By Stephen King
Stephen King has chronicled the ordeal of his painful 1999 accident in many interviews and in writing in the semi-autobiographical, On Writing. However, in Duma Key, King gives us insight into the travails of bouncing back from a major, life altering accident through fiction. In doing so, he weaves a spooky tale of a fictional haunted cay off the shore of Sarasota, Florida.
Duma Key actually starts with a short story that appears at the end of the novel, Blaze, published the year before. In the story, Memory, we are introduced to Edgar Freemantle, a Minnesota building contractor who is run over by a crane on a jobsite.
Edgar loses his right arm and sustains substantial head trauma. His right leg and hip are crushed. The story chronicles his efforts to rehabilitate himself. The head trauma creates problems with his short term memory and his ability to speak. The inability to come up with the right word frustrates him to the point of blinding rage. His painful rehabilitation taxes him to the point he wants to commit suicide.
In Duma Key, the accident is behind him. Edgar recounts the pain and frustration and how they lead to his wife suing for divorce. Edgar is in deep depression when his psychologist recommends that he relocate for awhile to put Minneapolis and all the painful memories behind him. Paul decides to rent a vacation home for a year. He finds a beachside abode on Duma Key on the Gulf Coast of Florida. He relocates and decides to take up painting as a hobby to occupy his time and mind.
Edgar’s younger daughter visits him shortly after he settles in. They tour the key and note the other homes on the coast. Next door to him, south along the coast, is an expansive mansion. Out front of the mansion sits an elderly woman who waves to them as the pass. Edgar and Ilse continue south. The road slowly deteriorates until it is nearly impassable. The south of the key is a biological anomaly with thick, heavy vegetation that should not be able to grow on the thin, sandy soil. The odor, appearance, and ambience of this part of the key is disconcerting to the point that Edgar is forced to pull over so Ilse can throw up.
Edgar delves into his art. He starts with sketches before moving on to painting. He goes about his work with a furious passion. It dawns on him that his paintings are something deeper and reveal secrets. He learns that Ilse has become engaged. He finds out that his ex-wife is having a fling with his accountant and that he is contemplating suicide. His ex-wife is disconcerted and angry when Edgar calls her to tell her to intervene before the accountant offs himself.
A few days after Ilse departs, Edgar receives a call from the woman who lives in the mansion south of him. The woman introduces herself on Edgar’s answering machine as Elizabeth Eastlake, his landlord and the owner of all of Duma Key. She welcomes him and provides a cryptic warning. Duma Key is not a good place for daughters.
As part of his therapy, Edgar takes long watches on the beach. One day he happens upon a man in his late 40s, drinking green tea and sitting under a beach umbrella. The man is Jerome Wireman, Mrs. Eastlake’s caretaker. The two quickly become close friends.
Wireman eventually introduces Edgar to Elizabeth who is suffering from Alzheimer’s. When she’s lucid, she’s an intelligent and interesting conversationalist. When she lapses into a fog, she plays with china dolls and a dollhouse on the kitchen table. She is interested in Edgar’s art and tells him that many famous artists have stayed in “Big Pink” as Edgar calls his pink beach house. A patron of the arts is Elizabeth Eastlake.
Edgar and Wireman are following the daily news reports of a little girl abducted from a local shopping center and murdered. A suspect is captured. That evening, Edgar, now obsessive about his painting, is inspired to paint a portrait of the suspect. He paints the man’s portrait and retires.
He awakens the next morning to learn that the man has died of apparent natural causes. Edgar goes to his studio and looks at his painting. His rendering of the suspect has no mouth or nose. Edgar is convinced that his painting caused him to suffocate.
To prove to himself that his paintings have supernatural powers, he steals one of Wireman’s head x-rays that shows a bullet lodged in his brain. He paints a rendering of Wireman’s brain without the bullet. Shortly after he completes it, Wireman calls to tell him the headaches that have plagued his existence since his suicide attempt have suddenly gone away.
