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Tortured souls

Lisey's Story A Novel Stephen King Scribner: 514 pp., $28

October 22, 2006|Steve Almond | Steve Almond is the author of the story collections "The Evil B.B. Chow" and "My Life in Heavy Metal."

WHILE the arrival of a new Stephen King book is always a happy occasion for his publishers, the hype for his latest has been nothing short of ecstatic. The early spin is that King has finally laid down his bloody wand and written a literary novel.

I'm sorry to report that this isn't quite the case. "Lisey's Story" is something closer to an ambitious fairy tale. Although it does deliver moments of startling lyricism and insight, it also descends into the sort of paranormal mishugas that has kept King on the bestseller list for 30 years.

Our main character here is Lisey Landon, the widow of a world-famous writer, Scott Landon, and one of those plucky Maine women who will inevitably be called upon to wield one or more deadly weapons. In the course of cleaning out Scott's office, she discovers a series of clues left by her husband that lead her on a harrowing scavenger hunt into his haunted past. This being a King production, Lisey is also being stalked by a sadistic maniac who wants access to her husband's papers. And (oh, yeah) her older sister, Amanda, has fallen into a catatonic state in which she is possessed by Scott's ghost. Got it?

If the tale is at times hard to follow -- and it was for me -- it's not because of these twists but because King has decided to write much of the book in stream-of-consciousness style. Lisey's memories are continually being interrupted by her dead spouse, whose slangy interjections are italicized and placed in parentheses: "(hush Lisey no Lisey)." King's intention here is to convey the intimacy of the marriage, the way in which couples develop a private kingdom of thought and language that outlives death. But the device grows labored in a hurry.

As Lisey delves further into the mind of her deceased husband, she discovers how to transport herself into the imaginary realm he created to escape from the brutality of his boyhood, a fantastical land called Boo'ya Moon.

"I think most kids have a place they go to when they're scared or lonely or just plain bored," Amanda explains. "They call it NeverLand or the Shire, Boo'ya Moon if they've got big imaginations and make it up for themselves."

True as this may be, I had trouble taking Lisey's adventures amid the "sweetheart trees" and the "Fairy Forest" with a straight face, perhaps because I kept waiting for a phalanx of Munchkins to appear.

If I seem to be making sport of King for his stagy excess, please take it as a measure of my honest frustration. The truth is that he writes wonderful prose when he drops the horror-movie theatrics and cutesy language. Like Dickens -- another prolific populist -- he remains one of our most vivid describers of the physical world. "The house on the Bergenstrasse Ring Road is drafty in the fall, cold in the winter, and leaky when the damp and hungover excuse for a spring finally comes," he notes. "Both showers are balky. The downstairs toilet is a chuckling horror."

King is even better when he focuses on the emotional preoccupations of his characters. Early in the book, for instance, Lisey recalls her life as a young bride and stumbles against a question that will dog her as a middle-aged widow: "(How many years does it take, she'll wonder two nights later, lying in bed alone in her substandard motel room and listening to dogs bark beneath a hot orange moon, before the simple stupid weight of accumulating days finally sucks all the wow out of a marriage? How lucky do you have to be for your love to outrace your time?)"

The novel's central concern is the manner in which we absorb the pain of those we love. Toward the end, after much bloody mayhem, Lisey discovers the object of her quest: a story her husband had written for her, one that reveals the trauma inflicted on him by his mentally deranged father.

"[H]e has terrorized many of my childhood days and sent me to bed on many nights feeling small and stupid and worthless," Scott writes, "but those bad times have yielded their own perverse treasures; they have turned each kiss to gold, each of his compliments, even the most offhand, into things to be treasured. And even at ten -- because I'm his son, his blood? maybe -- I understand that his kisses and compliments are always sincere; they are always true things. He is a monster, but the monster is not incapable of love. That was the horror of my father, little Lisey: he loved his boys."

Reading this quiet, devastating passage, I couldn't help but feel betrayed by the grotesque elements of the book -- the drooling lunatics and giant cannibals tailor-made for conversion into Hollywood villains.

And, honestly, is there a reason King couldn't simply have allowed his heroine to find this story on a hidden shelf? After all, his best work -- the novel "Misery," for instance, or the short story "The Body" -- proceeds from the fundamental truth that our darkest demons reside within our own worldly experience.

I am not suggesting, by the way, that "Lisey's Story" is a work to be dismissed. On the contrary, it should serve as definitive notice that Stephen King has evolved from a talented writer of horror into a serious literary artist. But he has yet to abandon the conventions that have made him a household name: a childish fixation on riddles and torture, a tendency to allow plot to trump character, action to overrun drama.

King may yet write his great American novel. But to do so, he will have to cast away the crutches of genre writing for good and kick that most awful of American habits -- the use of spectacular violence as a shortcut to deep feeling. *

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