Once every few years, Stephen King publishes a paperback original through Hard Case Crime, such as Joyland and The Colorado Kid. He has written a number of thrillers recently as well, including the Mr Mercedes series. King, being King, these thrillers are at least horror adjacent, and Later is no exception, although it leans more towards Stand by Me than It.
Jamie Conklin lives in New York with his mother, Tia, who runs a literary agency. With no father on the scene and Tia having to pay for Uncle Harry’s Alzheimers care, family finances are already stretched when disaster strikes. Firstly, Tia falls victim to a Ponzi scheme and the pair have to move out of their nice apartment to something more modest in the suburbs. Then, disastrously, Tia’s one reliable client and best seller, Regis Thomas, dies before completing his corny but popular Roanoke cycle. King knows the publishing business just about as well as anyone, and the fun scenes of Tia’s travails are amongst the best in the book.
Without the money from his latest book, the family will be skint. However, Jamie was born with the ability to see and talk to dead people. It’s something his mother has never encouraged and only recently accepted as a fact and not something from Jamie’s imagination. He can see the recently dead, but they fade out and stop speaking after a few days.
Reluctantly, Tia accepts that she needs Jamie to use his special talent, even though she knows doing so can harm him. For example, if the person died violently they will appear to him with their injuries and sometimes this leaves him traumatised. With the help of his mother’s lover, NYPD Detective Liz Dutton, they break into the reclusive author’s compound where the initially skeptical Liz witnesses Jamie interrogate Regis Thomas’ spirit. Jamie asks him about the story of his next book, The Secret of Roanoke. Tia has always had to knock the old hack’s work into shape, so the plan is for her to finish the novel and publish it to get the family out of financial difficulties. It’s a lifeline they can’t afford to pass up on.
King has written Later in Jamie’s voice, and his first person narration is very effective. He’s kind, somewhat innocent, especially around the nature of his mother’s relationship with Liz, which makes it all the more tense when he’s in danger. This also provides a good counterpoint to the increasingly cynical Liz.
Liz’s career in the NYPD is going nowhere. She’s unreliable, drinks too much and is being investigated by Internal Affairs. She’s even been kicked off the Thumper task force. For years someone using the name Thumper has been terrorising New York with pipe bombs, which have been getting more explosive and deadlier. When the perp, Kevin Therriault, kills himself rather than get caught, Liz forces Jamie to use his skills to further her career. Therriault is badly disfigured and the conversation leaves Jamie haunted. As the wolves close in around her, a desperate Liz has even worse in store for him further down the line.
Later is an enjoyable read with a few frightening moments, and the three principal characters are all well drawn. Its a quick read, I finished it in two sittings, and King is never less than entertaining, but it’s not one of his best. At his peak, Stephen King blended superior horror and thriller tropes with epic character-driven battles between good and evil. It’s perhaps a trifle unfair to compare his best work to a novel deliberately written in the style of the pulp originals of the 50s and 60s, but I can’t help feeling a little shortchanged. This is probably a book that you read once, put down, then never pick up again. As long as that’s OK, you’ll have a good time with Later.
Hard Case Crime
CFL Rating: 4 Stars