Stephen King has been scaring us silly for 35 years with the simplest premise: What if? For instance, what if dogs could kill (Cujo)? Or clowns (It)? Or telekinetic prom queens (Carrie)? Or a '58 Plymouth Fury (Christine)? Or cell phones (The Cell)?
The "what-if" behind King's haunting, horrific and ultimately transcendent new novel, Lisey's Story, is a decidedly personal one: What if I'd died after being hit by a minivan on that Maine country road in 1999?
King's accident made headlines worldwide and prompted many to wonder: Will he ever write at peak form again, and if so, what might his fertile imagination create out of his own near-death encounter?
Lisey's Story is our answer. At once King's most personal and most playful novel, it examines the quarter-century marriage of best-selling novelist Scott Landon through the eyes of his widow Lisey (pronounced LEE-see), two years after her husband's death. King uses pivotal moments in the marriage—an enchanted snowbound honeymoon, a Mark David Chapman-like assassination attempt at a Nashville library groundbreaking ceremony—as portals into the secret emotional sanctuary, complete with its own language, that the couple built together to keep the encroaching world at bay.
In life, Scott escaped his demons—including a horrific family madness that made his childhood a living hell—by retreating to Boo'ya Moon, a creative haven with its own internal logic. In Boo'ya Moon, all the bools (ritualized treasure hunts taken from King's own childhood) end with candy bars instead of bloodletting, and no bad-gunky (murderous rage) is allowed. After Scott's death, as Lisey sorts through his papers, she becomes the target of rabid academics (dubbed Incunks), and one fanatical fan in particular who will force her to return to Boo'ya Moon one last time for a fight to the finish.
What scares Stephen King? If we can read between the lines of Lisey's Story, it's the devastating effect his own untimely demise might have had on his wife and fellow novelist Tabitha, to whom this book is dedicated.
In an interview with BookPage, King cautions that Lisey's Story should not be read as autobiographical—for instance, the Kings have three children, the Landons are childless—but he admits that his own thoughts on mortality permeate the pages.
"Sure, there's no doubt about that. I had the accident, and then as kind of an outfall of the accident, two years later I had pneumonia because the bottom of my right lung was crumpled and nobody realized that. It got infected and that was very serious, that was actually closer [to death] than the accident. So I had some of those mortality issues," he says.
While he recuperated and weaned himself from pain medications, he started thinking about the unsung hero behind the artist.
"Spouses of creative people never get credit, and a lot of time they get the blame," he says. "There's that story about Robert Louis Stevenson's wife urging him to throw the first draft of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde into the fire, which he did, and then he wrote the thing again. What nobody ever suggests is that maybe she was right and that the second go-round was actually better than the first."
That said, King concedes that Tabitha King, who edits his books as he does hers, seems to have reservations about Lisey's Story.
"I don't think she's real crazy about this book, to tell you the truth," he says. "I think that she respects it and everything, but she's real quiet about this book. She says to me sometimes, 'Are you ever going to write about anything besides writers?' I do think sometimes she feels like I've gotten caught in a little bit of a warp there. And she may feel that it's a little close to the bone."
King, like his character Scott, is passionate about what he terms "the pool" from which we all draw the language to articulate our thoughts and feelings.
"It's a real, literal place; it isn't just some kind of an arty-farty, ephemeral deal. It makes a difference in the way we live and you can see it day to day," he says. "Every time a monster like Karl Rove crafts a phrase like 'flip-flop' or 'cut-and-run' and it becomes part of the language, he's going down to the pool and casting his net and saying, Look, this matters. And it does, because that gets amplified in the popular culture and becomes a factor in the way people perceive the political process and the way they vote."
King heaps the most scorn here on academics who dog the heels of famous writers, hoping for a rare scrap on which to build their own reputations. As one who has spent more than half his life as one of the world's most recognizable writers, does he simply ignore the critics, or does he feel underappreciated by the literary community precisely because he's, well, King of the hill?
"Sometimes I feel both ways," he says. "At the end of the year, the [New York] Times Book Review will do a list of the books of the year that mattered, and I always feel on some level that any book that sells X number of copies is de facto excluded because there's a feeling that once you sell a certain number of copies, you can't be good. It's like if too many people are reading you, some kind of mathematical formula comes into play which says ergo, the IQ of your book equals… you must be doing stuff on a James Patterson level. That's a little bit bothersome. But on another level, you just kind of dismiss that and say I'm going to do the best work that I can and try to ignore that and be very grateful that the bills are paid."
King admits part of him didn't want the writing of Lisey's Story to end. "I'm a fool for Lisey; I kind of fell in love with her. I'm working on a book now and I had trouble finding traction on anything after Lisey's Story because there's part of you that says it's going to be a long time, if ever, before I write anything this good again."
Jay MacDonald writes from Austin, Texas.