Stephen King’s Mind Crimes
By Rob LathamOctober 11, 2021
Later by Stephen King
Billy Summers by Stephen King
At the start of his career, King sequestered his crime fiction from his horror output, with his Bachman pseudonym reserved for noirish tales like Rage (1977), a dark account of a school shooting, and Roadwork (1981), about an angry, alienated man who barricades himself in his condemned house. Misery was something of a rebellion against this creative segregation, its plot featuring an author who chafes at his consignment to a single storytelling genre and struggles to break free — significantly, with a crime novel. King had planned to release Misery under his Bachman alias, but his camouflage was blown by a perceptive reader, leading the author to respond with The Dark Half, a 1989 novel (impishly dedicated to Bachman) about a writer who harbors a homicidal parasitic twin. This creature’s name, George Stark, was a nod to one of the most famous fake monikers in crime fiction history: “Richard Stark,” a nom de plume used by Donald E. Westlake for a series of taut, cold-blooded thrillers.
Of course, this genre distinction is somewhat arbitrary since many of King’s horror novels have, at their cores, some criminal incident or activity, transposed into the terrain of the mythic or uncanny. The hotel in The Shining (1977), for example, is haunted by the ghosts of a former caretaker and his family, whom he brutally murdered, while the shapeshifting demon in It (1986) is an incarnation of the cyclical patterns of domestic violence and child abuse. Indeed, it is King’s peculiar genius as a writer to perceive how readily mundane psychological traumas can be translated into spectral violations, felonies of a phantasmal order — mind crimes, in short. He has even, ingeniously, crafted a series of novels that turn specifically writerly afflictions into unearthly menaces: a problematic pseudonym in The Dark Half, writer’s block in Bag of Bones (1998), anxiety about posthumous reputation in Lisey’s Story (2006).
Alongside this metafictional trend in the author’s work has emerged, over the past two decades, a series of crime novels that have had a complex, and increasingly fraught, relationship with supernatural horror. This strand was kicked off by the rediscovery of a lost Bachman manuscript, Blaze, a clever yarn about small-time crooks who botch a kidnapping, which was published in 2007. Around that time, King also began a relationship with Hard Case Crime, a paperback house that specializes in fiction with a throwback flavor of classic noir, penning three titles for them. The first of these — The Colorado Kid (2005), a tricky missing-person story — was also the best, in large part because it had virtually no fantasy elements (save for the sheer mystery of the case itself). The two subsequent efforts, Joyland (2013) and now Later, have been less compelling precisely to the extent that they have brought their uncanny aspects to the fore (precognition in the former novel, communication with the dead in the latter). King’s engagement with the subgenre of the police procedural has displayed a similar pattern: his 2018 novel The Outsider opens with a gripping investigation of a child’s murder but soon morphs into a tedious monster story, while Mr. Mercedes (2014), which eschews the supernatural entirely, is a suspenseful cat-and-mouse narrative about a retired cop on the trail of a murderous psychopath. The success of Mr. Mercedes as a crime story was recognized by the Mystery Writers of America, who gave it an Edgar Award, and it has generated two proficient sequels, Finders Keepers (2015) and End of Watch (2016).
That King would be well advised to more fully separate his crime and horror fiction, as he did at the outset of his career, is proven by his two new books. Whereas Later is an uneasy hybrid, a muddled and rather silly tale of occult skullduggery, Billy Summers, by contrast, is a tense, absorbing story about a brainy hitman struggling to go straight — and the author’s best novel in many years.
The fantastic premise that animates Later is simple — the young narrator, Jamie Conklin, can see the ghosts of the recently deceased and talk to them — but King has not fully thought through the narrative implications of this idea. Jamie, who lives with his single mother, a literary agent, in New York City, becomes aware of his psychic gift at the age of four, when he spots the victim of a bicycle accident standing beside his own corpse. The boy screams in horror and vomits because the ghost is so “gooshy,” bearing the grisly wounds of the fatal collision. Over the course of the story, during which Jamie grows into a teenager, he sees perhaps a dozen more of these specters, a couple of which are similarly gruesome because they died by violence. But there’s a rather large problem with this scenario. Someone perishes in the Big Apple every nine minutes, for a total of roughly 160 deaths per day, several as a result of murder, suicide, or accident. Since, according to Jamie, a ghost hangs around the site of his or her demise for three or four days before dissipating into some nebulous otherwhere, this would mean that, at any given time, there are some 500 or 600 revenants haunting the five boroughs, a significant segment of which would look pretty damn ghastly.
