‘Later’ by Stephen King – treat yourself to a well-told, engaging story of a boy and the dead.

‘Later’ is pure reading pleasure from the first page. Stephen King is one of my favourite storytellers and my favourite stories of his are the ones that are tightly told, usually from the point of view of a child or someone looking back on childhood and where the horror element is real, scary but not overwhelming. ‘Later’ hits all those points and does it with the easy grace of a writer on the top of his form.

I was hooked from the opening paragraph of the first chapter:

I don’t like to start with an apology – there’s probably even a rule against it, like never ending a sentence with a preposition – but after reading over the thirty pages I’ve written so far, I feel like I have to. It’s about a certain word I keep using. I learned a lot of four-letter words from an early age (as you will find out), but this is one with five letters. The word is later, as in ‘Later on’ and ‘Later I found out’ and ‘It was only later that I realised’. I know it’s repetitive, but I had no choice, because my story starts when I still believed in Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy (although, even at six I had my doubts. I’m twenty-two now, which makes this later, right? I suppose that when I’m in my forties – always assuming I make it that far – I’ll look back on what I thought I’d understood at twenty-two and realise there’s a lot I didn’t get at all. There’s always a later, I know that now. At least until we die. Then I guess it’s all before that.

I immediately liked Jamie. He thinks. He uses words carefully. He presents them modestly and with a touch of humour, aimed mainly at himself. It all says: like me, trust me, believe me. And I did.

The whole story is presented by Jamie in this straight to camera way and never once did it occur to me to think of him as an unreliable narrator.

Without holding anything back, the twenty-two-year-old Jamie does his best to share the experience of his younger self from the age of six to fifteen, with occasional clarification or addenda based on what he learned ‘later’. He shared the small intimacies of his relationship with his mother, a literary agent raising Jamie alone. He tells us how her business works, how she lost all her money and how she coped with that. He shares his slowly dawning understanding of the nature of his mom’s relationship with the female detective who stays over sometimes. It’s all seems low-key, real and easy to believe. So when he uses the same low-key tone to describe how he is able to see and speak with the recently dead, that seems equally real and almost as easy to believe.

Speaking to the dead doesn’t seem odd to Jamie, It’s just something he’s always been able to do. Sometimes it’s scary and sometimes it’s wonderful but, to him at least, it’s not strange. As Jamie says:

You get used to marvellous things. You take them for granted. You can try not to, but you do. There’s too much wonder, that’s all. It’s everywhere. 

Jamie warns us repeatedly that ‘This is a horror story’. And it has some nasty things in it. One VERY nasty thing in particular. And, of course, it’s populated with the recently dead, who look however they looked when they died, which is sometimes not very nice. But it didn’t seem like a horror story to me. It seemed like the story of a boy with a unique ability, growing up into a teenager and discovering along the way that bad things happen to good people. At one point he describes the trials that befall him and his mother as ‘Dickens with swearing’. He learns that sometimes he can help but that helping can come with a hefty price attached. Mostly he learns to look after himself and to help his mother and to try not to get killed or have his soul torn apart along the way.

The plot isn’t a typical haunting or monster hunting plot. Mostly it’s about desperate women trying to survive. One is his mother who needs to find a way to avoid impending bankruptcy and one is a police detective who has lost it and who makes things worse with every action she takes. Each of them looks to Jamie for support.

This is an easy book to read and a hard book to put down. It has great characters and a good plot and wonderful storytelling and would have been at the top to my Stephen King booklist along with ‘The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon’ and ‘Joyland’ except for the last few chapters. The ending isn’t bad. It’s not one of those that destroy an otherwise good book, but it’s a little out of step with the rest of the novel. It feels a bit ‘tell-don’t-show’. It gives some information about Jamie’s parentage that I didn’t think added much to the plot but was a little weird. And it feels like something tagged on after the real action of the book was over.

Even so, if you want a relaxing six or seven hours of entertainment, open up ‘Later’ and spend a day with Jamie Conklin. You won’t regret it.

My enjoyment of ‘Later’ was boosted by listening to Seth Numrich narrate the audiobook version. He does a great job and the direct-to-camera style of storytelling is perfect for an audiobook. Click on the SoundCloud link below to hear a sample.

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