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» Click here to read Ray Palen's review.


Review #1 by Joe Hartlaub

I want to say that LATER is a return to form for Stephen King. That’s partly true. Jamie Conklin is the young man who narrates the book and tells readers on the first page that he thinks it’s a horror novel. He says this right after warning and apologizing that he uses the word “later” frequently in the telling. He is correct on both counts.

LATER is a horror story, and Jamie does use the word “later” often enough that “too much” wouldn’t be an exaggeration. He covers a lot of years --- from ages six to 22 --- in a relatively short novel that reads as if the pages are greased so that minor excess can be forgiven, especially since it contains some of King’s best writing, even at this very late date.

"If you haven’t read a King novel for a while due to time constraints, or you would like an introduction to the man at or near the top of his game, pick LATER as your delightful literary poison."

One can figure out pretty early on that things aren’t going to be wonderful here. Jamie and his mother, a literary agent who has her ups and downs and is raising her son on her own, are just shooting for a normal life. That is going to be a problem due to the changing fortunes of the publishing industry and Jamie’s talent or curse, as the case may be. Jamie can see and converse with the dead, who kind of hang around for a few days after leaving their bodies. There’s an interesting wrinkle to this: The deceased individual is incapable of lying, even when he or she doesn’t want to tell the truth. Jamie’s ability is pretty benevolent as he helps a newly minted widower locate a keepsake and then really does his mother a solid.

However, a problem arises when Jamie uses his gift on the down-low to help a police officer thwart the last deadly act of a newly deceased serial bomber. This tragic incident occurs at the story’s halfway point, but it reverberates --- for better or worse --- throughout the second half…and, if you are a sensitive and imaginative soul as I am, for long afterward. When someone who is aware of Jamie’s ability uses him a few years later for their own designs, things go more than sideways for the young man and a few others. It’s kind of obvious early on that Jamie is going to be standing at the end of the book since he is narrating it, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that he isn’t troubled, or that his journey is an easy one. You will race to the end to see where he is and how he gets there.

LATER is a joy to read. The plot is straightforward but leaves room for a few twists (including a total surprise near the conclusion). Unlike many of King’s works, the prose is restrained in terms of the verbiage, which is a nice surprise, especially considering the first-person past-tense narration. Although it doesn’t go overboard on the graphic horror, there is enough to keep the images that are presented here bouncing around in your head for a long time to come. Speaking only for myself, I also will note that after reading this book, I am glad I never learned how to whistle, for the same reason that I have avoided clowns ever since I devoured IT. You’ll see why.

If you haven’t read a King novel for a while due to time constraints, or you would like an introduction to the man at or near the top of his game, pick LATER as your delightful literary poison.


Review #2 by Ray Palen

As Stephen King enters his sixth decade as a bestselling author, he has long shaken off the moniker of just being “that horror writer” by writing superbly in several genres. LATER is the third novel he has written for Hard Case Crime, following THE COLORADO KID and JOYLAND, and here he kicks it up a notch as he mixes his specialty --- the supernatural --- with a tale full of crime and mystery.

I love that King routinely uses adolescents as protagonists in his work. Here, we get to see Jamie Conklin grow from a young boy to an awkward teen and “later” an intelligent college man. “Later” is used throughout the story and comes to mean many things. I believe it is up to the reader to determine the definition for each usage of the word.

Jamie lets us know right up front that this is a horror story. That is a nice way to anchor the novel because I think he needs to believe that in order to get through some of the more confusing moments he experiences. When he is younger, Jamie is taken by his mother Tia to visit with a good friend, Professor Marty Burkett, whose wife has just passed away. Jamie understands that his purpose is to find out where Mrs. Burkett hid their wedding rings. How would a boy know something like that if Professor Burkett himself cannot turn up the keepsake items? Quite simply, Jamie can see dead people. He phrases it like that because he is aware of The Sixth Sense, the M. Night Shyamalan film that made this quote famous. Jamie is able to ask Mrs. Burkett where the rings are; she indicates that she placed them in a box and put them inside a closet.

"LATER is top-notch Stephen King and one of the most memorable works in his long and storied writing career."

