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“This is a horror story,” Jamie Conklin, the protagonist and narrator of “Later,” repeats throughout Stephen King’s latest novel. As a boy, Jamie discovers that he can talk to the ghosts of the recently deceased; through this, he learns that the dead cannot tell lies. He does not intend to use this knowledge, but the people closest to him take advantage of his abilities for personal gain. Despite his repetition of Jamie’s mantra about this being a horror story, King does not deliver the gut-wrenching scares he has in the past. Rather, he melds his skillful knack for horror writing with an old-fashioned noir aesthetic. King falls flat in delivering anything worth reading, with a sluggish plot driven solely by an unconvincing narrator.
The young protagonist looks at the world through the lense of pop culture: blockbusters, Netflix shows, and gothic novels, with Bram Stoker’s “Dracula” at the forefront. Unexpectedly, they all serve as a tool for King to address questions about the meaning of literature, the relationship between creators and their editors, and finally what happens to a writer's legacy after their death. It is no coincidence that Jamie's first goal is to learn the details of an unfinished novel from Regis Thomas, a fictional bestselling author who died of a heart attack. The profound questions and overarching themes that King tries to tackle are the novel’s highpoint. But the surprising depth of these explorations, wholly uncharacteristic for “the king of horror,” does not make up for the book’s deficiencies. The premise is undeniably appealing, but “Later” fundamentally suffers from issues with both style and content.
“The trudging, flavorless prose is typical … the rough equivalent of a heaping plate of food from an all-you-can-eat buffet in a dubious roadside restaurant,” King writes in a fictional, snarky New York Times review of Regis Thomas’ book-within a book. It is hard to read the words as anything other than a display of self-awareness on King’s part. Indeed, the prose in this novel is pretty flavorless — typical for King, some would say.
The fact that “Later” does not deviate much from Stephen King’s standard repertoire in terms of style should not be a cause for concern on its own. While some of the entries in King’s catalogue are masterful and iconic, the bulk of his books are hardly Nobel Prize material. Nonetheless, he can usually be counted on to deliver an entertaining story. The book leaves no doubts as to what it perceives itself to be: The cover boldly asserts a crime story. Yet Jamie Conklin, the main character, seems certain it’s a horror. The mix should pose no difficulties for an author who reigns supreme over the latter and has had some fruitful ventures into the former with his Mr. Mercedes trilogy. But unfortunately in “Later,” King relegates the horror storytelling he’s had the most experience with to the passenger’s seat.
In fact, King’s broad pronouncements on the world and literature result in the elements of horror and crime being overshadowed. Despite ghosts and dark rituals, serial killers, murders and corrupt cops, “Later” reads like a Jane Austen-esque novel of manners, focusing more on the strained relationship between the protagonist and his mother than on the action itself. Because of this confusing emphasis, the book suffers from a narrative so disjointed that calling it a novel seems generous. It is more akin to a collection of three short stories, vaguely connected through Jamie. Three glimpses of plot action are drowned in a sea of fluff that does not contribute to anything, and are topped with an unjustifiable ten-page tangent about what might or might not have been a case of incest that masquerades as an impactful ending. Worse yet, Jamie might be the protagonist, but most notably he is a MacGuffin — as his ability drives the plot forward with all the grace of a bulldozer. “Later” could have been a respectable entry in King’s vast bibliography, a book that brings together what he shines at and spins it in a creative way. Unfortunately it ends up a hot mess[,] even by King’s standards.
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