Edgar has amassed a large number of paintings and sketches. Some of them seem to fit into a series he calls the Boat Series. In these pictures, there’s a young girl looking out at a decrepit clipper ship. She’s dressed differently in each of the paintings and the ship slowly becomes more visible. He paints these pictures in a fevered trance, unaware of what will emerge until it emerges. Eventually, he’s able to read part of the name of the ship. It is called Perse.
Wireman and Jack’s hired assistant, Jack Cantori, convince Jack that his art is really good and that he should try to exhibit and sell his art with one of the many studios in Sarasota. Mrs. Eastlake has long been a generous patron of the arts in the greater Sarasota area. Even though she is often lost in the fog of Alzheimer’s, her name is bound to get his foot in the door.
Edgar takes his paintings to a local gallery and they are immediately enraptured with his work. They want to hold a show and sell his paintings. Jack agrees and eventually invites all of his family and friends from Minneapolis as well as his ex wife and two daughters to attend.
Through his many talks with Wireman, Edgar learns about Elizabeth Eastlake’s life and the tragedy of the Eastlake family. The original Eastlake estate lies on the now densely forested southern end of the key. Elizabeth suffered a brain injury when she was just a small child. Her two twin sisters drowned while wading in the surf at night, taken by the dangerous riptides. Elizabeth’s father became rich through real estate and bootlegging during Prohibition. He had a moment of notoriety when he discovered some interesting and unexplained treasure while snorkeling a couple hundred yards off the coast. The local newspaper took pictures of the find which included a small china doll. He would give that doll to Elizabeth.
One day, Elizabeth has a lucid day and Edgar stops by to visit with her and Wireman. She again warns Edgar about keeping his art on Duma Key. She also tells him to look for a red picnic basket stored in the attic. Just as she says this, she lapses back into dementia.
Later, as he’s painting, he hears the front door to his house open. He sees the desiccated corpses of two young girls standing in his entry hall. He passes out. When he awakens, he can see the footprints, knowing that it was no dream.
Edgar has his show and it is a smashing success, earning approximately half a million dollars for a new, unknown artist. His friends and family, including his accountant who was going to commit suicide, his psychologist, his physical therapist, and his two daughters all make the trip to Florida to be with him. He won’t let any of them stay on Duma Key. He puts them up in a hotel.
Elizabeth Eastlake makes a surprise appearance at the show. She is in a wheelchair, but otherwise lucid and aware. She takes in Edgar’s work, but specifically asks to see the boat series. While she is viewing it, she is suddenly distressed. She starts seizing. Before she lapses into unconsciousness, she tells Edgar, “the table is leaking.”
Edgar spends that night with his ex-wife at the hotel. In the morning, he meets his daughter at the pool for breakfast and talk about her relationship troubles. Edgar is worried about her, not only because of her problems with her fiancé, but because of his paintings. When Jack gets home, he finds one of his blank canvasses on his easel. Scrawled in red paint is the sentence, “Where our sister?”
The next day, Edgar and Wireman find the red picnic basket and are stricken by what they find inside. Edgar calls the gallery and tells them to release none of his paintings to those who have purchased them, having learned of the malevolent power behind them. Inside that basket, they find incredibly complex drawings rendered by a two year old Elizabeth Eastlake that reveal the true nature of the ship and its evil minions.
When Jack returns home, he gets a message on his answering machine telling him that his youngest daughter was killed. The murderer was an art critic who purchased one of Jack’s paintings at the show and took it home. With Perse able to control her through the painting, she drives through the night from Florida to New Hampshire where Ilse lives. She pistol whips Ilse and then drowns her in the bathtub. After drowning her, she pours salt into the water.
Edgar, Wireman, and Jack decide they must make the trip to the south of the key to the old Eastlake estate. There, they are going to find the entity known as Perse. They arrive to find most of the old mansion collapsed. In a hidden compartment in the stairs, Wireman finds a heart shaped box containing an old rag doll. That old doll contains the conscience of the Eastlakes’ nanny who raised Elizabeth and her sisters. She shows them images of long ago and how Elizabeth, after her head injury, found an unlikely and evil muse in the entity embodied in that china doll given to her by her father.
