The advice that a writer should “kill all your darlings” has been variously attributed. William Faulkner, Allan Ginsberg, Oscar Wilde, GK Chesterton and Arthur Quiller-Couch all get a look-in. Stephen King approved the accepted wisdom in his book On Writing. “Kill your darlings, kill your darlings,” he said with the relish one would hope for from a master of horror. “Even when it breaks your egocentric little scribbler’s heart, kill your darlings.”
It’s easier said than done, though, a point proved by this new adaptation by King himself of his 2006 bestseller Lisey’s Story, for Apple TV+. Not a single thing – no matter how confusing, untelevisual or minor – has been left out of the 528-page novel, the tale of a wildly successful novelist whose mysterious healing powers apparently cannot save him from an assassin’s bullet and whose archive is left under the control of his grieving widow. It grew out of King’s experience of coming home after a long hospital stay (he was hit by a truck and nearly killed in 1999) to find that his wife had redesigned his studio and put all his papers away in boxes, as if he were already dead. He has always said it is the book most personal and precious to him. Thus, we may infer, no darlings were killed in the making of this eight-hour adaptation.
Julianne Moore stars as Lisey and it is she along with Joan Allen and Jennifer Jason Leigh as respectively her sisters Amanda (a mentally fragile individual slipping into catatonia) and Darla, who make the series in any way watchable. Mining the depths of rage and sorrow are what Moore does best (though her comic abilities go too often unremarked) but she gets little scope for doing so here because we spend so much time flashing backwards and forwards. We are taken into and out of her dreams of her dead husband Scott Landon (Clive Owen, slightly more convincing than usual) so often that there is hardly a chance for her to miss him at all.
Any hallucination-free moments she does have are spent battling Professor Dashiel (Ron Cephas Jones), who is desperate to comb Landon’s archive for precious unpublished manuscripts. This becomes a much bloodier battle when he enlists Jim Dooley (Dane DeHaan, managing to create some of the few chilling moments as a superfan teetering on the edge of madness) to help “persuade” her.
The series is overstuffed and airless. We move through a thick paste of schlocky supernatural suggestion, false memories, monsters, real memories more terrible than the monsters that stand in for them, repression and embarrassing intrusions of authorial ego. (“There has never been a writer who has so seamlessly blended the realistic and the fantastic,” announces Prof Dashiel in the opening scenes.)
On top of that we must wade through grandiose ideas and themes: a pool with life-giving properties; self-mutilation; abusive childhoods; family stains and all the secretiveness and psychic malformation that follow. There is also, for some reason, an alternative realm to which some characters have learned to retreat (and occasionally forget they can do so).
Add a relentlessly repetitive narrative structure, and the show is left with precious little space to let dread build, to make the scary things scary and the emotional things moving. Let alone time to explore the highways and byways of grief and how far the human heart will go to try and escape it. If you don’t mentally tap out before the second hour is up – well, good for you … and are you Stephen King?