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Why Lisey's Story is one of Stephen King's most important novels
I've been a Stephen King fan for more than half my life now, starting when I was 15 and convinced my dad to take me to a used bookstore so I could mine for decent hardcover copies of The Stand and Pet Sematary. There is something I've noticed in all that time as a Constant Reader of the Master of Horror's many, many works.
Stephen King books are weird.
It's something that's perhaps lost in the overall public consciousness when discussing King's work, in part because he is so associated with popular culture and mass media at this point that it's hard to detach any element of his work from "mainstream" fiction, whatever that means. But when I talk to other Constant Readers, whether we're talking about a new King work we've just read or a new King adaptation that didn't quite get things right, we talk about the weirdness. Because while the plots of King's most famous works may feel steadfastly mainstream, the deeper recesses of his fiction carry with them a spellbinding reliance on intuition, magical thinking, and dreamy logic. King novels are full of made-up words, strange abilities, and characters who traffic more in emotion than they do in pragmatism, and while the monsters carry the mass appeal, the weirdness behind them is what lingers in your heart.
This is why Lisey's Story is special.
King himself has called the 2006 Bram Stoker Award-winning novel his favorite among his works, and while I'm personally not sure I can rank it above The Stand on my list of favorites, it's definitely my most-loved book among his 21st-century work. King prizes the novel above other career triumphs in part because it's a deeply personal story, a meditation on his own mortality and the love he shares with his wife, and an exploration of his relationship with his own dark imagination. As readers, we know this because he's told us in interviews, and we can also feel it radiating off the page like the warmth of a loved one in bed beside us. But, the personal connection to the narrative isn't the only reason Lisey's Story stands as one of King's best works. Lisey's Story is so good, and so important, in the King canon because, perhaps more than any other novel he's ever written, it's the book that indulgences that intuitive, emotional weirdness that permeates his work. So, ahead of the debut of the Apple TV+ miniseries adaptation of the novel, scripted by King himself, let's get a little weird with Lisey's Story.
THE STORY BEHIND LISEY'S STORY
Lisey's Story began, as King tells it, with a particularly nasty bout of pneumonia that put him in the hospital and almost killed him around the turn of the century. When he got home, his wife Tabitha had undertaken a deep cleaning of his office, and seeing his writing space in such disarray made him imagine that he actually hadn't survived, that he was a ghost watching his wife pack up his things and put them away.
This brush with death, and the preceding one in 1999 when King was struck and critically injured by a van while walking near his home in Maine, opened a door to a particular corner of King's imagination. He began thinking not just in terms of a story about the legacy of a dead writer, but a story about that writer's wife picking up the pieces of their marriage in the wake of losing him, and the meaning behind the story she could make for herself.
So, King's novel begins as Lisey (pronounced "lee-see") Landon, widowed wife of award-winning novelist Scott Landon, begins to finally dig deep into the task of cleaning out the study he left behind two years earlier. As she digs deep into Scott's belongings, objects conjure memories of the life they had together, the events that shaped them and built the emotional landscape of their marriage, but it's not just a journey of memories. As she struggles to deal with a bout of mental illness gripping her own sister, and faces the increasingly unhinged approaches of a deranged Scott Landon fan, Lisey also discovers that Scott left something more behind for her, a kind of treasure hunt that will get to the heart not only of the darkness that was inside him, but to a strength and a magic she didn't know she had inside herself.
Longtime Stephen King readers will know that he's a writer who loves trafficking in the idea of other worlds than these, whether we're talking about the vast expanse of Mid-World laid out by his Dark Tower mythos or the Territories of The Talisman. With Lisey's Story, King once again moves in the direction of another dimensional plane for his characters to traverse, in a very specific way.
As Lisey digs back through the memories of her marriage, looking for clues to unravel the message Scott is hoping to relay from beyond the grave, she uncovers the existence (which she'd at least partially repressed) of a realm Scott himself dubbed "Boo'ya Moon," a mysterious place that feels almost like a fairyland tucked in its own little pocket of existence, with all the requisite magic and dangers therein. Its existence, at least as far as Scott and Lisey's history goes, is tied inextricably to Scott's own traumatic childhood and the loss of his brother, his preternaturally quick sense of healing, and his ability to disappear from our plane and come back loaded down with visions and stories that he translates into his books. Though it begins the novel as something tied directly to Scott and his many gifts, Lisey learns over the course of the story that she too has a role to play in Boo'ya Moon, one that's tied both to her marriage and to her own inner gifts.
If all of this sounds a little incomplete to you, it's because I'm hesitant to reveal much more about even some of the more foundational aspects of Lisey's Story. Some of it's selfishness on my part, as I want more people to read the book (and watch the series, which I've seen half of so far and rather enjoyed), but some of it is because it's very hard to talk about much of this novel, at least for me, in literalized, chronological story terms. Lisey's Story, as a work, isn't necessarily concerned with chronology in the same way some of King's other stories are, nor it is always concerned with literalism in the sense that, say, a book like 'Salem's Lot or Pet Sematary is. It's a suspenseful, even frightening novel like those other books, to be sure, but it's also a deeper exploration of the nature of imagination, and the various dangers and rewards lurking within it.
Throughout Lisey and Scott's journey together, Scott refers frequently to "the pool where we all go down to drink," a reference to both a physical space within Boo'ya Moon and to his own relationship to words, language, and stories. It's a wellspring for him, a vast and nourishing space where — if he can brave the other parts of the journey that take him there, at least — he finds healing waters in both a literal and allegorical sense. It's a restorative, magical place, but it also carries a dangerous allure, a sense that slipping away from reality permanently might not be such a bad idea. It's dark, deep, and somehow simultaneously unknowable and deeply familiar. It's an extremely potent, extremely personal, metaphor for King's own journeys into imaginative realms, which are apparently as real to him as any physical space he can walk through in our world.
It's this pool, and the meaning built up around it for both Lisey and Scott, that forms the central, intuitive strangeness beating at the heart of Lisey's Story, and the thing that I think makes it a masterpiece in the King bibliography. It's a love story, a suspense story, and a family story, but it's also something else. Not a story about stories, but a story about storytelling and the often mysterious ways that the words get out onto the page. Like falling in love, it's a chemical reaction, an instinctual flex of muscles we can't see but can feel, which makes it extraordinarily hard to articulate even in nonfiction, let alone in a deeply emotional fictional storyscape. Lisey's Story does it, which makes it both a profoundly weird and profoundly special work.
Lisey's Story premieres June 4 on Apple TV+.