I’ll admit it: I’ve never read a Stephen King novel before this. For many years I just knew that Stephen King was an immensely popular writer of horror novels, which pretty much guaranteed I would never in a million years ever pick up one of his books, since I find real life quite scary enough without adding horror fiction into the mix.
Then I read King’s On Writing and realized that I liked how he wrote about writing, and about himself and his own life. His voice was engaging and often wise. I began to think, “It’s too bad he writes in a genre I can’t stand, because I’d kind of like to read one of his books.”
I mentioned something about Stephen King in a piece I wrote on my old website and described him as a good but not great writer, after which I was tickled to get a shocked email from the immensely talented Joshilyn Jackson assuring me that King was undoubtedly a great writer. Then this summer one of my good friends recommended Lisey’s Story as a King novel she had loved which, she assured me, was not too horror-y at all.
I read it. Everyone’s right. Stephen King really is — well, I’m not sure how one qualifies as a great writer, but he’s a very, very good one.
Lisey’s Story was more literary than I expected, the work of an author who is clearly in love with language but also never forgets character and plot. Many of his word-games entranced me, although some irritated me — I liked the fact that Lisey and her late husband shared a private vocabulary within their marriage, as so many couples do, but the fact that they both used the word “smucking” instead of the more popular F-word drove me insane by page three.
However, there was much more here to entrance than to annoy me, and the portrait of a long and loving marriage was beautifully drawn. Lisey’s dead husband, Scott, is a more compelling character even beyond the grave than Lisey herself is, so it helped that so much of the story was flashbacks to their life together. But Lisey’s character grew on me as the story progressed, perhaps much as Lisey herself grows throughout the novel, a woman emerging from the shadow of her famous husband into a life of her own.
That summary makes the novel sound a lot more like “women’s fiction” than a Stephen King novel could ever be. Lisey’s Story is far darker and stranger than “just” a novel about a woman overcoming grief and loss, although that’s certainly part of it. I had a hard time deciding how to categorize it — it’s not really horror, but it is scary in places, and it deals with madness and the dark places in our lives and relationships. And then it goes to a whole other level where it’s more like fantasy, because the dark place Scott goes to, the source of both creativity and madness, is, in this story, a literal place — another world into which he can shift, and to which he takes Lisey. One review I read called it a “supernatural thriller” and that’s probably as good a genre tag as any.
Lisey’s Story is beautiful, compelling, haunting — a memorable book about love, loss and language.