There’s a particular sort of magic felt by any Constant Reader who gets their hands on a new Stephen King novel. It’s a hard feeling to describe precisely, but it’s akin to coming home after a long time away. The writing style and characters housed within the novel’s covers amplify this comforting vibe by being completely new yet profoundly familiar.
Stephen King’s latest novel Later achieves the exact sort of chilling comfort that Constant Readers seek despite its minor flaws. Part-detective thriller and part-horror fiction, Later tells Jamie Conklin’s story, a young boy who lives with his single mother, literary agent Tia, in New York City. Jamie is a relatively normal child, save for the fact that he can see (and speak to) dead people. If this plot sounds similar to you, you’re not alone. I immediately thought of M. Night Shyamalan’s 1999 film The Sixth Sense. It seems that King was aware of the similarities, too, as he has Jamie pointedly inform the reader that this is “not like in that movie with Bruce Willis.” I’m not sure I’d agree with Jamie here – his ability in Later is very much like Cole Sear’s (played by Haley Joel Osment) ability in Sixth Sense, albeit with some notable differences. For example, in Later, ghosts seem to follow two peculiar rules: first, they have to tell the truth, and second, they disappear after a few days. Where do they disappear to? Chillingly, King never reveals their destination.
Readers familiar with King’s bestseller It (1986) will also be excited to discover that Later features the Ritual of Chüd, which the Losers Club performs to defeat the interdimensional antagonist known as “It.” Later puts Jamie in direct contact with a cosmic being unnervingly similar to the one in It. Much like the titular It, the being in Later confronts our protagonist with the maddening “deadlights” that shine out of its mouth.
Jamie’s own ritual performance occurs after his mother’s ex-girlfriend Liz Dutton, a dirty cop and New York City detective, essentially kidnaps Jamie and exploits his power to help her solve a case and save her job. Liz forces Jamie to speak to what he initially believes to be the spirit of a serial bomber Kenneth Therriault, AKA Thumper; however, when the ghost of Therriault doesn’t disappear after a few days and begins to tell troubling lies, Jamie eventually discovers that he isn’t contending with a human spirit. He’s actually communicating with a malevolent and unknowable force that is somehow possessing Therriault’s spirit. I won’t go into too much detail here as you really should read it for yourself, but it makes for a fantastically chaotic climax.
King’s many strengths brilliantly shine in Later. I am always impressed with his ability to bring a litany of horrors, both realistic and paranormal, to his works. Jamie Conklin faces not only ghosts and the cosmic threat of the being possessing Therriault but also hereditary illnesses, the 2008 housing crash, and mounting hospital bills. This novel’s relationships provide a contrasting light to the darkness that pervades it, another classic King move. I was particularly taken by the relationship between Jamie and his mother, Tia, which readers are able to watch unfold and grow as he moves from childhood and into young adulthood. I also don’t think that anyone can better capture the particular sort of heartbreak that comes along with getting older and discovering that the adults in your life aren’t as infallible as you might have once believed. In Later, King expertly crafts the strained relationship that emerges between Jamie and Liz, as well as Jamie’s realization of his exploitation and Liz’s drug addiction. While Liz certainly isn’t a very redeeming character, she also isn’t depicted as entirely irredeemable. King places something sympathetic (or perhaps just pathetic?) in his portrayal of Liz, which serves to make Later a genuinely gripping read.
Of course, nothing can be perfect. Another flaw comes at a revelation in the novel’s conclusion. I tried my best to figure out this revelation’s purpose but struggled to come up with any answers beyond the shallow reason to add a final shock.
Despite the bizarre ending, I still heartily recommend Later. King clearly had a lot of fun writing this one. I can guarantee that anyone, particularly my fellow Constant Readers, will similarly have a great time facing the dead with Jamie Conklin.
Later written by Stephen King is published by Titan Books.