They learn that the housekeeper and Elizabeth determine that the entity is a creature at home in salt water. So they hatch their scheme to contain her while standing in the freshwater pool. Before they can hatch their scheme, the twins are drawn to the beach by Perse and killed to punish Elizabeth for trying to eradicate Perse by using an eraser on one of her drawings. Later, Elizabeth’s brother in law is drawn to the water where he drowns. Eventually, the old nanny sees Elizabeth’s oldest sister taking the walk to the beach and alerts Mr. Eastman who grabs his harpoon pistol and makes his way to the beach. He arrives to find his oldest daughter struggling with the corpses of his son in law and his two deceased daughters. He fires the spear gun, but accidentally shoots his daughter. In a fit of rage, he kills the nanny.
Elizabeth goes to the house and find the china doll, a woman in a deep red cloak. They put the doll into a ceramic scotch cask with the brand name, Table Scotch, painted on the side. They fill it with fresh water and immerse it in the cistern. Elizabeth then dumps the bodies of her nanny and her sister into the cistern with the cask and dad caps it. They then abandon the old homestead and build a new one on the key where the old man lives out his days and Elizabeth continues on, never to draw again.
Edgar descends into the cistern and finds the cask. It has cracked and the freshwater has leaked out. Salt water has made its way into the cistern, once again empowering Perse. He empties the batteries out of his flashlight, fills it with water, and puts Perse in the flashlight where she is once again rendered powerless. The three return to the main house to decide what to do next.
The book concludes with Jack and Wireman submerging the flashlight, now encased in a silver cylinder, in a deep chasm in a Minnesota lake. Afterward, Wireman moves to Mexico and invites Edgar to join him there to help him rehab an old hotel and live out their lives. Before Edgar decides to move, Wireman dies of a stroke. Edgar decides on one more painting before giving up his hobby. He paints a monstrous storm destroying Duma Key.
Duma Key very much reminded me of IT. Instead of children and young adults battling an ancient evil, it is two middle-aged dudes recovering from traumatic injuries. We learn that Perse is a timeless being that cannot be defined, much like IT.
Perse may very well be a minion of the Dark Tower. King never makes it precisely clear. Many of the images in Duma Key are similar to those in The Dark Tower, including a field of red roses and the embodiment of Perse, which is a figure draped in a red robe a la the Crimson King.
To someone who is not well read in King’s work, it seems to me that reading Duma Key would be torture. The novel is almost six hundred pages long and it takes almost four hundred pages before the action really gets going. King keeps his reader engaged whilst developing his characters and story elements by using foreshadowing. We know Wireman is going to die. We know that Ilse is going to die. We know that bad things are going to happen as a result of Jack’s paintings. King, in his engaging style, keeps us reading to find out how and when these events occur. King frequently uses foreshadowing to increase the tension in his novels. Never has he done it as masterfully as he did in Duma Key.
I found Wireman’s dialogue to be tedious. He often threw out Spanish slang and phrases which had no context. Wireman was not Hispanic or Spanish. One can surmise that the off kilter dialogue was to give the character Wireman more depth than just being Edgar’s foil. But his dialogue was sometimes painful to read.
Some backstory on the nature of the discovery of the treasure and how it got there would have made the entity Perse more interesting. We learn that Elizabeth tells her dad where he can find it after a strong storm uncovers it on the ocean’s floor and Perse reaches out to her. But we have no idea of its origin or of just who or what Perse was or what Perse’s motivations were other than pure mischief.
Duma Key was number one on the New York Times bestseller list. Yet, it remains perhaps the least discussed of King’s work. Few love it and few loathe it. I know few people who have actually read it and many horror fans have never even heard of Duma Key.
I would rank this work as average in his body of work. Part of it was deeply personal to Mr. King has he put down in fiction the pain, suffering, and frustration that comes with rehabilitating a badly broken body. He took foreshadowing to a new level. However, the sometime stilted dialogue along with the painstakingly slow development of the story detract from it.