Lisey’s Story — Stephen King

Ultimately, Lisey’s Story is an unmemorable foray into King’s trademark prose. While it’s certainly compelling, it doesn’t really stand up to some of his classic works like The Stand or to some of his more recent works like The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon. I mostly read it because I’m a pretty rabid King fan, and have a thing about reading everything by certain beloved authors.

Really, it’s this love that got me through. King takes some of his more awesome artistic conventions (like using parentheses to convey hidden layers of thought and inventing words) to a ridiculous extent. These tactics normally convey a crumbling world (like in the The Dark Tower series) or a mind slowly going off its hinge (The Shining). Here? They serve to jar the reader, and infantalize the narrator, Lisey Landon, the widow of the Puliltzer prize winning author, Scott Landon. Lisey, who’s now sitting on top of Scott’s papers, a massive uncatalogued archival trove that’s set academia all afrothing with desire, is the youngest of four girls, and not a college graduate, though Scott describes her as being clever enough when she’s not thinking about it. Scott met her as a struggling undergrad, when he was the “hotshot” writer invited to her campus, and bam! They fall in love and get married. She’s the Gal Pal to his academic godhood, traveling with him on book tours across the world, generally ignored by academics and the general public.

After Scott dies, one of the academics most interested in Scott’s papers sets a crazy assassin on her, and she’s got to follow the trail of bed crumbs Scott’s left her in order to escape the assassin’s evil clutches. King argues that “reality is Ralph,” the mysteries of love and the universe that create beautiful serendipity, but this really marked my first problem with the text. Even if this trail of crumbs is really about Amanda, Lisey’s sister who is gradually getting sucked into the same world Scott’s been drawing his inspiration from, and not the crazy man who wants to rape and kill Lisey, the idea of Scott as a sort of omniscient brat prince with a pure love for Lisey just never quite gelled for me.

Anyways, this same trail also works as a grieving trail for Lisey, since it’s by following this path that she encounters the depth of her husband’s love for her and some of the most troubling secrets of their marriage. The emotional depth of this journey should be enough to save the overall novel from mediocrity… but it doesn’t.

Scott’s big reveal is that he occasionally travels to Boo’ya Moon, an alternate world where the pool containing all the archetypes and dreams authors draw from is manifested. Boo’ya’s got some nasties living in it, like the long boy*, whose deadly attention is simultaneously wavering and implacable. Cool. Scott’s one of very few (this is genetic, I think?) who can access this place, even though Lisey can as well. Part of this makes sense in text — Lisey’s an extreme mother figure for Scott (since he is a Troubled Artist) so it’s one of the archetypes Scott so loves brought to (fictional) life. Of course she can consciously travel between worlds! She’s got to take care of Scott! Reality is Ralph! While this fits the theme of the novel (fiction/reality often blur, only in reality we really allow the benevolence of the universe to shine through), it also really shortchanges Lisey as a character. Everything in her life led her to Scott. Everything after is molded by him. While her sisters are important to her, it is Scott who allows her to save Amanda. He defines her, and because of this, only rarely does she leap out as a character in her own right, which is truly unfortunate since this is supposed to be her story.

*Dude, the long boy is also a really off-putting phallic symbol, what with the leprosy and the blindly-seeking-YOU scariness of it. The scenes with Boo’ya really do jump off the page, and are the moments where King’s mastery of ambience really shine through.


  1. Gategrrl says

    I’m a dyed in the wool King fan, too, and I’m slowly going through his post-accident fiction, but boy, it’s not easy. It’s not equivalent to people saying to Woody Allen, “Why don’t you make Funny movies anymore?” because King is doing the same sort of themes he was working on *before* his accident.

    Lisey’s Story…I read most of it, and flailed, and put it down, and picked it back up, and ultimately took it back to the library without being thoroughly read from cover to cover. I admit I read ahead so I’d get to the damned conclusion and find out what the hoary family secret was.

    I have read Duma Key, which is a much better book, I think – at least, it kept my attention through the entire book.

    With Lisey’s story, none of the characters popped out at me, and after how it had been publicized, it blindsided me with the weirdness and supernatural aspect, since this was supposed to be King’s foray into ‘serious love stories’. Well…yes, and no. It mostly hit me as a love story *about the man* and a woman so stricken she makes little impact on her own.

    I also didn’t “get” Lisey’s sister and don’t remember much if anything about her, other than she was a PITA to read about.

