follows King around in many of his books. There could be elements of his multiverse in Later, but I’d have to read it a second time to work that one out. Still, there is at least one reference in Later to an event that happens in It, so I might not be far off the mark.
Later is an excellent book, and at the end, King pulls of a major surprise that’s going to polarise a lot of readers. But this is Stephen King; he’s not about to go all soft on us at this late stage in his career. At least I hope he’s not.