Given these grim statistics, you would imagine that Jamie’s childhood would be spent dodging a swarm of horrid wraiths, but he only runs into two other gooshy spooks after that first incident, each time because it is convenient for the plot. In the first instance, his mother’s estranged girlfriend, a corrupt cop named Liz Dutton, drags him to meet the ghost of a serial bomber who died by suicide, in the hopes that Jamie can elicit information about a secret cache of explosives, the discovery of which would boost her career. (In King’s scenario, the deceased must respond truthfully to factual questions.) The crimes of this villain, who calls himself “Thumper” in mocking letters mailed to the authorities, are based on the exploits of George Metesky, who placed over 30 pipe bombs throughout the city during the early ’40s and mid-’50s. Adapting these historical depredations into the plot of a contemporary novel, though, leads to another major implausibility — namely, that such a bombing campaign could be carried out, for well over a decade, in an era of omnipresent CCTV, wall-to-wall mass media, and a police force that has grown vastly both in numbers and in the sophistication of its surveillance capabilities.
But King seems untroubled by these credibility issues, since his purpose in introducing the mad-bomber subplot is to provide Jamie with a durable nemesis. Uniquely among the novel’s undead cohort, Thumper’s ghost is hijacked by a shadowy incubus “from outside the universe” that inexplicably fixates on Jamie, haunting him relentlessly rather than fading away. Jamie gains the upper hand over this malign entity, in a scene of spectral combat whose rationale I will not try to summarize, holding the creature in abeyance until it is narratively propitious to unleash it again. This occurs during the big finale, a supernatural showdown in a drug lord’s mansion, where dirty cop Liz has again dragged Jamie to ferret information out of the gangster’s ghost. As Jamie’s mother told him when she first became aware of his mysterious gift: “People die with secrets, Jamie, and there are always people who want to know those secrets.” And this seems to be the main reason for injecting an occult premise into the proceedings: to provide a handy mechanism for either enabling or solving crimes (Jamie admits that he had often imagined a career as a detective since “no murderer would escape […] because you could talk to the vics”).
As per usual with King’s novels, even comparatively bad ones, Later has its compelling aspects. Jamie’s narrative voice is nicely captured, as he matures into a confused and understandably depressed teenager, and the scenes with his harried, madcap mother have the homely authenticity one has come to expect of the author’s domestic scenarios. His mom’s job as a literary agent also provides fodder for canny inside jokes about the profession, including a cute subplot involving a series of bodice rippers called the Roanoke Saga, “each one as thick as a brick” and featuring “a sex scene every fifty pages or so […], including one in a tree while hungry alligators crawled around beneath.” While Liz, his mom’s ex, verges on caricature at times — she’s an evil lesbian druggie who won’t leave the family alone — King shrewdly gives her a world-weary, wise-cracking voice, which is essential since she is basically the catalyst for the entire plot. (Ever since King kicked his own booze and drug habits, a detox detailed in his 2000 memoir On Writing, his depictions of addicts have grown increasingly uncharitable.) But none of these positive qualities can overcome the structural flaws at the heart of the story, which undermine its tenability in a way that is finally fatal.
