by Stephen King
(Hard Case Crime, 2021)

So first of all, I’m biased because I love Stephen King’s novels, having read the entire Dark Tower series and written a lengthy review of the film for Terror House magazine. Of the Hard Case Crime series books, I’ve only read Joyland, the story of a young man’s “Indian summer,” and found it to be brilliant. The novel Later is a more recently-created novel in the Hard Case Crime books.

Later is a first-person narrative told from the perspective of a child named James/Jamie Conklin, whose mother is a literary agent. Jamie and his mother meet up with their neighbor in his apartment, who has lost his wife, and this is where it is revealed that Jamie can see dead people, just like the little boy in the film The Sixth Sense (King, aware of the reference, mentions the film when describing his character). The child perspective of this novel, in dealing with difficult and often troubling situations, makes the main character sympathetic. One begins to see that Jamie’s “gift” of seeing the dead can really seem like a curse when the dead are restless or unkind, or have died in some sort of violent way.

This novel seems a bit slower paced than most of King’s novels, which typically drop-kick you right into the middle of the action. The conflict of the story starts to come in at around page 30 or so, when the mother says to James, “Never tell anyone about seeing dead people, James. Never.” This is, of course, an impossible instruction for a child to follow for their entire lifetime, and one that Jamie cannot possibly comply with.

This story takes place in New York, an area with lots of people and thus, a lot of opportunity for James to see the ghosts of the recently deceased, whether he wants to or not. On the way to a friend’s birthday party, James sees his next ghost, as he and his mother witness an accident, with a driver hitting a bicyclist in the road. The dead bicyclist is standing next to his own body and waving at James, who proceeds to vomit all over his mother’s vehicle. In this novel, those who die appear with the clothes on that they died in, and also with any wounds they received at the time of death.

Then we fast-forward two years (so that now, six year old James is eight) because not much happens: “Until, that is, everything fell apart.” This line could be a reference to the novel Things Fall Apart, or could be a reference to the idea of entropy, that events inevitably turn toward falling apart because, as Jacques Derrida explained, “the center cannot hold.” At this point in the tale, we are introduced to a new character: the mother’s brother, who has early-onset Alzheimer’s and whom the main character refers to as Uncle Harry. Here, the novel expands on the main character’s mother’s increasing financial woes. The novel takes place at this juncture, after the housing market crash of 2008, and it’s interesting to hear King write about the connections between the economy and the literary market, when James explains that, “…people were reading regular books again—novels to escape and self-help books because, let’s face it, in 2009 and ’10, a lot of people needed to help themselves.” This is a curious statement, and makes us wonder about the power of novels and story writing in connection to the woes of the everyday world.

Further complicating the mother’s financial woes, the one author whose work can always be counted on to bring in money for the literary agency she works for—an author named Regis Thomas, with his acclaimed Roanoke series—suddenly dies. The Roanoke series, by the way, is hilarious in this novel: the author has taken the infamous “lost colony” and sexed it up. “I would read that!” says my roommate. But I digress.

The mother, knowing about her son’s ability to see and speak with the dead, asks if perhaps Thomas Regis’ spirit is still lingering; after all, he might know something about what’s happened and where their share of the multi-million dollar book advance, went. And so we have the set-up of a murder mystery: a sudden death (with no obvious motive for suicide on the part of author Regis Thomas) and a motive (profit) on the part of the killer.

Before continuing further, I should mention that in the fictitious world of the novel, there is a rule that the dead have to follow—they cannot lie—unlike living human beings. Thus, here, having the ability to speak to the dead would be any detective’s dream, because they’d have to tell you the truth about what happened to them. King does a great job with conveying the main character’s frustrations, as he comes up against skepticism from characters like Liz. James is disbelieved on two counts: that he is a child, and thus, must be prone to flights of fancy, and that he has the supernatural power to contact the dead. Anyone who remembers their childhood clearly will be able to connect with this on some level, as children are rarely believed when they try and convey something of importance to adults.

But Liz does come around, eventually, and realizes that James’s gift could potentially come in handy, since she’s on the trail of a serial killer who attacks his victims with dynamite, and calls himself Thumper, like the rabbit character from Disney’s Bambi.

So the story moves along, as a crime caper, and on page 125, James reminds us, “As I said at the beginning, this is a horror story.” This fourth wall break comes as a shock.

The main character undergoes a series of changes through the novel as he explores the extent of his power and learns its secrets. He is a sympathetic character in that we get to see how this power sometimes terrifies and saddens him, rather than being purely a miraculous wonder. Rather than the familiar in-your-face style of King’s other works, this novel is more of a leisurely supernatural stroll through a park, a coming-of-age novel as James sees the world change all around him, and the simpler times of his childhood, fade into the background.

What also serves to make this novel so intriguing is that characters like Liz Dutton are not purely good or bad. With this character, we have a detective who runs drugs, forces James into terrifying situations (such as speaking to the recently-deceased bomb killer), and takes James on trips without notifying his mother. She is, however, undoubtedly nice to James, and her motivations, such as saving the people who otherwise would have been blown up, seem fairly noble. So she’s a real mixed-bag of good and bad qualities, making it difficult to know how to judge her actions as a reader, when she shows up to move the plot along in some way; should we be glad for James that he is once again getting to connect with an old friend, or should we be concerned for his safety? Or both?

This was a pleasant read, and I would recommend it for leisurely perusal.

Click here to buy Later.