Hello, Readers! I hope all is well with you as the world is starting to get back to something resembling normal. While we might be spending less time indoors reading, don’t forget to make a little time in your schedule for enjoying a good book or nineteen!
This month we’re going to be tackling something a little more mainstream. You might have picked up over the course of these reviews that I have a massive amount of love for the master of horror fiction – Stephen King. I tend to quote him every so often and I’ve read darn near everything the man has ever written. Someone once joked to me that I’d buy his most recent shopping list if it came in hardcover. And all I’m saying in response is; if his shopping lists are as good as the rest of his work, I’ll get it in audiobook format as well, thank you.
Later is a shorter book, especially by Uncle Stephen’s standards, clocking in at only 272 pages. Short and… well. Let’s not say sweet. But it’s his first released work since The Institute a couple of years ago and as such I’d been looking forward to it for a while. There’s a lot of folks who say that his recent stuff is missing something that his earlier work had in spades; a certain lack of the visceral terror that characterized his earlier work and made him the household name he is today. I’d agree while stating that this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Those older works are still there for us to enjoy and shouldn’t he get to try new things? (While, admittedly, falling back on the ideas and themes that he seems most comfortable with.)
Anyway, even fans of his I’ve chatted with seemed a little reluctant to pick up Later and I thought it only fair to offer my opinion on whether it’s worth the price of admission.
- Author: Stephen King
Formats: Kindle, Paperback, and Audible.
Price: $9.99 for Kindle, $9.56 for Paperback, and $19.84 for Audible.
Length: 272 pages or 6 hours 52 minutes in audio format.
Narrators: Seth Numrich
Number of books in the series: It’s a standalone title.
Our hero is Jamie Conklin and our story is told entirely from his perspective. This young man is a regular kid in most ways – when we first meet him, he’s very proud of a drawing he did in class in preparation for thanksgiving. It’s a turkey drawn by tracing his hand and it’s a stunning green. He likes watching TV with his Mom, he likes playing with Hotwheels. Your, essentially, regular kid.
But he can see dead people.
(Yeah. Like the kid in that one movie. The similarity is brought up several times.)
We see this power first when he’s on his way home with his Mom. She’s a fairly successful literary agent so they have a pretty nice apartment in an upscale part of New York. On the way up, we meet the downstairs neighbors. Both of them. Even though one is crying due to the other having just died this morning. It’s here we learn the rules of Jamie’s world.
- 1) Dead people only stick around for a couple of days, a week at most. They appear clearer the more recently deceased they are and fade over time.
- 2) Ask them a question and they have to answer absolutely honestly. They cannot lie or even lie via omission.
- 3) Their more positive emotions (love, trust, cheerfulness) are all less intense than they were in life. Negative emotions remain stronger for longer. Hate is a hard emotion for the dead to let go of.
So, a pretty sensible and easy-to-understand set of rules, right? That does, of course, make it all the more jarring when we see those rules broken.
Jamie’s Mom, Tia Conklin, has a girlfriend in Liz Dutton. An NYPD Detective who is at first unconvinced of Jamie’s power and then in need of it. In the background of this story, we hear tell of a domestic terrorist who commits acts of mass murder via bombings. Liz, whose work situation becomes ever more tenuous as her peers start to discover that she’s dirty, wants to use Jamie’s power to find out where the bombers last little surprise has been left. It’s the one thing that will fix her career. The bomber has killed himself and so should be open to Jamie’s powers… and of course if Jamie asks where the bomb is? The guy can’t lie.
Do we expect this to work out well? Not even a little bit. But Liz doesn’t care. To her, Jamie and his ability are just a means to an end.
Want to know how all this works out? You’ll need to pick up a copy to find out.
As mentioned before, I’m a huge King fan. I’ve been a Constant Reader since age 12 or so and I think we all remember our first dose of King. (Mine was The Tommyknockers. He doesn’t love that one but I’ll always remember it fondly, even if some of the author’s hindsight criticism is on point.)
Having said that, this story definitely falls back on a few of his most well-worn tropes, a kid with supernatural powers being the main one. Yes, Jamie has some version of The Shining in him, much like Luke Ellis in The Institute and Charlie McGee from Firestarter and Danny Torrence and all the victims of Rose the Hat and her cabal in Dr. Sleep…. look. He likes writing stories about kids with supernatural abilities. We know this. (The book doesn’t take place in a small town in Maine, though. Just saying.) Though, the rules Jamie posits for his dealings with the dead don’t translate well into other stories dealing with spirits and ghosts and the like in King’s other works. This is a very different room in The Tower. If these rules applied in, say, The Shining, it would have been a very different book!
The story itself is extremely solid. Like all of his work, each character is detailed, believable and well-rounded. Even ancillary characters have motivations and backstories you can find detailed within the text without any heavy-handed exposition. I was surprised to find that this was 272 pages because, honestly, it feels shorter. It’s briskly paced and flows so well that it seems shorter than it is. I managed to knock it out in only a few sessions and enjoyed every minute of it.
Having said that, it could stand to be longer. The central plot winds up in a manner that’s very satisfactory overall but the final act feels like it could be more like an intense act two before we hit something even worse. (Read: Better for us, worse for Jamie.) This isn’t really a criticism so much as a lament… I hope he does a sequel to this story because there’s so much more here that could be unpacked.
All in all, a recommended read from me. It’s no Salem’s Lot or Cujo but it’s a solid tale told well.