As if anticipating these objections, the narrator repeatedly reminds us that “this is a horror story” — by which he seems to mean not only that eerie things are likely to happen but also that one should not expect them to be amenable to logic. Regarding the malignant spirit that possesses the soul of Thumper, Jamie observes: “I think that once it started fucking with me it couldn’t stop. As I said, just guessing here. Its reasons might have been something else entirely, as unknowable as it was to me. And as monstrous. As I said, this is a horror story.” What this is, actually, is a cop-out. Such a statement might make sense in a novel marketed explicitly as horror; indeed, one of King’s signature strengths, throughout his career, has been to evoke the terrifying irrationality of supernatural irruptions, their mystifying opacity. As the narrator of King’s 1982 story “The Raft,” trying to comprehend an iridescent blob that is remorselessly butchering his friends, muses: “Maybe it was an oil slick […] or had been, until something had happened to it. Maybe cosmic rays had hit it in a certain way. Or maybe Arthur Godfrey had pissed atomic Bisquick all over it, who knew? Who could know?” As H. P. Lovecraft famously observed, the essence of horror literature is “fear of the unknown,” and few writers have captured this crux of the genre more powerfully than Stephen King.
But Later appeared, like two previous King titles, from a press that specializes in crime fiction, and crime fiction is, at its core, a drama of causality. Even the noir pulpsters who viewed the world as a cryptic wasteland at best and a corrupt cesspool at worst would have felt obliged to think through the implications of Jamie’s mysterious gift more carefully. Cornell Woolrich, for example, wrote a number of stories that turned on seemingly impossible crimes, some even featuring voodoo and black magic, but his treatment usually evinced some degree of fidelity to cause-and-effect deduction. The tortuous lucubrations of Later, which at times defy elementary logic, do not really evoke this “weird menace” tradition; even the occult detective stories of the late Victorian and Edwardian eras (to which King nods via a bizarre allusion to M. R. James) display more of a commitment to readerly fair play. In sum, if you are going to introduce elements of the supernatural into a crime-fiction scenario, they need to be governed by some dialectic that transcends mere narrative convenience.
By contrast, King’s other 2021 novel succeeds because it avoids messy metaphysical entanglements — save for some casual late references to a ruined Colorado hotel with a creepy topiary garden that may make fans of The Shining smile but are entirely extraneous to the plot. (These allusions cap a self-reflexive trend in King’s recent work: Later describes a New York apartment building as looking “like that Shawshank Redemption prison,” while Mr. Mercedes features glancing references to film versions of It and Christine .) Unlike Later, which fudges chronology and flouts rational coherence, Billy Summers ticks along with meticulous causal precision (save for two major plot twists, about which more in a moment). Its proficiency in part derives from its crafty generic self-consciousness; as the eponymous protagonist thinks before accepting a final commission to gun down another hitman who knows too much: “If noir is a genre, then ‘one last job’ is a sub-genre,” and in those stories, “the last job always goes bad.” While it doesn’t have the jaded tautness of such classics of the form as George V. Higgins’s The Friends of Eddie Coyle (1970) or Michael Mann’s 1981 film Thief, it has the same streetwise savvy about criminal tricks of the trade (the reader, like Billy, must keep track of multiple false identities, each with its own bank account and burner phone) and a melancholy awareness of the fickleness of friends and the inevitability of double crosses.
Before he became a contract killer, Billy Summers was an abused foster child, escaped from a meth-addict mother and her homicidal boyfriend, who discovered the only thing he was ever good at — shooting people — during a stint as a Marine sniper in Iraq. We learn all this background through an inventive structural device: a memoir Billy composes, first to kill time while he waits for his target to be extradited, then because he succumbs to the writerly itch. Passages from this manuscript are interpolated throughout, and while in lesser hands they might interrupt the flow, King weaves them together with the main action masterfully, painting an indelible portrait of a damaged man weaned on violence who does violence in return. Indeed, he further complicates the scenario by making Billy an unusually bookish hood: when we first meet him, he is reading a Zola novel, though he hides it behind an Archie comic whenever any of his fellow goons show up. Having learned as a kid to suppress his intelligence while dodging adult fists, Billy is adept at showing his “dumb self” to mob bosses like Nick Majarian, who hires him for this final assignment and doesn’t need to know how readily Billy can see through his wiles. In an inspired move, King even has Billy change the name of his memoir self to “Benjy Compson” because he suspects (correctly) that Nick has cloned his laptop to keep an eye on him — but would of course never grasp the Faulkner reference.