  2. says

    It mostly hit me as a love story *about the man* and a woman so stricken she makes little impact on her own.

    EXACTLY! Basically, Scott is this kooky, damaged, narcissitic nutjob who loves Lisey because she’s a nursemaid. Why the heck does she love him? Why does she give up her life to be subsumed into his? AND WHY IS THAT SURRENDUR OF SELF A VIRTUE? Seriously, I can’t see this as a coherant narrative w. switched genders. It’s only in m/f relationships that this erasure of self is considered a sign of the ultimate love.

    Amanda was okay. I mostly found the other sisters a trial. At times it felt a bit mysogynistic, since basically every female character except Lisey was full of crazy malice.

  3. Gategrrl says

    I guess I’m going to have to reread this, because I skimmed through or skipped the middle third of the book in order to reach the end and see what happened.

    It’s odd that King would write a story that seems mysoginistic, because most of the time, he’s written women like he’s got a secret radio wire into their heads, listening in sympathetically. So, I don’t *think* that his intention was to write a story featuring a female lead, yet make her ‘eaten up’ by the missing male lead (which is what Scott was). It’s unfortunate that’s the way the story reads. To me, it felt out of synch. I didn’t connect with the characters, I didn’t connect with what they were doing, or why.

  4. says

    I know, it struck me as odd too! The only thing I can think of is that this novel has a limited active cast, and that I think Lisey having a crazy family is supposed to be what makes her fall for Scott — he’s a bit odd but he’s not malicious like the Debusher sisters are. Unfortunately, the cast being so small means that there aren’t enough female characters to make it feel balanced, especially since with that small cast, King also includes a wider array of male characters spanning the spectrum.

  5. Jennifer Kesler says

    Um, I’ve heard a rumor that when best-selling authors can’t keep up with the demand for their work, sometimes the publishing companies have books ghost-written under their names.

    I heard this when people started complaining that Janet Ivanovich’s novels were sharply declining in quality – it came out that she wasn’t actually writing them, though some of the ideas were hers. This has been neatly whitewashed into a “collaboration” in her Wikipedia entry.

  6. Gategrrl says

    There were two years (1987, 1983, I believe) where King published *three* novels – none of them short ones, either, at one time. One or two of them were under his other pen name.

    Of course, during that period he was drinking and coked up – he’s said he doesn’t remember rewriting on “It”, for example – and he used to write 4K words daily, or something insane like that. These days, he’s admitted he’s lucky if he can crank out 1,ooo words a day. A lot of that has to do with his physical problems since his accident, of course.

    I guess if King *was* using a ghost writer (he’s not a stranger to collaboration) I would think he’d admit it, unless his contract with a publisher forbade another name on the cover for the duration of his current contract…hmm.

    Ivanovich is something else. I read her book called, “How I Write”, and although it was entertaining, I didn’t find much that was new or extraordinarily helpful. I have noticed *many* books with her name on the cover along with a second less well known writer, and fewer with only her name on it. I wouldn’t be surprised if she had burnout and needed the creative space.

  7. says

    Hmm. I assumed that he’d just had a backlog of work from when he’d said he was retiring but was probably still writing. It’s a lot easier to vomit up text, at least for me… the real work/art of writing is the editing, which is something he talks about a bit at the end of Lisey — apparrently without the efforts of his amazing copy editor, the book would have been even longer.

    Also, King’s always impressed me as an ethical writer. I’ve HEARD that if you take a creative writing class with him you have to sign a contract about not suing him for plagiarism or whatever, but I feel like he’s been good about saying when a work is a collaboration, or when he’s indebted to his wife for a particular idea. So until something actually comes out, I think it’d be safe to say this is just a disappointing entry into his canon. It sucks that he had such shite female chars in this time a round, but I wonder if that’s the difference between writing feminist works and being a feminist author — you fluctuate with producing one, being the other, or doing both at the same time.

  8. Gategrrl says

    I agree with you, Melpomene; he’s ALWAYS credited ideas, inspirations and all that – and is a very open writer with students (allowing film students to use his works for $1, as long as they don’t make money off their films). Everything about his professional behavior is…well, professional!

    And yes, a few of those multiple year publishings were books from his backlog, after he caught the book world on fire.

    He interviewed on TV and such for Lisey’s World, made a huge splash about it being “different” – although, I don’t see it really being different from his other books in theme. The only thing different was his vision and perhaps his ability to get across what he was trying to do.

