By the Book - Literary Life Lessons

By the Book #23 – Later by Stephen King

I recently read Stephen King's latest novel Later. It's a perfect blend of his trademark horror and the story a normal boy trying to find his place in the world. Want to know more? Read on!

Stephen King is one of the most prolific writers I know. He’s written so many books that it must be impossible not to have read any of them. Despite being known as Master of Horror, he has also written some novels which are not about supernatural events at all, but focus on the more human aspects of life. King’s latest novel Later combines these two elements. Want to know what it is about? Read on!

Later is about twenty-something Jamie Conklin, who looks back on the strange events that took place when he was a boy. He knew from a very young age that he was able to see dead people, that he could talk to them, and that he should never tell anyone about this ability. His mother, a literary agent who raised Jamie on her own, and her (soon to be ex-)girlfriend, a police officer, did know, however, and both made use of his special gift – albeit for very different reasons. Later is a true Stephen King novel, focusing on the process of growing up with a horror twist.

When you think of Stephen King, you think of horror. He’s written about vampires, about telekinetic girls, extremely aggressive lobsters, curses, rabid dogs… I could go on. Therefore, Later seems to fit in nicely with his other novels. While some of those people died peacefully in their sleep, and talked to Jamie about how much they loved their spouses, others died in gruesome manners, and since the dead reveal themselves to Jamie in the way they looked when they died, their looks tend to be quite gruesome. What’s more, one of these dead people is possessed by a particularly nasty demon who makes Jamie’s life a living hell, and there’s only one way to beat it.

Usually I read Stephen King because I want to be scared; the more reluctant I am to go to the bathroom at night, the better. This time, however, King’s descriptions of the mundanities of Jamie’s life really stood out to me. It somehow feels like King used his trademark supernatural and horror elements because he wanted to tell a story about an ordinary boy with an ordinary life, facing ordinary problems, such as having a lesbian single mother who is struggling to pay her bills and is trying to get out of a bad relationship. Later is a classic coming-of-age novel, and it shows how each child is willing to see the good in everyone, and they only realise that this might not be the case until much later.

This word, later, is the most important one of the novel. Instead of simply telling the story from the point of view of a young boy, King’s narrator is that same boy looking back on these events years later, illustrating how hindsight can alter the way we see the world. Jamie is more experienced than before, and understands the world much better, as well as the emotional and financial struggles Jamie and his mother went through. This notion of growing up while confronting your biggest fears is a theme that Stephen King incorporates in his books quite often, such as in It, one of his most famous (and terrifying) novels.

Every Stephen King book is about the fight between good and evil, and Later is no exception. What’s surprising, however, is that in Later there are two types of evil. The first is fairly straightforward; a scary demon from another world, who is trying to kill Jamie. The second evil character, however, is much more terrifying: it is someone whom Jamie considered a friend. Part of growing up, therefore, is realising that the world is not as simple as it may once have looked; occasional drinking, for instance, may be a sign of something else. Furthermore, growing up also means becoming aware of your place in the world, and the space you allow others to take in it, especially those who have betrayed your trust.

Stephen King’s biggest advice to aspiring authors is to “write about what you know”. This seems very much the case in Later, as King himself was also raised by a single mother coping with financial worries. Later shows you how facing your inner demons, even though you’ve buried them deep inside of you for years, makes you understand more about yourself, and enables you to grow as a person. Might this novel, then, have been a way for Stephen King to come to terms with his own childhood? Does this typical King novel, filled with demons, evil deeds, and dead people (and a massive plot twist, which only confirmed how sometimes the things that are usually considered wrong are in fact not as bad as they seem), give its audience a rare insight into King’s own life? Or might this be my way of trying to read too much into it?

While one might argue that we understand authors better through their novels, I am sure that reading books helps us find meaning in our own lives. Later is no exception. So many things must have happened when I was a child that I didn’t fully understand. I might have eavesdropped on fights that I wasn’t supposed to have witnessed. Or I might have said things shouldn’t have said, or I was surprised by events that I should have seen coming. I bet I’m not alone in this. So here’s my advice to you: read Later, and remember that it helps to look back on your life and to talk about it. King needs horror to convey his message, but my way of dealing with difficult events may be completely different. I should try and find out which fictional elements I would add to the mix. I just might… Later.

What did you think of Later? Have you ever experienced something which you didn’t fully understand until you were older? Do let me know in the comments! Also make sure to follow me for more book musings!

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