In Lisey’s Story, Stephen King’s latest work, Scott Landon, a Pulitzer Prize-winning author, is dead. He is survived by his wife, Lisey (pronounced “Lee-see”). Lisey is trying to reassemble the pieces of her life, and though it has been two years since Scott’s sudden death, for Lisey it feels like yesterday. As she wanders her lonely Maine home, she still hears her husband’s voice echoing through her head. Meanwhile, petulant “Incunks,” as her husband called them, telephone incessantly, seeking access to Scott’s unpublished work. One such Incunk, who calls himself “Zack McCool”, decides to take this goal one step further. After several drunken conversations with a professor at a nearby college, he takes it upon himself to retrieve Scott’s unpublished manuscripts by any means necessary. Zack, if it needs to be said, is a little off his rocker.
But this arc takes up only one half of the story. The bulk of the novel is told in flashback; King fluidly weaves from the present into the past dozens of times. He stops in mid-sentence, changes tense, starts a new paragraph, and continues without pause, without capitalization, as if the story is being told in one long outbreath, one long elegy. We learn of Scott’s and Lisey’s strange courtship, delving steadily into Scott’s past as the novel progresses, learning of odd treasure hunts called “bools,” mind-warping malevolences that the childhood Scott calls “the bad-gunky,” and a dream-like alternate world called “Booya Moon.” After a time, we learn that the talented writer might have received many of his ideas not from his deep imagination but from actual, terrifying experiences. The flashbacks are the most engaging aspect of the novel (besides the highly-satisfying end) because in them we learn of the dark secret Scott has been carrying with him his whole life.
There’s a lot of magic to be found in “Lisey’s Story,” but it’s often buried under long stretches of meandering plot. Monsters don’t lurk around every page as in some of King’s earlier works. Instead, the reader must be patient. Clues are left often, and it is only later that one understands why, for example, Scott cuts his wrists open one night as a “gift” to his wife, or why he has made so many arrangements in his will for Lisey’s catatonic sister, Amanda.
Lisey and Scott frequently speak in their own private slang. They call each other “babyluv” and say “smucking” instead of the F-word. There are about a dozen more such made-up words. Some early critics of the book found this babytalk annoying, and while I found it difficult to wade through at first, I later understood that this language was absolutely necessary for two reasons, to show that Scott Landon is in some sense still a child, haunted by a past no boy should have to face, and to show how much Lisey Landon loves her husband. Scott is a man of words; Lisey, in mourning him, is unable to let a single thing of his go, not even his words.
Having read King’s semi-autobiographical On Writing, I suspect that Lisey’s Story, though not autobiographical itself, took a large part of its setting from King’s life. In both there is an older brother whom a boy loves more than anything, a hand-cranked printing press with messy ink in the basement, In both there is a writer who dwells in Maine, who is a professional and successful horror writer, whose wife has many sisters. The difference is that one is King’s true past and the other is a story. King says in an author’s statement at the end of the novel, “[Lisey] is not my wife, nor are her sisters Lisey’s sisters…” Nevertheless, the analogy is impossible to ignore, and the meta-fictional implications are somewhat creepy. (I.e., is King suggesting that he may have received some of his ideas from childhood experiences? Most likely, no, but the thought is interesting to ponder.)
My only criticism of the novel is its occasional slow pacing. Early on especially, humdrum descriptions of common activities, like frying up some hamburger helper, crowd the pages; tension is slow to build and sometimes frustrating. But once the plot does move, the payoff is well worth it. King says this is his attempt at a more “literary” novel, whatever that may mean to you, but I for one welcome his experimentation in a new area. It may both inspire non genre readers to pick up a horror story, and it might convince some blood and gore fans that there is more than one way to hide a monster under a bed.
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