Not just a shameful pleasure any more

The Baltimore Sun

Lisey's Story

Stephen King

Simon & Schuster / 528 pages / $28

No more apologies.

For years, I and many other serious readers have had to mumble their love of Stephen King as if it were a unmentionable fetish, a peccadillo that dare not speak its name in polite - read "literary" - company.

No more.

King, whose horror novels, stories, films and e-books have kept millions of readers up at night for more than 30 years, has crossed over. No, not into the other realms of which he writes so convincingly (The Shining is possibly the scariest novel ever written), but into the realm of unabashedly serious literary fiction.

Don't get scared - King hasn't left the horror behind. In fact there's an aspect of it woven into even this book. But with this latest novel, Lisey's Story, the master of the macabre has expanded his oeuvre. And it just may be - The Shining notwithstanding - his best work yet.

Devotees of King, like myself, have always recognized and appreciated his nuanced characterizations of people and emotion. King's fiction has always worked so well because it is peopled with characters we know - be they the shy child afraid of the dark (and always with good reason), the misfit teenager who turns the tables on her bullying classmates, the devoted fan who finally meets the writer she worships, the beleaguered housewife whose husband goes missing, the writer whose wife dies shockingly on her way to the drugstore. What resonates in King's fiction - beyond the spine-tingling and the goose bumps - are the characters: men, women and children (few writers are better at depicting the inescapable terrors of childhood than King) who are like the people next door - true, real, believable. They have real-people problems, real-people issues, even if there are ghosts or vampires, succubus dogs or tommyknockers hovering nearby as well.

Beyond the depth of King's characterization, there are the stories themselves. King knows plot. He knows narrative. He knows arc. He knows subtext. He knows how to make it all work.

And he's self-aware; self-aware writers take us to a far different, far deeper, far more penetrating place than those who aren't. In his memoir/essay On Writing, King was revelatory without being cloying, open without being confessional, expository without being self-aggrandizing. He was honest about the evolution of his own art and his own dark demons and what it takes to be a writer.

But there's always been that problem of genre with King. Genre undercuts genius. Serious writers - truly serious writers - don't do genre, except on a lark, a one-off. They don't do romance, mystery, horror. They're above all that.

No doubt some will suggest that with Lisey's Story King is doing the obverse - he's having a one-off with literary fiction, taking a holiday from horror. But not really - not if you know King. His literary debut, as it were, actually just expands on King's art to date. For King has always been a writer who cuts through the layers of human emotion to find what lies beneath.

Lisey's Story is pure King in its introspection, development of character, savage attention to emotional detail. Lisey Landon is the Maine widow of a famous writer, Scott Landon. Her beloved husband has been dead for two years. She finally gears up to go through his things, to sort his papers and unfinished work. In doing so, she is forced to remember what it was that drove his writing and his love for her.

In Lisey's Story, King revisits ground he began to chart in On Writing, Dolores Claiborne, Misery, Bag of Bones and Desperation. He mines autobiography; his own demons as a writer are reflected to a degree in Scott Landon. Landon embodies depth and substance; he's a character for whom the reader cannot but have immense compassion, even as his dark side is revealed. Scott Landon's horrifying childhood is much like the childhoods of some of King's own characters - gruesome and terror-wracked. It was Lisey who gave him strength and comfort, she who healed the wounds left where the demons gnawed and grappled.

Lisey is an extraordinary woman, the kind of wife that most writers only dream of having, the support and nurture of a great writer's art. There are no children in the Landon marriage because the children are Landon's books; the fruit of their union is his art.

That implies that Lisey lost something to the marriage, that all the gain was Scott's - the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award, the adoring fans and laudatory critics. But Lisey's Story is fundamentally a love story, a tale of two people with a grand passion that made them stronger and stronger as the years - 25 - went on. Lisey didn't love Scott more than he loved her. It's just that she survived him.

Without Scott, Lisey is adrift. And adrift, she is open to forces beyond her control. There are the hovering academics who want to pore over Scott's papers, each hoping to be the one to uncover the secret of his genius, each hoping to steal away with one of the many unpublished works stacked in Scott's studio. One turns stalker - murderous stalker.

Mental derangement takes different forms in Lisey's Story, including that of Lisey's sister, Amanda, who retreats into catatonia - but who also seems to speak with Scott's voice to Lisey. And so stalking Lisey, too, are seemingly supernatural forces.

Finally, the grief and the heightened sense of unreality rise like an errant moon over the darkness of her loss: Where does Lisey's interior monologue end and the real world begin? When will her love affair with her dead husband cease to echo through her life - or must it forever reverberate because that is what true love does: takes us to the grave and beyond?

In Lisey's Story, King explores the cartography of grief and suffering. He delves deep and deeper still into the intellectual and psychological recesses where creativity and genius lie: Scott's success pivoted on many things, but most specifically on his passion for Lisey.

In a world in which renowned writers are mostly self-help gurus and marriages come a dime a dozen, especially in a no-fault state, the Landons are singular people: he a true artistic genius and she far more than the keeper of the flame - she is the flame.

King's last novel, Cell (reviewed here in January), was a harrowing, apocalyptic vision of how technology stifles humanity and love might not be enough to augur survival. Lisey's Story is no such cautionary tale. Rather, it is a haunting and compelling story of what it means to create: a marriage, a book, a career, a life. King clarifies his thesis through the Landons: Art cannot come out of a vacuum, art needs love and passion to fuel its vast demands. Lisey's Story takes the reader on a lover's journey, a creator's journey. Ultimately King's novel is about fe alty and fidelity - to art, to love, to life. A taut thriller that is also a remarkable and haunting love story. Several years after he declared he was done with writing, King appears at the top of his game and Lisey's Story unveils yet another aspect of his vast repertoire.

Victoria A. Brownworth is the author and editor of more tha 20 books. She teaches writing and film at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia.

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