As this allusion suggests, Billy’s literary tastes are fairly elevated. His favorite writer, we learn, is Thomas Hardy (a name he sometimes uses on his fake IDs), and along the way he drops knowing allusions to modern masters of the novel of manly violence: Robert Stone, Cormac McCarthy, Tim O’Brien. It’s rather daring to reference O’Brien’s work given that the core of Billy’s memoir is a scene of grabassing jarheads clearing houses in Fallujah that goes spectacularly wrong, but King’s narration (via Billy) is genuinely harrowing. Indeed, he puts so much riveting energy into both strands of Billy’s story — present-day and recollected — that we come to miss one while reading the other.
Though a cold-eyed killer, Billy does have a moral code: he will only accept hits on individuals he perceives to be “bad guys.” Billy, the narrator tells us, “thinks of himself as a nice man, one with a dirty job.” On the one hand, this is true: he’s an affable person who makes friends easily, a trait that comes in handy since the assignment requires him to “embed” himself for several months in a small-town community to await the arrival of his target. Thus, we get scenes of Billy hanging out at picnics, playing board games with the neighbors’ kids, shopping at the mall, all narrated with a comfy banality. On the other hand, this easy sociability is just a front; essentially a loner, Billy knows that he can never really “get close. Getting close is a bad idea. Getting close is dangerous. Maybe after he retires that will change.” Besides, he can hardly tell the neighbors that the golf gear, computer equipment, and other paraphernalia he’s been shopping for are meant to hide a high-powered rifle and facilitate an escape. He almost gives the game away when, at a local fair, he displays his seasoned marksmanship at a shooting gallery, affording the locals a glimpse of “the rather unpleasant person Billy never meant to become.” Though he moves through the present-day action with ruthless efficiency, he really lives in the past, in the tortured memories he records in his memoir, or in a dimly reckoned future, when he will finally leave his killing ways behind.
Of course, as he knew it would from the outset, the one last job goes bad — very, very bad. While the hit itself comes off brilliantly, in one of the most breathless scenes of action King has ever crafted, Billy is double-crossed by Nick, as he should have known would happen but couldn’t admit to himself (perhaps because the fantasy of “one last job” was so alluring), and he is forced to go to ground under one of his many fake personas. In this haunted seclusion, as he waits until “the heat goes down, as in those movies about the last job that always goes wrong,” Billy takes to writing in earnest, now freed from the need to dissimulate for the invisible readers of his bugged laptop. And it all comes pouring out, in vividly rendered scenes of boot camp and combat, and in metafictional pauses to reflect on the power of writing, which “is also a kind of war, one you fight with yourself.” King has described the oneiric intensity of authorial creation before, in On Writing and other sources, but seldom as movingly as when Billy surfaces from a five-hour stint at the keyboard
like a man emerging from a vivid dream. He puts his hands in the small of his back and stretches, sending pins and needles down his legs. He walks from the living room to the kitchen to the bedroom, and finally back to the living room. He does it again, then a third time. The apartment seemed just the right size when he first saw it, the perfect place to hunker down in until things settled and he could drive his leased car north (or maybe west). Now it seems too small, like clothes that have been outgrown.
And it is here — at almost precisely halfway through the novel, when Billy seems at last to have come to some accommodation with himself — that we get the story’s first big twist. In the spirit of Raymond Chandler’s famous law of pulp crime fiction — which states that “when in doubt,” the writer should “have a man come through the door with a gun in his hand” — King springs his own version of the dictum: when your hitman hero has reached a cozy cul-de-sac, have a young rape victim dropped on his doorstep.
The victim in question is Alice Maxwell, 21, a student at the local business school who was roofied by a predatory date, then brutalized by him and his two roommates before being dumped unconscious in the freezing rain. Billy rushes out and brings the girl inside, either because he’s really a decent guy or because having the police find her instead, collapsed in front of his apartment, would be the surest way of blowing his cover. When Alice comes to, it doesn’t take her long to figure out who Billy is — the killing he orchestrated was very public and has been in the news for days — but rather than call the cops or try to flee, she finds herself identifying with him and his predicament, especially after he lets her read his unfinished manuscript. None of this should work, of course, and some critics have claimed that it doesn’t — The New York Times reviewer called the advent of Alice a “creaky coincidence” that causes the story to “stumble” — but all I can say it that, strangely, it works for me. This is, in part, because King makes Alice an alienated loner in her own right, in flight from a meddlesome mother and hungry for experience, but also because the setup evokes the hallowed noir tradition of the outcast couple whose doomed folie à deux pits them against the world.
