I purchased another new book this year! Also, this review marks the first time I’ve ever reviewed a brand new Stephen King novel. Later is the author’s third release for the Hard Case Crime Series. I remember loving Joyland, but I was not so into The Colorado Kid. Fortunately, King’s latest crime novel is true to everything we expect from the master storyteller. I honestly believe that King could be a success in any genre, and he’s proven he is adept at writing crime fiction. However, as protagonist Jamie Conklin states and repeats in Later, “This is a horror story.” As a child, Jamie discovers that he can converse with ghosts of the recently deceased; through this special ability, he learns that the dead can only speak the truth. While he does not intend to use this knowledge for personal gain, the people closest to him do take advantage of his gift. Despite his repetition of Jamie’s mantra about this being a horror story, I will say that this is far from King’s most frightening story. However, he does blend his skill for horror writing into a story that has an old-fashioned noir quality. As a fan of that genre, let me say that King hits that right balance to deliver another thrilling read. I was pulled in immediately and never let go!
Later is narrated by Jamie as an adult and is told over a period of about eleven years as he looks back on his unusual life, starting when he’s about four and ending when he’s fifteen. Jamie has a special ability: he can see the newly dead but only for a short time. When people die, their ghosts linger for a few days before moving on, and during that time, Jamie is able to ask them questions and get the truth, because the dead really cannot tell tales. Jamie lives with his mother, Tia, who knows about his ability but feels it best to be kept a secret. That is, until she needs his talent for herself. Tia runs the family’s struggling book editing firm. The business only stays afloat due to one particular client, author Regis Thomas, whose historical romance series has been on the bestseller lists for years. When Regis suddenly dies before completing the final novel of the series, and faced with a momentous tax debt, Tia decides to have her son talk to the writer’s ghost to learn how the story ends. Then, Tia can “ghostwrite” (get it ha ha) the novel itself, leaving the public none the wiser. Sounds simple, but there’s a problem. Tia’s detective girlfriend, who has some questionable morals of her own, witnesses Jamie’s gift in action, setting up the horror story proper.
I could name a lot about this book that I liked, but what really stood out for me is the the narration. King has always written children well, and I think he nailed Jamie’s voice well as an adolescent handling so many life changing experiences. This story often reminded me of Odd Thomas (another book you should read). Because Jamie discovered his ability at such a young age, it just naturally becomes a part of his normal life. That isn’t to say there isn’t tragedy, such as seeing a bicyclist get crushed by a car. Jamie witnesses, and later in the story is coerced into seeing, things that no child should. Jamie’s relationships with the adults in his life are complex, particularly with Liz. I also thought it was a good decision that Jamie is narrating this while in his early 20’s and not older, as it works better this way.
As King does with all of his books, there are some great pop culture references, such as The Sixth Sense. Jamie acknowledges the movie and tells the reader that his ability to talk to dead people isn’t quite like “the kid in the movie.” Certain scenes definitely echo that film quite nicely. It’s also fun when references to other King stories pop up, such as “The Ritual of Chud” from It. You have to love the shared SK Universe!
Due to the short length of the novel, the cast is kept fairly small. The most interesting relationship for me was the one between Jamie and Liz. When Jamie is a child, Liz is just mom’s “friend” who plays with him occasionally and picks him up from school. Later in the story, we discover her dark side, complicating this relationship. While there is a malevolent demon that haunts Jamie for a good amount of story, Liz proves to be the true antagonist of the book. I’ve said it before that the best King monsters are the human ones.
The actual crime thriller aspect of the novel doesn’t kick in until the final act, but of course after the slow build, King kicks it to an 11. While there is plenty of action and blood, King manages to put in some emotional moments as well, such as Tia and Jamie dealing with his uncle’s early onset Alzheimer’s. I was also touched by the relationship between Jamie and Professor Martin Burkett, who was present when Jamie first discovered his ability. My one qualm with the story was a surprise twist at the end regarding the mystery of Jamie’s absent father. While it was quite a shock, I don’t know if it was necessary to the overall story.
If there’s one word I can use to describe King’s writing, it would be “consistency.” While Later is not the next Shining or Misery, I did find it to be a very competent story from one of this century’s most talented writers. At only 252 pages, it’s a fun ride worth reading.
“If you try to outrun your own shadow, you’re bound to fall on your face.”