Stephen King's latest novel, Later, is a horror story about a child who can speak to the dead

Steven King is an expert at creating snapshots of American life. Picture: Getty Images
Steven King is an expert at creating snapshots of American life. Picture: Getty Images
  • Later, by Stephen King. Titan, $17.50.

Since Carrie, many of Stephen King's novels have featured children or young adults with special mental powers.

In Later we meet Jamie Conklin, who can see and speak to the dead. The uses to which adults put this power form the main thrust of the narrative in this exciting and intriguing book.

Jamie is the son of a literary agent, a single mother, and one of the joys of Later is the insight into the world of publishing in New York, from the point of view of those who make a living from it. The best-selling books of Regis Thomas (there seems to be a Kingly echo to that first name) focus on Roanoke, and the mysterious disappearance of all the settlers there.

From this true historic event (Australian readers may well have to look it up), Thomas has spun many books, and kept the Conklin family afloat. The novels receive reviews ranging from the enthusiastic to the highly critical, depending on whether the review appears in a place where sales are taken into account, or in a publication which values more literary qualities.

The economic state of the family, financially over-committed, investing in dubious schemes which fall apart in the 2008 crash, provides the grounding in reality that make Jamie's special abilities more believable.

King is an expert at creating these snapshots of American life, in which the gifted (or cursed) individual is found.

This is a crime novel, as well as a horror story, although the serious criminal element really develops well into the book, and Jamie finds himself embroiled in investigations, both legitimate and nefarious.

There are incidents of violence recounted. Police corruption is a presence, and legal and illegal drugs are liberally sprinkled, soaked and burnt into the pages.

The tale is told by a somewhat older Jamie, looking back, and the writing in Later changes as the book progresses.

Reflecting on this, Jamie writes, "Here's a funny thing - looking back over these pages, I can see that the writing got better as I went along. Not trying to say that I'm up these with Faulkner or Updike; but what I am saying is that I improved by doing..."

King's shifting of style in the book, from a childish recounting to a more reflective prose is achieved seemingly without effort, and adds greatly to the reader's enjoyment.

There are many references to horror novels and films throughout Later, from violent, unexpurgated fairy tales, to Dracula, Frankenstein, and franchises such as The Conjuring.

Dickens is gets several mentions, notably in A Christmas Carol, with the frightening Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come. But Jamie also notes, in relation to changing family fortunes, that "...I sometimes think my life was like a Dickens novel, only with swearing".

There are quite a few moments of humour in Later, among the horror and crime. The author of the lucrative potboilers writes in a garden studio, pretentiously called "La Petite Maison dans le Bois", a detail that brings a smile during a very dramatic passage, in which Jamie is under enormous pressure.

The book works as a stand-alone novel; you don't have to be one of King's "constant readers" to enjoy it. But there are added delights for those who have immersed themselves in the novelist's world over the years.

The horror elements in Later involve haunting, but also the way a child has so little power in directing his or her own life, even if that child is remarkably gifted.

This theme stretches back in a long way in King's work, to examples such as The Shining, but also to more recent works such as The Institute.

Misery, where an author is forced to write another potboiler while imprisoned, also came to mind while reading Later, but to say why would give away too much plot.

Jamie even quotes King (unattributed): "Books are a uniquely portable magic. I read that somewhere." There is also a reference to "that Shawshank Redemption prison".

There is great sadness in Later; the young Jamie sees a dead little girl sitting on a bench, and helps another dead child back to his apartment.

The dead are usually very much like the living, it seems; they usually don't have more knowledge or power than they did while alive. Jamie must confront an exception to this rule.

Questions of origins and secrets, the relationship between a child and parents, and the limits of acceptable behaviour play out within the book.

This is one of King's shorter novels, and it moves at a fast pace, while also allowing space for Jamie to reflect on earlier experiences. There is a major revelation during one of these passages, near the end.

Stephen King's imagination seems inexhaustible, and Later, with its combination of crime and horror, is a worthy addition to his catalogue.

  • Penelope Cottier writes poetry as PS Cottier
This story The imagination of a true master first appeared on The Canberra Times.