Book review: Realities of growing up, supernatural elements mesh in Stephen King’s ‘Later’
(Courtesy of Hard Case Crime)
March 18, 2021 11:25 a.m.
Sometimes the worst demons are the ones we create for ourselves.
Released March 2 by prolific horror writer Stephen King, “Later” is a coming-of-age story following Jamie Conklin, a spirited young boy who sees dead people. After publishing over 60 novels during the span of his career, King certainly has a handle on telling an engrossing tale. Although the supernatural scares are not as prominent here as in King’s other works, the writer’s focus on life’s daily cruelties still makes for an emotionally gripping novel.
The story is narrated by a college-aged Jamie as he reflects back on his childhood living in New York with his literary agent mother, Tia Conklin. In addition to the family’s financial woes following the 2008 recession, Jamie’s youth is complicated by his “unnatural ability” to communicate with the dead. Beginning when Jamie is just 6 years old, King presents his supernatural encounters with steadily increasing stakes, allowing readers to discover the novel’s rules alongside the protagonist as they are slowly immersed in his world.
Jamie’s ability is introduced when he and Tia return to their apartment to find their neighbor, Professor Burkett, standing distraught in the hallway. Burkett reveals his wife Mona died the night before, but Jamie can see her standing in the hallway and begins covertly speaking to Mona. The heart-wrenching scene captures the innocent outlook that colors Jamie’s early interactions with the dead.
For example, as Tia comforts the grieving Professor Burkett, Jamie shows Mona the green turkey he drew in school. The green turkey goes on to act as an impactful motif throughout the novel, representing Jamie’s initial naivete in dealing with death. As he ages from 6 to 17 years old, the childish simplicity of the drawing is just one of the many disheartening facts of life Jamie does not come to terms with until he matures.
As Jamie becomes a teenager, his abilities evolve, and he discovers the dead must answer every question truthfully. This catches the attention of Liz Dutton, a dirty cop who attempts to exploit Jamie’s abilities in the course of her investigations. However, the crime elements of the novel are, unfortunately, not quite as compelling as Jamie’s interactions with the more understated supporting characters such as the spirit of one of Tia’s illustrious literary clients who passed before finishing his magnum opus. Yet, Liz makes for a memorable villain nonetheless, using her badge to get away with any number of questionable deeds.
In an exciting development, “Later” features some LGBTQ+ representation with a romantic relationship between Liz and Tia. Although there are a handful of LGBTQ+ characters in King’s previous works, the nature of the horror genre often means these characters are antagonists or the victims of on-page trauma. Since King himself has been publicly outspoken about his support of LGBTQ+ rights in recent years, readers have been longing for his politics to translate into positive fictional depictions of such characters. Thus, having a character as well written as Tia be in a lesbian relationship is a welcome addition to the canon. While the relationship ultimately fails, it is a gratifying step forward as King works toward more well-rounded LGBTQ+ representation.
Despite Jamie’s visions of the dead, however, it is Liz’s drug addiction and floundering morals that are the lingering horror of his youth. Liz’s betrayal as she kidnaps Jamie to locate a deceased drug dealer’s hidden stash of oxytocin is heightened and juxtaposed with Jamie’s fond memories of a time when Liz would play Matchbox cars with him on the floor of Tia’s apartment. Fifteen-year-old Jamie’s inability to escape from this frightening new version of Liz thus injects a sense of claustrophobia into the finale.
As Liz grows more and more unstable, Jamie must also contend with increasingly sinister supernatural forces like a demon who has taken over the body of a regular spirit. Marking the novel’s climax, these coinciding events could have been greatly expanded upon and are when the short length of “Later” is felt the most. King references his hit novel “IT” by describing the demonic force as a deadlight, but Jamie’s scant knowledge of supernatural lore means these elements are not fully developed in “Later.” However, King does manage to maintain a suspenseful tone throughout the last 50 pages, and Jamie’s reunion with his mother does act as a satisfying conclusion.
As thrilling as it was to watch Jamie stand on his own against Liz in the climactic third act, it is his touching relationship with his mother that is the highlight of the novel. Aside from an unnecessary reveal about the identity of Jamie’s father, the dynamic between Jamie and Tia is handled in a subtly effective way. The two share distinctive turns of phrase which mark them as a pair, including the explicit four-letter words throughout Jamie’s narration, which he notes he learned from Tia.
After seeing these characters struggle against supernatural and personal horrors for over 200 pages, it is gratifying to know their relationship emerged as strong as ever. Overall, “Later” manages to convey the sensitivity that has always elevated King above the rest of the horror genre. His writing – vital and evocative as ever – succeeds in both giving readers the chills and packing an emotional punch.
So despite some shortcomings, King’s focus on the emotional bonds of the living provides a fresh take on the premise of a boy who sees dead people