  9. Jennifer Kesler says

    Just to clarify, the precise thing I heard about the ghost-writing was basically that Janet Ivanovich wasn’t writing her books anymore, they were ghost written, and that this was common practice when the publisher wants a book on the shelves by a certain date and the writer can’t accommodate. The writers are basically brands, not people. Slap a certain name on a book, and you have an instant best-seller, no matter what’s between the covers.

    My impression was that writers didn’t necessarily have much choice in the matter – if they were contracted to have a book written by a certain date, for example, or to put out X books in X years, and they couldn’t meet the contract requirement, that’s when the ghost writing would happen. It made sense to me, but again, it’s not something I can find confirmation on.

    And it may not apply here in any case. Just thought I’d mention it.

  10. says

    No worries! I know VC Andrews has been publishing books since she, um, died, because her name is one of those “instant bestseller” ones mentioned. Her ghostwriter was originally working with her old notes, but now, I think, they’re just going by potential markets etc.

  11. SunlessNick says

    I wonder if Lisey’s passivity/railroading might have its genesis in King’s period of paralysis; whether he was writing that kind of constraint into a character on a metaphysical level (and missing – nobody’s perfect – the gender element it would pick up in a female character).

  12. Gategrrl says

    That’s an angle I hadn’t thought of directly. He was still recovering, I think. (I don’t know his recovery timeline after his accident) but you’re right, it does seem to correspond to his physical restraints – and I’m sure mental constraints, as you said.

    I could be wrong, but Lisey was primarily a passive character, having things and people happen *to* her. She didn’t have much free-agency.

    King has gone into great detail about his writing method, which is, seat-of-the-pants. He generally starts with a character, or situation, asks “what ifs” questions and starts writing away. He would have been a great NaNoWriMo writer, had that existed when he was starting out. The *problem* with that method is that, sometimes, you have little control over your characters: they’re more or less expressions of the writer’s interior imagination.

    Mel pointed out that his editor had to make huge swaths of cuts – I think where King failed with Lisey is perhaps he simply didn’t have the energy or desire to do much rewriting on her story. Just a guess.

  13. says

    I guess I’m in the minority on this one because I really enjoyed the book. The thing that came through most for me was the grief and sense of loss Lisey felt. It’s the first time that I’ve had to confront what it would be like to lose my husband, and I found that part of it beautiful.

    Plus maybe this fits in the whole mother archetype, but Lisey came through as the practical one. She got things done and lived in the real world where Scott lived in the world in his head. (Just because it’s a King book and that world has a physical/paranormal existance doesn’t change the parallel to what King must carry around in his head.)

  14. Gategrrl says

    Oh heck, it’s a Stephen King book, so sure, there are lots of people who will like his stories. Lisey’s Story isn’t without merit – to me, it was just a puzzlement about what he was trying to *do* exactly. I don’t have time to reread it at the moment (I’m reading some Joe Hill fiction, Joe Hill being King’s son and a terrific writer like his dad) but when I do I’ll probably make some comments about what I *did * like about it.

    It’s just that on the first and second read-through, it didn’t capture my imagination like many of his other books, which is frustrating, since I’m a total King fan.

  15. Wendy says

    I loved this book!!! It’s SO different from his other works and I love psychological thrillers. I think the reason Scott “ate up” Lisey’s character was becuase he was her world..Scott WAS Lisey’s story. He was her other half, they had a deep love that was tainted with insanity. The long boy is a great personification of insanity and madness. To a person who has lived with someone running from their own “long boy” (ie: an ex-spouse who is bipolar Lev 1/schitzo), this book was touching. Too bad my ex didn’t do the whole “Boo’ya Moon” thing..

  16. Maria says

    Scott WAS Lisey’s story.

    Haha we’ll clearly have to agree to disagree. You seem to be saying that it’s okay to reduce someone to a discrete period of years and experiences, all defined in relation to one person, whereas what I’m saying is that that’s problematic and shitty writing. I think putting all of Lisey’s life (her childhood, her struggles in college, that delicious reference to class conflict, her issues with her sisters) in reference to her husband reduced her to a foil to a Great Man. Yeah, in this narrative Scott was Lisey’s story. Why didn’t she get her own?

