The Bottom Line: King has written about kids who see dead people before, but never quite like this.
With The Shining and select other stories, Stephen King practically invented what is now a subgenre of the paranormal thriller category centered around children’s ability to see dead people. In Later, he delivers a fresh take on the concept with a novel that manages to be suspenseful, fun and touching all at once.
Jamie Conklin, the son of a single literary agent, can see deceased people and interact with them in the hours and days after they die. To the highly intelligent nine-year-old, this ability is mostly a burden. Even his mother doesn’t believe him until a deceased neighbor tells him where to find her wedding rings and the facts check out. As is the convention for stories like this, adults can’t see what Jamie does.
But his gift becomes suddenly useful when Jamie’s mother suffers a series of financial catastrophes. In the financial meltdown of the great recession, his mother loses her money to a Ponzi scheme. Her disabled brother requires ever-increasing levels of care, which she is on the hook for. Then the IRS comes after her for back taxes. Finally, the last author who is a reliable money maker dies at his desk without completing his magnum opus.
Jamie’s mother pulls him out of school to rush him to the dead author’s home, where she hopes he can question the deceased about the novel he intended to write. Along for the ride is his mother’s lover, a cop who is immediately skeptical of Jamie’s abilities. At this point, the novel becomes a bit of a crime caper, with Jamie and the two adults in his life conspiring to create the unfinished novel and cash in big.
That would be enough for most novels, but it’s not even the beating heart of the book. Jamie’s life as an only child with a single mother is beautifully written, filled with uncomfortable moments and unimaginable tenderness. Once again, King proves that he only gets better with age. Later is easily one of King’s best novels of the past 20 years.
The novel’s only misstep may be in its book cover. Despite what the covert art would have you believe, Later is not a pulpy novel set decades ago. It actually starts during the Great Recession and moved forward from there.