The rules of speaking to the dead sometimes vary for Jamie. Typically, he can speak to them for a good length of time if it is near the moment of their death. He usually can find the dead at a location they frequented, died in or were particularly fond of. After a while, their voices begin to fade to nothing, sort of like a radio with the volume being turned down. One rule Jamie has learned is that the dead must tell the truth. He has always been aware of his special power and only recently was able to share it with his mother.

When Jamie’s Uncle Harry is put into a home for early onset dementia, it marks a major turning point for his small family. Jamie is an only child who never knew his father. His mother and uncle owned a family business, a publishing company, that was running on fumes because Harry squandered nearly all of their funds on a deadly Ponzi scheme. As a result, Jamie and his mother must move from their apartment on Central Park West to a far smaller place in a less reputable part of New York City. He is well aware that they practically share their new home with his mother’s “friend,” Liz Dutton, an NYPD detective.

What is keeping the publishing company afloat are Regis Thomas’ enormously popular Roanoke novels. They feature adventure, sexual exploits and mystery that should all culminate in the infamous disappearance of the Roanoke settlement that only left behind the phrase that was eerily etched into a tree: “Croatoan.” That is, until Tia gets word of the untimely passing of the author before he had a chance to turn in the manuscript for his final story.

Jamie’s powers are required now more than ever to save the family business and protect their own livelihood. They ride to his home in upper Westchester along with Liz, who does not believe the reports about Jamie’s special talent. However, she quickly becomes a believer when he locates the ghost of Regis outside his special writing shed on the back of his property. Using a recorder and asking questions that his mother is conveying to him, Jamie gets Regis talking and learns everything he had planned to write in this concluding installment. It turns out that he was only a couple of chapters in when he was taken by a sudden heart attack. Tia, who had been editing the entire series, sets to finishing the novel on her own. It works out, and the book is released to great acclaim and even greater sales, saving the firm and the Conklin family.

Unfortunately, the relationship between Tia and Liz goes sour when a bag of illegal drugs is found hidden in their apartment. It seems that Liz has been doing some moonlighting as a “bad cop” and redistributing stolen drugs to one of her street sources to make a nice amount of extra income. The NYPD has been suspicious, and Liz is treading on thin ice. Tia is done with her at this point and throws her out. Liz is a desperate person and cannot afford to lose her job. To that end, she is not done with Jamie, especially after seeing what he can do. There has been a serial bomber terrorizing the New York City area for several years who simply goes by the moniker “Thumper.” With each bomb that goes off, the police receive a new note with the same statement: “How do you like my work so far? More to come!” THUMPER

Just as he is about to be apprehended, Thumper, aka Kenneth Therriault, takes his own life. Attached to his person is a note taunting the police one more time indicating that he saved his best bombing for last and daring them to stop it. Liz feels that the only chance to salvage her career and potentially ward off a prison term of her own once Internal Affairs busts her is to come across as the hero who discovers the location of the last bomb attack and prevents it. Liz takes Jamie on a whirlwind tour of the places she hopes the departed Therriault is still haunting.

They do locate him, and Jamie is at first sickened by the appearance of the apparition with his ravaged head. He is able to learn that Therriault did all the Thumper work just for “the hell of it” and planned the final attack at the same site of his first one --- the King Kullen Supermarket in Eastport Long Island, where he once worked as a stock boy. Liz calls in the information, claiming she heard from one of the many witnesses she had interviewed during the time of that initial bombing. The bomb squad and the Suffolk County P.D. are able to locate and defuse all the bombs without any injury.

However, there is a serious price to pay for Jamie. Unlike all of the dead he has previously encountered, the departed spirit of Therriault will not go away. Jamie cannot understand how this dead man, who is disintegrating in much the same way as the deceased character from the film An American Werewolf in London, can still be lingering.

What follows are countless twists and turns, and the final act is a wild one that you will not want to miss. LATER is top-notch Stephen King and one of the most memorable works in his long and storied writing career. The tale calls to mind many of his prior works and is the only other story next to the classic IT to refer to “deadlights” --- a word that should cause icy chills to run down the spine of any faithful King reader.

Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub and Ray Palen on March 12, 2021

by Stephen King