    Lisey actually made me think of another of King’s heroines — Bobbi Anderson from Tommyknockers. Like Lisey, Bobbi’s got a crazy family who don’t validate her academic or professional ambitions. Her sister ends up being a crucial part of the plot. But, unlike Lisey, Bobbi exists as a character in her own right. The major plot points of Tommyknockers aren’t ushered in by another character, and even though Bobbi was manipulated by the aliens, she emerges as an agent in her own right. Lisey doesn’t. I mean, heck, SK didn’t even use 3rd person limited for Lisey’s story — he used 3rd person omniscient, so Lisey isn’t even really the narrator, she’s just an object under observation.

  17. Izzy says

    I liked it too, but…

    Honestly? The fact that Scott was Lisey’s “world” and her “other half” and so on…is the problem.

    I have a lot of people I love. But the world–even my world–is bigger than they are, and I’m complete by myself, and frankly I’m a little skeeved out by people who aren’t. Or who base their entire worlds around some other person.

    My boyfriend is not my story. And I’m not his: if he said I was, it would creep me the fuck out.

  18. Wendy says

    I’m not saying it’s ok to reduce someone’s life to a period of years, nor am I saying that having someone else be your “whole life” is a good thing.

    Perhaps he should have called the book “Some of Lisey’s Story”. :). I don’t think it was meant to portray her ENTIRE life, just a really crazy and important piece of it. It IS SK, after all..

    I mean, if there WERE such a place as “Boo’ya Moon” and you or I had the experiences Lisey had, I think it might be safe to say that’s pretty far from the normal daily routine (even with crazy sisters, etc). It’s worthy of being on top of the list of things you’d remember in life as part of YOUR story, even if your spouse was the center of it all.

    Yes, the writing is a little off. Yes, there were parts here and there that I skimmed through because there really was a “Scott overkill”. I agree with what Maria says about the layout, the writing, ect. I wholeheartedly agree with Izzy about not having one person be your whole life!

    The reason I liked it so much was for the story! For Lisey, going through that particular time in her life turned out to be life altering for her emotionally. Through “Boo’ya Moon” and her memories of the last 25 years with Scott, she had the courage to get rid of Zack/Dooley/Doolin. His insanity from one hell of a messed up childhood, including inherited mental illness (thus resulting into the fictional supernatural manifestation of Boo’ya Moon), affected HER life!

    She was stronger becuase of it. Didn’t take shit from nobody. Yes, it left you with wanting more of her story, but that part of it -her life – was pretty good.

    • Maria says

      But there are BETTER WRITTEN WORKS out there. The point of this site is to search out and promote works featuring well written female characters and to call out the ways in which crap ones are crap. Lisey wasn’t a well written female character, which sucks because that’s ostensibly HER story.

      And let’s not even get into the FAIL moments of characterization/world-building. Soooo Scott’s insanity is such that he’s a world explorer, and Lisey’s sister is trapped by the ocean of the dead? Gendered understandings of mental illness much?

  19. says

    Wendy, in the comments guideline, it mentions that this is not a fan site, it’s a site for critical analysis, and we often find ourselves saying negative things about shows/movies/books we love.

    It’s absolutely fine to love the story, but just because you love it doesn’t mean it’s not problematic. And just because it’s problematic doesn’t mean no one should love it.

    So we do get what you’re saying, but I’m not sure you get the difference between criticizing something thoughtfully and suggesting that it sucks and people shouldn’t like it. We don’t do the latter. 😉

  20. says

    On reading the more recent comments, it does occur to me *how often* King uses a female character who has a nutty crazy bat-shit sister who tears the main female character down. In contrast, the male character rarely have siblings, or if they do (as in “It”) it’s a sympathetic, loved brother-rarely a sister.

    This is worth an article unto itself. But I didn’t know if anyone else had noticed the pattern. Maria, I bet you have.

    • Maria says

      It’s one of his favorite tropes, I think… tho I will say that it depends on whether it’s his adult female characters or one of his (ocassional) young ones. Like, what’s her face in *The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon* has a bratty older brother, and a pretty awesome same-age girlfriend. But, I think that example might stick out to me because it’s so rare in his work.

  21. Maria says

    What I think is more troubling is that the kid who needs saving/rescuing is almost invariably a boy/son figure. Only in Firestarter or The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon is it a beloved daughter. In the other books (It, Rose Madder, Gerald’s Game, the short stories in Nightmare and Dreamscape, etc) daughters get a pretty short stick.

    ETA: I like that they so often save themselves — what I don’t like is that they don’t appear to be worthy of a narrator wanting to save/protect them unless it’s complicated by sexual desire.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *