This time out, King combines a lurid mix of self-mutilation, catatonia, stalkers and a common garden variety of sadist who goes by the screen-name moniker Zack McKool, aka Jim Dooley. Now, add an “alternate world” where the weather flip-flops between a sleepy paradise (daytime) and a stormy moonlit beach in which the darkness is filled with manic laughter, the stench of rotting fruit and the slide and slither of an unspeakably evil creature called “long boy.” Yikes!
If that sounds like a bizarre and incompatible mix .... you’re right. At times, the overburdened plot of Lisey’s Story resembles the results of packing two pounds of guano in a one-pound sack. The narrative totters under the weight of excessive subplots and time shifts as King attempts to orchestrate a half dozen flashbacks in quick succession. The protagonist (Lisey) skitters back and forth between adolescence, early marriage, middle-age and widowhood (with side trips to an alternate world called Boo’ya Moon) like a manic hop-scotch player.
Here is a streamlined summary of the basic action: Lisey Debusher Langdon, widow of the internationally famous novelist, Scott Langdon, takes up the daunting job of settling her late husband’s estate. Due to Scott’s awesome literary reputation, Lisey is hounded by a flock of scholars, collectors and critics — all demanding access to a massive collection of letters and unpublished manuscripts. One of her husband’s fans turns out to be Zack McCool, sadistic “space cowboy” and native of West Virginia (one of those inbred hillbillies, you know!) who coyly informs Lisey that he is prepared “to hurt her in the places that her boy friends weren’t allowed to touch.” He is as good as his word, and his weapon of choice turns out to be an Oxo can opener.
As the terrified Lisey waits for McCool to make his move, she recounts her life with Scott, who frequently told his readers that he drew his inspiration from a “storyteller’s pool” which contains myths, legends and tales. Lisey knows that pool is not just a metaphor for Scott’s creative imagination. In fact, the pool exists in an alternate universe that her husband visits when “this world” becomes unbearable. Lisey knows that it actually exists because she frequently makes the trip to Boo’ya Moon herself.
This alternate universe not only inspires Scott’s novels, it also rejuvenates Scott and Lisey when they have suffered psychic and physical injuries. (Scott comes to Boo’ya Moon after an attempted (and near-fatal) assassination attempt by yet another stalker fan and Lisey is “refreshed and restored” after a brutal beating.) In addition, when Lisey’s mentally ill sister (who has a penchant for self-mutilation) lapses into a comatose state, Lisey manages to “transport” her to Boo’ya Moon where she becomes mentally stable within a few hours.
However, the real story in this novel deals with how Scott Langdon learns to escape the horrors of childhood by “willing” himself into another world. Trapped in a home in which his deranged father frequently brutalized Scott and his brother, cutting them “to let out the Bad Gunky,” young Scott finds a way to “disappear.” However, Scott’s ability to escape did not alter the fact that his family is tainted with “Bad Gunky.” In fact, his father’s brutal attacks are motivated by a desperate attempt to control the evil that lurks in the whole family. Scott watches his older brother evolve into a near-supernatural being with all of the qualities of a werewolf. As a terrified child, Scott is left to wonder what destructive evil lurks in his own being. Is it possible to sublimate the “Bad Gunky”?
As always, Stephen King is at his best in conjuring something nasty and evil from his own creative imagination. He excels in evoking the sinister demons that inhabit Boo’ya Moon. He also does a masterful job of capturing the essence of psychopaths such as Gerd Allen Cole, the man who steps from an outdoor audience in Nashville to shoot Scott Langdon in a scene that bears a surreal resemblance to the attempted assassination of George Wallace. (After all, Stephen King has good reason to be familiar with stalkers since his personal life has been affected by them!)
Lisey’s Story proves to be a disparate mix of King at his best and worst. Interspersed with chilling passages that evoke horror and suspense are huge chunks of boring, repetitive narrative. Readers are likely to grow a-weary of King’s penchant for song lyrics (this time it is Hank Williams), and irrelevant dialogue, such as the tiresome “cute” exchanges between the four Debusher sisters (three of which could have been omitted). In addition, in recent works, King has become the James Joyce of horror fiction, “creating” words that do not exist outside of the author’s fertile imagination (Bad Gunky, bool, freesias, etc.) And finally, King’s tendency to associate psychotic cretins with Appalachia is disturbing. (I am further distressed with his parodies of mountain and Southern speech.)
King remains the undisputed champion of fantasy and horror in American fiction .... even if the reader has to tip-toe like a barefoot kid between the growing piles of narrative guano in order to reach those literary eggs in the chicken house.