The son of a struggling single mother, Jamie Conklin just wants an ordinary childhood. But Jamie is no ordinary child. Born with an unnatural ability his mom urges him to keep secret, Jamie can see what no one else can see and learn what no one else can learn. But the cost of using this ability is higher than Jamie can imagine – as he discovers when an NYPD detective draws him into the pursuit of a killer who has threatened to strike from beyond the grave.
Title: Later | Author: Stephen King | Publisher: Titan Books | Pub. Date: 2 March, 2021 | Pages: 272 | ISBN: 1789096499 | Genre: Horror/Crime | Language: English | Source: Author/Pub | Starred Review
Do I need to disclose that I’m a Stephen King fan? I’ll disclose that I’m a Stephen King fan. I don’t love everything he’s written (I was actually not a fan of one of his other two crime novels, The Colorado Kid) but I certainly am fast to read just about everything he has put out. After The Colorado Kid I wasn’t necessarily that excited for his return to crime novels, but Later was a positive step forward for me, even if that’s largely because the crime aspect takes a backseat to some of the more traditional King horror touches.
Later is told from the perspective of Jamie Conklin, who as a young boy discovers he has the ability to see dead people. Granted that’s not a very original premise (Jamie directly acknowledges The Sixth Sense), but the story does put some unique touches on it. Unlike many stories with that subject, this ability does not define Jamie’s character. It’s just a thing he can do. Dead people are not always bothering him with their lame dead people problems. He largely goes about his life and every now and then, he sees a dead person. These dead people are usually just standing around confused and not doing much. Sometimes Jamie and the dead person will wave at each other which is nice. Very good mannered those dead people. They aren’t pestering him to figure out how they died or deliver a message to their spouse or whatever other pesky asks ghosts are usually making. The focus here is more on the advantages such an ability may have. Specifically, how helpful it would be to the adults in a child’s life.
The majority of the story is focused on two characters – Jamie and his mother. He does not know who his father is, though that only plays a small role in the overall tale. I really enjoyed their relationship and the first act showing their financial and life struggles is a great introduction to the characters. The mom has made a vow to never lie to her son and its refreshing how straightforward and honest she always is with him. I also liked that half the book isn’t spent with Jamie having to convince her he can see the dead. The evidence is irrefutable and she accepts this early on which makes their relationship stronger and more interesting. She is one of the first people to ask him to help her out by using this ability, though she does so for logical reasons.
Representing the other side of that coin is Liz, the mother’s girlfriend. Liz is a Republican cop so it would have been easy for King to turn her into a punching bag (King is very much NOT a republican in case you aren’t following him on Twitter). However, she is more of a fleshed out character than anticipated. She is incredibly flawed and wants Jamie’s help for often much more selfish reasons, but she’s never quite a full on villain.
Although billed as a crime novel, the crime elements are the second priority behind the more character driven and horror pieces of the story. There isn’t necessarily a central crime/mystery that is running through the whole story. There’s no murder to be solved or anything like that. It has an episodic feel, with Jacob using his abilities to solve a variety of problems as he grows older.
The middle act is the most effective and when the horror truly takes the spotlight. There’s an interesting piece to the mythology here where when you ask a ghost a question, it has to tell you the truth even if it doesn’t want to. Events in this section (I’m trying to keep this all very spoiler free) address what it would be like if a ghost who had been forced to do this, was pissed off about it. If that ghost were to hold a personal vendetta against you. It’s a frightening idea that is executed well but the resolution feels rushed. The solution brings an additional complication, but it still felt like the problem is dealt with a little too easily so the story can continue on.
The issue of unsatisfying resolutions does extend slightly to the end of the whole book as King doesn’t quite stick the landing. After a very tense middle act that helps expand on this universe, the final chapters seem like a de-escalation. The final scenario that Jamie has to deal with is more personal to the characters, it just isn’t as interesting as what has come before it.
My biggest complaint about Later doubles as a compliment – I was left wanting more. The characters are interesting and the world built around them has a lot of potential. I would absolutely continue to follow along with Jamie as he continues to explore his power. If the pattern of adapting each and every King novel continues, I will absolutely watch the CBS procedural that is birthed from this one.
You can purchase a copy of this book via your normal retailer, but please consider purchasing it from a local indie bookshop instead. It can be found here at Indiebound or at https://bookshop.org/shop/scifiandscary. Please note the Bookshop link is an affiliate link and each purchase you make through it helps to support Sci-Fi & Scary and keep the site running.
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