Saturday, 10 April 2021

Twenty-one in '21: Later

I've read far less in recent years than I would like. To help remedy this, I've set myself the modest target of reading twenty one books in 2021. When I finish one, a thumbnail review here will follow.

4/21: Later by Stephen King

The blurb: Sometimes growing up means facing your demons.

The son of a struggling single mother, Jamie Conklin just wants an ordinary childhood. But Jamie is no ordinary child. Born with an unnatural ability his mom urges him to keep secret, Jamie can see what no one else can see and learn what no one else can learn. But the cost of using this ability is higher than Jamie can imagine as he discovers when an NYPD detective draws him into the pursuit of a killer who has threatened to strike from beyond the grave.

Later is Stephen King at his finest, a terrifying and touching story of innocence lost and the trials that test our sense of right and wrong. With echoes of King's classic novel It, Later is a powerful, haunting, unforgettable exploration of what it takes to stand up to evil in all the faces it wears.

The review: regular readers of this here blog will know that I am a sucker for pretty much anything by Stephen King. I also happen to think he's having something of a late-career high, with some of the books he's produced in the last decade being as good as anything he wrote in his 80s pomp. Add to the fact that one of King's previous publications for this Hard Case Crime imprint, Joyland, is an absolute favourites, and you could say I was predisposed to like Later. And surprise, surprise, I did, very much.

The thing is, I didn't just want this review to turn into "I'm a King fan, this is great, five stars, go and buy it" - rather, I spent some time thinking about exactly what makes it so very good. Because even a Constant Reader like me can hold his hands up and say that not everything that has churned from King's keyboard has always been so great (you won't see The Dark Half in his greatest hits blurb, or books like From A Buick 8, in which he basically recycled himself whilst, perhaps, battling greater demons). No, there were times in the 90s when I almost let King go - I told myself at the time that I was just outgrowing his books but that was a convenient lie, easier to swallow than the truth that the new books simply weren't as good. But I hung on, as much out of habit as anything else, which makes me all the happier to talk about the quality of his most recent output, this late-career renaissance. There's more to it though, with Later, and it suddenly struck me what at the weekend, as I read the last few chapters whilst churning out the miles on my turbo trainer.

Simply, I think King is most effective when he writes in the first person, as he does here. At the simplest level, he is a master storyteller, and the first person narrative voice lends itself to that more than third (or the occasional second). It's like he's saying, "Let's sit by the fire, you and I, and I'll tell you a tale if you're prepared to listen. It's long, and I might get a little dry, but I've got a mug of something hot right here and, besides, we've got all night..." King's first person prose is so direct, so engaging, it's hard not to get drawn in, and just zip through. In short, in feels more like listening than reading.

So, with a modest spoiler alert, what can I tell you specifically about Later? Well, the "unnatural ability" our narrator Jamie has is that, Sixth Sense klaxon, he sees dead people. So no, despite the imprint this is not a straightforward hard-boiled crime case. But there is crime, oh yes. And bad things happen. Lots of bad things. Most of the time, Jamie is untroubled by his gift, and the dead swiftly move on... somewhere... after dying, so it's not like he's beset at every turn. But eventually his mother's ex-partner, a cop, uses him to extract information from a very bad and recently deceased people, and that's where poor Jamie's life takes a 90-degree turn. I can say no more without compromising the story, but safe to say that whilst this is not a horror story in the conventional sense there is horror here - the horror of people, and the awful things that they do. And really, that's the worst horror of all, isn't it?

Bottom line? Whilst not as good as Joyland, Later is certainly on a par with King's other entry in the Hard Case Crime roster, The Colorado Kid, and continues his late-period sweet spot. The first person narrative is a joy and, unlike some of his more conventional horror stories, here the author resists the urge to overwrite. I raced through this, and could happily digest a sequel too. Wish I could say more, but I don't want to risk further spoilers - I've probably said too much already. What I would say, a review coda if you like, is that the comparison to It in the blurb is misplaced... but don't hold that against it.

The bottom line: totally engaging first-person narrative that completely absorbs the reader into a fantastical plot, from a master of the storytelling art. Recommended.

Since everything online is rated these days: ★★★★★☆


  1. Looking forward to this one.

    Enjoyed the first 7/8ths of The Institute, but the end is a protracted mess. Writing endings continues to be hard.

    1. Ha, yes, it does. Later has a satisfying ending, I think.