Firstly, Duma Key was published in 2008 and reached #1 on the NYT Best Seller List, so I don’t feel like I’m really spoiling anything when writing this review. You’ve had 10 years to read it. Secondly, here is your obligatory warning that the book contains materials not suited for young audiences. Now that we have that out of the way, let’s maroon ourselves on Duma Key with the master of horror, Stephen King.
I’m not normally a huge Stephen King fan. I’ve tried reading a couple of his books before, but I can’t make it past the first few chapters without losing interest. A friend suggested I try again because apparently Carrie & Christine aren’t two of his best novels, in her opinion. While perusing the bibliography on his Wikipedia page the title of this one jumped out at me! Of course, novels set in Florida are a weakness of mine. I immediately logged into BookMooch and ordered a copy, then had to wait over a week for it to ship.
Once it arrived, I had to get started! Even though it is a fairly hefty 611 pages, I breezed through it within a week. The text contains a lot of exacting detail and descriptions, but it’s an easy read. There are some flashbacks and time-flips, but they are easy to detect and very simple to follow if you are paying attention. Actually taking the time to sit and read a book is a big deal for me. Almost everything I do requires me to be looking at it or moving around, so I usually just listen to audiobooks. While Duma Key is available in audio format, and I did purchase it as such at a later date, my initial reading was of the hardback version.
Gloom & Doom On Duma Key
We start out in Minnesota with the main character Edgar, who owns and operates an extremely profitable construction company. This guy has it all, wealth, a lovely wife, two beautiful daughters, success, friends. He is definitely someone with a long way to fall, and fall he does. He’s almost crushed to death while sitting in his truck at a job site. A crane with a faulty reverse warning alarm backs into, and over, his vehicle, trapping him inside. As a result of the accident, he is now not only minus an arm but has great difficulty verbally expressing himself. My father had a similar issue after his stroke, HE knew the word he wanted to use, but somewhere between the brain and the mouth, it would get lost.
People with traumatic brain injuries can sometimes be violent without even realizing it, which is exactly what happens to Edgar. During a fit of frustration, he stabs his wife with a plastic butter knife and chokes her. She divorces him and he moves into their lake cottage, giving her the house. In the divorce, he splits his fortune 4 ways, between himself, his wife, and their two adult daughters. He leaves his business in the hands of his longtime friends and employees, who he trusts implicitly. On the advice of his therapist, he takes out a year lease on a big pink beach house on the mostly deserted Duma Key.
Everything that happens up to this point in the story is really just background info. I really was thinking to myself, “Here we go with another slow paced Stephen King book!”, but then it started to get interesting. Once I got into it, I couldn’t put it down. I’m not going to give away every detail because part of what makes this novel so good is the need to know what is going to happen next! I’ll let you dig up those treasures on your own, but I’ll touch on some of the main plot points below.
One end of Duma Key is completely overgrown and uninhabited, no one has lived there for decades. The opposite end of the island is dotted with empty beach houses. There appear to only be three full-time residents: Edgar, the elderly Elizabeth, and her caretaker, Wireman. Wireman and Edgar hit it off and soon become best friends. Elizabeth has lived on the island most of her life. As a child, she lived in a large house on the now vacant end of the key. The house still stands, barely, but no one really knows it is there, except for her. Whenever someone ventures into the jungle-like overgrowth surrounding it, they become violently ill. However, sudden vomiting is the least of the terrible things that will take place on this picturesque island.
Edgar is haunted by more than his fever dreams after he takes up residence at “Big Pink”. He decides to pick up where he left off with his art hobby and begins to draw and paint like a professional artist, with a little help from his phantom limb. He creates surrealist pieces that in some cases allow him to remotely view the events involving his subjects (like his ex-wife sleeping with his best friends) or to manipulate their circumstances and lives (killing the child rapist he saw on the news). The works themselves are so good, a local gallery offers him his own exhibition. His paintings are a triumph and they immediately sell for large sums of money. This might seem like a positive, but it is far from it. Death and destruction follow his art wherever it goes, even into the home of his beloved daughter.
Over the course of many pages, we find that Elizabeth had the supernatural artistic abilities that Edgar now possesses. The crazy creatures that she brought to life as a child still roam the island. We discover she drew and brought to life the same horrible entity, Perse, that now plagues Edgar and his paintings. Perse will not stop until everyone he loves is dead, or he stops her himself. In order to do so, he has to venture to the far end of the island, collect the small china figure that Elizabeth trapped underwater at her childhood home decades ago, and encase it fresh water. With the help of Wireman and his assistant jack, he is able to contain the evil ending her murderous tirade.
Many of the characters, including Elizabeth, will not survive all of the plot twists and die before the final chapter.
I loved this book so much I purchased the audiobook and “read” it a second time. I can’t decide if the circumstances of what brought Edgar to Duma Key are what scare me the most, or if it’s what happens once he’s there. The thought of losing your career, family, spouse, home, a limb, and ability to communicate effectively all in one snap of a finger is pretty terrifying. It’s also a realistic scenario that happens to people every day. Undead pirates, giant cartoon frogs, and a sea witch killing everyone you know are scary, too. Don’t mistake me, I just think each has earned their place on my Do-Not-Want list.
I would definitely recommend this novel. I would love to see this developed into a movie or a limited series on Netflix. Florida recently changed it’s tax laws for the film industry which resulted in the cancelation of Bloodlines, one of Netflix’s most popular shows. If they already feel the cost is prohibitive to continue existing shows, I don’t think they will be too eager to start up a new project in the state.
Duma Key is not a real place, but you might recognize a few real-life places mentioned in the book, though. Those familiar with the barrier islands off Sarasota will be able to spot them. As a part-time resident of the area, King obviously put his local knowledge to work. It’s unfortunate that this is his only novel that takes place in Florida. Hopefully, he will write more stories about the Sunshine State, but for now, this is a great start.