How to draw a picture
Start with a blank surface. It doesn't have to be paper or canvas, but I feel it should be white. We call it white because we need a word, but its true name is nothing. Black is the absence of light, but white is the absence of memory, the color of can't remember.
How do we remember to remember? That's a question I've asked myself often since my time on Duma Key, often in the small hours of the morning, looking up into the absence of light, remembering absent friends. Sometimes in those little hours I think about the horizon. You have to establish the horizon. You have to mark the white. A simple enough act, you might say, but any act that re-makes the world is heroic. Or so I’ve come to believe.
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.
Still, imagine that small hand lifting the pencil ... hesitating ... and then marking the white. Imagine the courage of that first effort to re-establish the world by picturing it. I will always love that little girl, in spite of all she has cost me. I must. I have no choice. Pictures are magic, as you know.
On the one hand, this is my favorite prose passage in the book. On the other hand, the entire book has that same atmosphere and themes: the magic of art, the bleakness of loss, the terror of opening a door into darkness, human empathy and connections, and, always, how making a mark on paper is both simple and difficult, the dividing line between nothing and everything.
Unusually for Stephen King, Duma Key is set in on the Florida coast – an incredibly vivid and atmospheric Florida, which becomes enough of a character in its own right to make the book a very satisfying sea-soaked, sunset-lit Gothic.
I am pleased to say that this is one of the least gross King books I’ve read, bar a rotting ghost or two. It’s also one of the scariest, in a very classic “terrify by keeping the scary stuff mostly off-page” manner. The Big Bad is never quite seen directly, and is one of King’s creepiest and most mythically archetypal figures.
It’s also one of King’s most heartbreaking books. Almost all the characters are really likable, and if not likable, than still very human. The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon opens with, The world had teeth and it could bite you with them any time it wanted. Duma Key is about the beauty and magic and redemption of the world, but also about the teeth.
It begins with a wealthy self-made man, Edgar Freemantle, getting into an absolutely horrific accident while visiting one of his job sites. He loses an arm and gets some brain damage; he’s barely out of the hospital before his marriage has ended, his life as he knew it has ended, and he’s on the brink of suicide.
After some talks with his psychiatrist, he ends up taking up art, which he’d enjoyed as a boy but never pursued, and moving to a cabin in the Florida Keys. There he meets a chatty guy, Wireman, who’s the caretaker for Elizabeth, an elderly woman with Alzheimer’s – both of whom have pasts which slowly, heartbreakingly unfold over the course of the book. Edgar finds that painting is his new passion and genuine talent… but his paintings are odd. Eerie. And they can change things…
The first half of the book follows Edgar as he recovers from his accidents, explores his new talent and gains critical and commercial success, and loses some old friends and gains some new ones. The emotional and physical recovery from the accident and its fallout (which doesn't mean he'll ever be the same as he was before) was incredibly well-done and vivid. I don't know if it was technically correct, but it felt very believable.
In classic Gothic fashion, there’s creepy stuff going on simultaneously, but it’s comparatively subtle. I found this part of the book hugely enjoyable even though tons of scenes are just Edgar painting or eating sandwiches and shooting the breeze with Wireman. On the one hand, it probably could have been shorter. On the other hand, I could have happily gone on reading just that part forever.
And then the creepy stuff gets less subtle. A lot less subtle.
This has an unusual story arc. I’m putting that and other huge spoilers behind a cut, but I’ll also mention that even for King, the book has some very tragic aspects— ones which he’s explored before, but there’s one I’ll rot13.com (feed into the site to reveal) because it’s a specific thing that people may want to avoid. Gur cebgntbavfg’f qnhtugre vf xvyyrq. Fur’f na nqhyg ohg n lbhat bar (n pbyyrtr fghqrag) naq irel yvxnoyr, naq vg’f gur ovttrfg bs frireny thg-chapurf va gur fgbel. Nyfb, n qbt vf uvg ol n pne naq qvrf.
If that’s not a dealbreaker, I suggest not reading the rest of the spoilers because even though if I’d sat down and tried to figure out where the story was going, I probably could have, the experience of reading it feels unpredictable; you can guess the outlines but a lot of the details are unexpected.
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