Billy and Alice are, of course, a far cry from the tortured lovers of David Goodis or James M. Cain, largely because King is too fundamentally upbeat a writer (and, it must be admitted, rather too sentimental) to traffic in such tawdriness. In fact, they aren’t lovers at all, more like surrogate father and daughter, or mentor and mentee. While the Times reviewer is probably right that “there’s something at once prudish and prurient about [their] relationship,” which can be off-putting in the #MeToo era, he fails to perceive not only the echoes in classic noir but also in King’s own corpus. For the situation the pair find themselves in is basically an inversion of the plot of Misery, with a writer holding a reader hostage rather than vice versa. And after a while, Alice ceases to be a hostage at all (even though Billy coaches her to claim Stockholm Syndrome to explain her behavior if they are ever apprehended), becoming first an avid fan and then, in the novel’s ultimate metafictional move, literally a co-author. She joins forces with Billy not only textually, in his evolving manuscript, but in the everyday world as well, lending a hand as he plans his revenge against Nick and his minions.
The slow build to Billy’s raid on Nick’s Vegas mansion, and then the raid itself (another well-handled action sequence), should bring the plot to a fitting conclusion, reminiscent of any number of pulp caper stories. But King has another twist up his sleeve, and here is where I think the novel does go wrong, thuddingly wrong. We discover that, behind Nick’s deceitful schemes, there lurk the machinations of a bigger criminal mastermind, a conservative media mogul, owner of a “news station that loves Trump,” who wanted Billy’s target dead because he had the goods on the dirty old man’s avid pedophilia. (I will give you three guesses which real-world figure this mogul is meant to evoke, and the first two don’t count.) Not only does this revelation fall flat narratively, spawning yet another (this time tension-free) cross-country drive and mansion raid, it fails thematically as well, converting a neat little parable about a lost, lonely man into an overblown indictment of the pathologies of Trumpism.
King’s left-leaning political sympathies are well known, of course. All through 2020, while he was writing Billy Summers, he campaigned aggressively against Republican Senator Susan Collins in his home state of Maine and kept up a relentless — and often hilarious — spiel on Twitter skewering Trump and his GOP enablers. Even before its final tendentious twist, the story was littered with casual references to “red MAGA hat[s]” and “QUEERS FOR TRUMP” T-shirts — which, given the Deep South setting (Billy seems to be “embedded” in Arkansas, though the state is never named), might have merely been a smattering of local color. Billy’s own heterodox views were limited to casual asides (“he supposes that in a world where a conman can get elected president anything is possible”) and occasional puckish gestures, such as wearing a Melania Trump mask when he takes his revenge on Alice’s rapists. None of this prepares the reader for the kooky “Blue Anon” move at the end, with Billy turning his abiding rage against the “bad guys” on a lizardy old child rapist who, one senses, is supposed to stand in for all the beastly sins of a cynical, complacent right-wing elite. I have to admit that I read the novel’s last 80 pages with my mouth hanging open in disbelief.
Until that final wrong turn, though, Billy Summers is an engrossing read, deftly plotted, suitably hard-boiled, and at times almost magically imagined. It is proof positive, if any were needed, that King, at this late stage of his career, is rapidly becoming one of our best contemporary crime writers. He should trust his instincts in that regard and not feel the need to drop cute winks to his successful horror fiction or, more egregiously, to encumber his plots with gratuitous polemical bombast. Just let the story speak for itself, as Billy’s does to Alice:
“What’s going on with you?” she asks. “You look weird.”
“Nothing. I mean … I’ve been writing something. Kind of a life story. I don’t suppose you’d want to—”
Rob Latham is a LARB senior editor.
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