Stephen King's latest book is about a battered wife trying to escape her evil husband; is your heart sinking yet? King has been barking up this particular tree and pulping it into best-sellers for quite a while now, with diminishing creative returns. Rose Madder is the fourth consecutive novel in which he has fixed upon abusive men and abused women, and its plot, in which a very good person is chased by a very bad person for upwards of 400 pages, is so earnest and unshaded that at times the book King's 35th seems an act of atonement for the dark, sinister pleasures his earlier work had to offer.
Like a man determined to put away childish things, King wants to show us that no vampire, poltergeist, or sewer-dwelling demon can be as frightening as the monster next door in this case, Norman Daniels, an insane, sadistic policeman with ''arms like meat pendulums'' and ''eyes as expressionless as shards of glass.'' Norman brutalizes wife Rosie for 14 years; in the novel's unsparing prologue, he pummels her into a miscarriage. Rose Madder essentially begins on the day Rosie flees with nothing but an ATM card and a desire for a better life, which she finds in a city far away, along with a good job, a helpful support group, a kind boyfriend, and self-esteem. Cut to Norman, determined to hunt her down. Cut back to Rosie, happy at last. Cut back to Norman, hot on her trail. And so on.
Working in the narrative equivalent ofextreme close-up, King marshals his considerable skill to take us under Rosie's skin we know what sounds frighten her, what thoughts haunt her as she walks alone, even what commercial jingles and snatches of old songs run free-associatively through her head. It's a portrait that's minutely detailed without being very illuminating. But in Rose Madder, nothing else quite works either. The pop-culture incantations that are King's signature become ticishly repetitive. (Maurice Sendak's ''I'm really Rosie, and I'm Rosie Real'' chirps across Rosie's subconscious so many times you begin to wonder if she's a few records shy of a full jukebox.) The stalker-film structure of the story dampens its suspense. And the filth-coated spewings of the evil Norman are not frightening, just repulsive.
When did Stephen King's books stop being scary? I suspect that he reacts to readers who ask that question the way Woody Allen reacts to critics who wish he'd go back to making funny movies. But I miss the accomplished stories King told when he didn't mind playing dirty. He is, after all, the writer who turned a loving husband and father into a terrifying psychotic in The Shining, who showed a parent driven to acts of madness by his child's death in the superb Frankenstein riff Pet Sematary, and who, in his very first novel, Carrie, created a sympathetic teenage annihilator. The horror in those novels springs from the ease with which evil can take hold of (or masquerade as) decent people.
Rose Madder offers no such seductive ambiguity. King can't have any fun with Norman, so he's presented as a murderous hate machine, as devoid of subtlety as an onrushing truck. And although King expends plenty of effort coaxing Rosie's self-respect and dignity from its slumber, she remains an oddly passive participant in her fate. When it's time for her to take her life in her own hands, here's what King has her do: She steps through an oil painting of a toga-clad woman warrior into another world, where she has some sort of empowering experience involving a feminist goddess, a maze, a magical stream, and something called the Temple of the Bull. Temple of bull, indeed. In the context of a novel that means to explore the psychology of a beaten woman, the random imposition of a supernatural gimmick especially a wan, fairy-tale-ish conceit that's about as convincing as a CD-ROM game constitutes a rather stunning cop-out. On either side of the looking glass, Rose Madder ends up as something extremely rare in King's mammoth oeuvre: a cheat. C-