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Fear is the Key

His Horror Highness strikes again

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Leave it to Stephen King to make the Sunshine State a dark place.

With Duma Key, the Bangor Bard eschews the familiar setting of his native Maine (no crusty New Englanders here) in favor of his adopted winter home along the Gulf Coast. God's Waiting Room, it turns out, encompasses plenty of horrors beyond geriatric traffic jams. As with his last novel, Lisey's Story, King delves into what fires the imagination and allows artists to create something from nothing. "A simple enough act, you might say, but any act that re-makes the world is heroic," he writes.

But the horror of a blank page or a blank canvas stands little chance against what springs forth when the white blankness bleeds into the blackness of inexplicable creativity. Where does that come from? On Duma Key, the fictional Florida island in King's new novel, artistic lunacy springs from the darkest depths of the Gothic canon: secrets, shame and sinister deeds.

King being King, this process also involves dead sisters crawling from the ooze of a stormy night, menacing flora and fauna entombing the acrid remains of a long-deserted mansion, and a protagonist whose love of painting pops up in the wake of a horrifying construction site accident.

The latter, Edgar Freemantle, loses his right arm but becomes a middle-aged overnight painting sensation. He paints in frenzied bursts, producing a series of familiar yet disturbing -- and eerily prophetic -- scenes while renting a vacation home on Duma Key during his convalescence. Are the houses haunted? Only in the way cars named Christine thrash everything in sight.

Freemantle built a multi-million-dollar empire in the construction business in Minneapolis-St. Paul. Then, while visiting a construction site, a crane crippled him. A miraculous survival led to inevitable depression, anger and agony. Easygoing Edgar morphs into a man with a slippery hold on language and memory, not to mention sanity: He tries to stab his wife with a plastic knife and later chokes her. She does what any reasonable person would: files for divorce.

Now Edgar Freemantle knows what he wants to do. He wants to kill himself. Only his shrink, a heavyset, sage African-American with a crackling bullshit meter, shuts him down. Tells the patient to make the most of his financial independence and find a new setting. And take up a hobby, for good measure. Then, after a year, he's free to kill himself.

Hello, Duma Key.

Throw in some shared telepathy, an elderly lady with some very scarlet secrets, a wisecracking caretaker and enough American pop-culture references to choke Entertainment Weekly (where His Horror Highness serves as a comfortably cool columnist) and what you have is classic King.

From Reba McIntire and Axl Rose to Edward Hopper and Garrison Keillor, King retains his knack for zeroing in on how mainstream Americans think, connecting the horrors of mortality with well-worn radio fodder and advertising jingles while shuddering through another day. He also knows his way around the short-hand language inherent in a marriage, a deep friendship and between parents and children. What starts off as trite ("Know what you mean, jellybean") worms its way into the comfort of long-running affection. Having gently ratcheted this clinking little roller-coaster car up the hill on a sunny day, King proceeds to send it careening and spiraling down at terrifying speeds, roaring into the nightmare of the ominous blinking message light and the unstoppable arrival of bad news. Very bad news.

As Edgar Freemantle morphs into an unexpected Suncoast mini-celebrity among the area's art patrons, his life's second act coincides with a shattering series of tragedies -- all triggered, unintentionally but inexorably, by his paintings.

Can acrylics and canvas be scary? When the subjects in the painting start dying from what the artist depicts, well, you might be a bit adverse about delving into Dali.

Unless, of course, you're in a fever and can't stop. For Edgar, a man recovering from a shattered hip, an amputated arm and suicidal depression, painting at his mysterious rental on Duma Key becomes a life preserver -- and destroyer.

The novel builds to a tense finish as Edgar's is-it-art-or-is-it-real trauma dovetails with the prophecies of Elizabeth Eastlake, the island's elderly, dying proprietress. She suffers from Alzheimer's and drifts in and out of reality, but much of what seems to be her senile rambling proves instead to be valuable thread in the story of Duma Key's destructive legacy. That King closes matters with a harrowing scramble to ward off further evil, followed by ample doses of regret and remorse, makes his tale all the more powerful.

No need for the tired debate of whether King is or isn't a worthy writer among the lit-crit set. When it comes to spine-tingling stories capable of melding the mundane with monstrous fears both real and imagined, nobody does it better.

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