"So yeah, I see dead people. As far as I can remember, I always have. But it's not like in that movie with Bruce Willis" (page 24).
Readers of Stephen King's new novel Later will be forgiven for wondering if this statement, early in the book, is true or whether The Sixth Sense is too strong a cultural touchpoint to be shrugged off so easily. The answer is a little of both. King never quite escapes the gravitational pull of Shyamalan's film and comparisons are inevitable, however Later is fresh enough to leave readers feeling like they got something, at least mostly, new.
Jamie Conklin is the teenage son of a literary agent, a slight sidestep from King's usual writer protagonist, and he can see dead people. They aren't quite like those in The Sixth Sense. They don't hang around too long for one thing, and they always seem to know they are dead. More pertinent to the plot, however, they are unable to lie and must answer any question put to them whether they want to or not. The use of this power begins with the banal -- the location of the missing ring of a dead neighbour -- but quickly turns gruesome as Elizabeth Dutton, bent cop and Jamie's mother's erstwhile lover, learns of Jamie's power and seeks to use it to further her career and, later, to find a dead criminal's stash of drugs as well as evidence of much more horrific crimes.
Meanwhile Jamie learns that not all the spirits he sees are quite so amenable to his commands when, through Dutton, he encounters the ghost of serial bomber, Kenneth Alan Therriault. Therriault's ghosts is infected with something far darker than Jamie's mind can contemplate and his struggles with the spirit, as well as his conversations about it with his neighbour Mr Burkett, make up some of the most enjoyable sequences in the novel.
While some of King's plots and premises are iconic, what most people remember about his works are the characters. From Jack Torrance in The Shining (1977) to Annie Wilkes in Misery (1987), King has a deft talent for fleshing out real-feeling characters from just a brief description, like a talented sketch artist revealing a face with a few pencil strokes. Later is no exception in this regard. Jamie's mother, Therriault, Mr Burkett, Dutton and even Marsden, the dead drug dealer Dutton enlists Jamie to help her steal from, never feel badly rendered no matter how briefly they appear. Jamie's first person narration is believable and showcases King's skill for writing as a young person displayed in previous works like IT (1986), Hearts in Atlantis (1999) and, more recently, The Institute (2019).
While the characters are well drawn and entertaining, the plot sometimes seems slightly rushed with years passing in-between chapters and perhaps could have been improved by having the action take place over a shorter period of time. It's also not entirely clear why the first person narration is of an older Jamie looking back at the events of the novel. It's an effect King has used many times before but it has no payoff here, no scenes featuring an adult Jamie, to justify it. Additionally, the final ghostly revelation from Jamie's uncle at the end of the novel will leave readers scratching their head and seems to have been included only for shock-value, a tactic which seems somewhat beneath King.
But despite this, Later is an entertaining story, full of all the blood, guts, crime bosses and excitement promised by the deliberately, and delightfully, pulpy cover (painted by Paul Mann) as well as the frights promised by the Stephen King brand name. It also, like most King novels, manages to squeeze in a few references to his other works for fans, most significantly IT (1986).
If all of the above feels like a lot to fit in to a book slightly shy of 300 pages, that's because it is. But King's writing never feels rushed. At its worst it can seem a slightly cliched (Stephen King has never, it seems, rejected even the most tortured of similes) but at its best you hardly feel like you're reading at all. It's getting close to 50 years since Carrie (1974) came out and it shows. In terms of sheer enjoyment for the reader, there is probably no author writing at the moment who can match King's storytelling and, if that writing isn't always perfect, the reader hardly notices. They're having far too much fun for that.
The story goes that the founder of Hard Case Crime contacted Stephen King, looking for a blurb for his new series of pulpy crime novels from the author and received instead a book. Three books in fact. The Colorado Kid (2005), followed by Joyland (2012) and now Later (2021). It's one of those origin stories that is so good that, even if it didn't happen quite like that, you would like it to be true. But regardless of how they came about, the Hard Case Crime books have been something of an experimental space for King, allowing him to produce the hard-boiled crime he is a fan of as a reader and so crime fans may feel a little disappointed that Later seems more akin to King's earlier, spookier work (as Jamie says frequently, "This is a horror story," (page 15)) than it is to the other Hard Case Crime novels or to the Mr Mercedes series. They will be in the minority though. While it's unlikely to become anyone's favourite of his works, King fans will find a lot to like in this new novel.