Dismiss his output from the last few decades all you like: Stephen King is a master of sentence construction. And of the paragraph; and of the chapter hook. Hell, the guy knows how to write, and his gift for the clear, gliding turn of phrase secretes his latest novel, Later, his third contribution to the Hard Case Crime imprint (Titan Books).
This craftsmanship, as constant King readers know, can be both a blessing and a curse. The man’s dizzying rate of production has the stink of the well-oiled assembly line; but his love of writing shines through. You can tell he loves his characters and readers. Later is further proof that he’s an efficient cannibalizer, but it’s no less worthy of admiration than anything else that bears the King brand.
Thus, Later is as good a King novel from this late phase of his career as you’re liable to encounter. The story is easy to recite: As told in a wonderfully casual and on-the-nose first-person voice, Jamie Conklin, the son of a flinty but lovable literary agent, Tia, is your average millennial New York teen, except he sees dead people (“but,” King writes, “it’s not like in that movie with Bruce Willis”); and this gift allows him and Tia to stay one step ahead of financial ruin when her star client, an odd duck with a lucrative series of bawdy romancers to his name, dies. But his ability to communicate with the dead—who must answer his questions truthfully, and fade like dim bulbs after a few days—is a hard weight to carry. Tia’s lover, Liz Dutton, a shifty, sharp-eyed cop, has schemes of her own. And not every animate corpse Jamie sees is friendly or pitiful, as his brush with Thumper, a hateful bomb-maker, makes clear.
On paper, the story isn’t that remarkable. But King does an interesting thing here, mashing elements of a gritty crime novel with that of a young-adult horror tale, flecked with a winning dose of bittersweet reflection. And for all the cringe-worthy, self-referential inserts (King lifts bits and pieces from his own back-catalogue, including the Ritual of Chud from his magnum opus, IT, and a line from his memoir, On Writing), it’s the voice and the breezy yet succinct manner with which he relates Jamie’s coming-of-age that makes Later a bit of a bunt-led homer.
I enjoy Later for how clipped and cozy it is, the confident way it joins its spare parts. In one sense, it’s pulp fluff you would have found on a rack spinner back in the day—and it coasts with nary an ounce of fat on its gore-tipped bones. (Dig the retro-styled cover art and tagline. “Only the dead have no secrets.”) It’s as though King is winking, elbowing the reader, too, telling a story that feels like an obvious King pastiche written by someone who thought it might be neat to stitch a scant supernatural plot (see King’s other Hard Case Crime charmer, Joyland, for a vaguely similar overlay) onto that of, say, an Ed McBain whodunit. What saves Later is that knowing grin of an approach, both a sentimental soft-shoe and a humble brag—for no-one writes a King pastiche better than he can, and he elevates it by nailing the relationship between Jamie and his mom. It’s fond, and it’s touched with a colloquial, no-nonsense grasp of life’s difficulties and hardships. Jamie’s a good kid, a convincing moral compass; and his interactions with, and observations of, people either at the tail-end of their lives or just on the death side of them help convey the same loss-of-innocence theme at which King excelled in his classic novella, The Body.
At a slim but precise 272 pages, Later is, true to Stephen King form, easy to digest. I wolfed it down in a few days. If like me you’re a King fan, you’ll not regret reading it.