Let’s be honest, having a supernatural ability sounds amazing. We’ve been brainwashed into thinking things like advanced abilities will make our lives easier – mostly from movies like The Avengers, Superman, or Wonder Woman. But that’s not always the case. Stephen King, master of spine-tingling stories that work as both horror and thrillers such as The Institute, IT, and The Shining brings another, albeit lackluster, thriller that speaks directly to this in Later.
Nine-year old Jamie Conklin sees dead people. Sounds familiar right? King sprinkled in hints of The Sixth Sense with this one, though Jamie breaks the fourth wall by stating it’s not like M. Night Shyamalan’s film at all. He doesn’t remember when his ability began exactly but after his mom finds out, she tells him it’s not something you’d want to share with others. Fair enough. As a kid, all you want to do is fit in, and telling everyone around you that you ‘see dead people’ probably isn’t the best way to make friends.
Conklin doesn’t understand why he can see dead people, only that there are certain rules when he does encounter them. One, they always have to tell the truth. Which is fascinating because if someone is known for being a liar when they’re alive, how is it they can suddenly tell the truth once they’re dead? Perhaps it doesn’t matter as King glosses over this detail as well. And second, there’s a limited amount of time he has to chat with them before they start to fade in and out.
At first, things seem to go well for Jamie — they live in a nice area of New York, his mom, Tia, runs a literary agency once owned by his Uncle Harry, now beset with early-onset Alzheimer’s. But then things take a turn. Prior to his Alzheimer’s, someone lured Uncle Harry into a Ponzi scheme, leaving the agency in the red even before the 2008 economic bust. Scrambling to adjust to their new lifestyle, Jamie’s mom can’t catch a break when the only author that helps pay their bills dies before finishing his magnum opus.
Through creative maneuvering (and help from Jamie’s supernatural ability), his mom manages to finish her deceased client’s work, righting their financial troubles for the time being. Amidst the chaos in his life, Jamie realizes that his mom’s cop friend, Liz Dutton, is definitely more than just a friend. Then one day, Dutton asks Jamie to help her using his ability. A serial bomber has killed himself, leaving a posthumous message about one last bomb that’s sure to wreak havoc – and kill more people – if not discovered.
The NYPD attempts to find it but have been unlucky in their search. Jamie forces the deceased bomber to tell him where the bomb is and Dutton saves the day.
With other dead people, Jamie generally doesn’t see them much after he leaves. However, the deceased bomber lingers. He remains in the teenager’s life, causing him to mess up in school, at swim meets, and other occasions where he jumps at the slightest shadow. It’s not until Jamie seeks the help of an old neighbor that he’s able to cut ties with the malevolent spectre once and for all. And though Dutton and Tia have split up, she returns to cash in using Jamie’s uncanny ability once more.
While all of this might sound intriguing, and make for a great thriller, Later is a throwaway. It doesn’t encompass the same amount of vigor King is normally known for. Don’t get me wrong, I adore King and have read almost all of his books. There’s something simple about his writing that makes whatever he’s writing about all the more compelling. And yet, here, what feels like an incredible buildup never materializes into anything but a disappointment.
Yes, the idea of seeing dead people is frightening, but King never explores the concept on either an emotional or metaphysical level; it’s missing that very recognizable King magic that can elevate even a familiar concept. Plus, he jumps across several timelines, but never explains the purpose of it.
Having a supernatural ability feels like it would be great – you could be regarded as a savior, someone others rely on for help when it’s most needed. However, having an extrasensory gift when it involves the wrong kind of people could help you wind up in a worse position than before. To me, this feels like King’s laziest book. The plot moves but barely above a flatline, and the climax feels more like a fizzle than anything. Later is definitely a book one can read ‘later’, or maybe never.