It’s been a year since Stephen King’s “If It Bleeds” was published. Given his prolificacy, readers shouldn’t be surprised that another King novel is already available in stores now.

Cover courtesy of Hard Case Crime

What is pleasantly surprising is that “Later” is published by the mystery/suspense imprint Hard Case Crime. As well as reprinting classic or forgotten thrillers such as might have been found in a drugstore spinner rack four or five decades ago, Hard Case publishes original material, usually as a reasonably priced and sized paperback, with a retro cover illustration featuring a scantily clad model, actress or beachgoer. King has so far operated at his pulpy best when working with them.

Six-year-old Jamie Conklin can see dead people. Any resemblance between M. Night Shyamalan’s “The Sixth Sense” and King’s “Later” is made clear right from the start, as the twenty-ish New Yorker begins to narrate his life story thus far.

Jamie writes, “I’ll look back on what I thought I understood at twenty-two and realize there was a lot I didn’t get at all. There’s always a later. I know that now. At least until we die. Then I guess it’s all before that.”

The biggest difference in the initial plot set-up of “Later” is that the dead people Jamie sees aren’t particularly bothersome. They mostly hang around their place of death, dressed in whatever they happened to be wearing when they passed on. A few of them are scary, mutilated by premortem injuries, but most seem to accept passively that they will be moving on soon. If asked a direct question, the dead will answer totally truthfully, because they cannot tell a lie. And while most fade away after a few days, some hang around, some with malicious intent.

Jamie’s hard-working single mom doesn’t quite believe that her son can view visitors from the spirit world, until Jamie solves a vexing puzzle for the kindly widowed professor who lives in a nearby apartment. The boy is able to find two valuable rings squirreled away by the late Mrs. Burkett in a location unknown by anybody else.

Jamie’s mom, Tia Conklin, works for her Uncle Harry’s literary agency, but Uncle Harry is incapacitated by early-onset dementia. If that wasn’t bad enough, Harry allowed himself to be swindled by a pyramid scheme before he descended into mental illness.

Tia is dependent on her biggest client, Regis Thomas, who writes blockbuster bodice rippers set in the colonial Northeast. (Just the kind of commercial fiction that would appeal to Annie Wilkes from King’s “Misery.”) Good thing Tia has a lover, Liz Dutton, who happens to be a cop, to help out and take some of the pressure off. Jamie likes her most of the time, although he is uncomfortable when she insinuates herself into what he sees as family business.

“Later” is Stephen King’s third book for Hard Case Crime, and it fits well with the publisher’s ethos. With its unsolved mystery, “The Colorado Kid” was a befuddling exercise in uncertainty. “Joyland” expertly played with traveling carnival tropes to build a ghost story around an amusement park. “Later” gleefully uses many of the hardboiled narrative ploys for which King is famous.

How many times, though, have we read about psychic children since “The Shining”? How many struggling single moms have offered succor since “Hearts in Atlantis”? King strides boldly into the realm of clichés because he knows that they work, that he will have readers hooked within a handful of pages.

There are also strong echoes in “Later” of “IT” and “If It Bleeds.” No signs of callbacks to King’s humongous Dark Tower sequence, which is, frankly, a relief.

“Later” is a straight-ahead supernatural thriller, not overly ambitious but completely enjoyable. Most readers will be able to predict at least one or two plot twists, and that shouldn’t interfere with their enjoyment of the tale.

When Jamie and Liz track down a mad bomber known as Thumper, the narrative bumps up into a higher gear. Jamie is roughly educated in the darker side of life, not only by the recently passed, but by some people he considered allies. All the while he is watched by a malevolent entity perhaps not of this world.

The ending works well, although the author works hard to brush away some implausibilities. Jamie at 22 has learned some harsh lessons that can’t be pushed out of sight forever. He’s ready for whatever might happen sooner rather than later.

Fans of King won’t need to wait long for his next book. Slated for release in August, “Billy Summers” features a killer who targets only bad people. It sounds like a re-do of television’s “Dexter.” But as “Later” demonstrates, a familiar set-up can reap a compelling and unusual finish.

Berkeley writer Michael Berry is a Portsmouth, New Hampshire, native who has contributed to Salon, the San Francisco Chronicle, New Hampshire Magazine, the Los Angeles Review of Books and many other publications. He can be contacted at:

[email protected]

Twitter: mlberry


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