In the book, Edgar Freemantle, a retired building company owner from Minnesota, gives an account of a chain of events that formed the strangest year in his life. Freemantle tells the story of events that took place four years ago on the little Floridan island, Duma Key. The prelude to this, happening some months before, occurs when Edgar is almost crushed to death in an accident with a crane. During the process, he loses his right arm, damages his hip, and suffers from loss of vocabulary and memory, and becomes prone to intense and violent fits of anger, especially when his injuries are causing him trouble.
After the accident, Edgar's wife, Pam, leaves him after he hurts her during his mood swings, and the depressed Edgar is playing with thoughts of suicide. His psychologist, Dr. Kamen, advises him to try and settle down somewhere new for a year and cultivate his old hobby of sketching.
After browsing brochures Edgar feels strangely drawn to the island Duma Key, and with the help of Jack Cantori, a local college student, he moves into a rented house named Salmon Point (which Edgar nicknames "Big Pink"). As part of his healing process, Edgar starts drawing pencil-sketches and taking walks on the island, during which he meets and befriends Jerome Wireman, a former lawyer and the caretaker and hired companion of Elizabeth Eastlake, the old woman who owns all the houses on Duma Key and suffers from Alzheimer's disease.
As his painting progresses, Edgar starts feeling weird itchy sensations in his missing arm, and discovers that this is giving him the ability to make some really good, but also very spooky paintings, some of which appear to be windows into the past, while others can outright warp reality and initiate life. But is it really Edgar himself who is the mind behind these paintings, or is it something else? Something sinister? And could it somehow be related to the rumors about the terrible things that happened on Duma Key in the 1920s? And just who is the feminine figure in the red cloak who appears on Edgar's paintings?
This novel contains examples of
- The Alcoholic: Local art critic Mary Ire likes her whiskey.
- An Arm and a Leg: Edgar loses his right arm in the accident.
- Arc Words: "La Lotteria"; "I can do this"; "It was RED"; "I win, you win."
- Art Attacker: Perse and Edgar both. Edgar uses a painting to kill Candy Brown, but Perse's possession of Edgar while he creates the paintings allows her to kill Ilse.
- As Long as There Is Evil: Perse can not be killed, only weakened for a period, but Edgar is making damn sure that it will take her a while to return.
- Asshole Victim: Candy Brown, who murdered and raped a young girl, is killed by one of Edgar's paintings.
- Blackface: Played for Horror, at least initially. One of the first of Elizabeth's creations that Perse employs against Edgar, Wireman, and Jack is a pitch-black man with big red lips who moves in a weirdly stiff manner, which manages to initially scare the crap out of all three of them. It turns out that it is based on Elizabeth's father's lawn jockey figurine, which she was afraid of as a child. Once they realize that the creature, aside from his scary looks, cannot physically harm them and is effectively little more than a glorified scarecrow, the trio cannot help but find the situation rather funny, mostly because of the political incorrectness of the figurine, turning the shock into somewhat of an In-Universe example of Narm for them.
- Bungled Suicide: After his wife and his daughter died, Wireman shot himself in the head, but survived. The bullet remained lodged in his brain for a while after, giving Wireman some form of foresight (probably though the influence of Perse). One of Edgar's paintings removes the bullet.
- Chekhov's Gun: The harpoon gun. The first time it's mentioned, it flies right by you.
- Chekhov's Gift: The picture Edgar signed for Ilse. Or curse, as the case may be.
- Chekhov's Hobby: Jack's ventriloquism talents.
- Chekov's Legend: Miss Eastlake's own art talents.
- Closer to Earth: Nan Melda in the past, Wireman in the present.
- Creepy Child: Elizabeth is implied to have been one.
- Creepy Doll: Reba and her "sisters". Perse's physical manifestation also counts.
- Eldritch Location: The Eastlakes' first house, abandoned after the Perse incidents. Spooky apparitions and giant frogs!
- Everything Sounds Sexier in French: Linnie's boyfriend Ric.
- Evil Hand: It is more of a Supernatural Hand, but when you think about who is tapping into its powers from the shadows.
- The Final Temptation: After everything is done and Perse has been mostly dealt with, she channels the last of her energy and creates a sand-Ilse in order to negotiate with Edgar: to release her and get his daughter back. He refuses.
- Foreshadowing: Elizabeth, via her Alzheimers, is channeling...something...and what seem to be senile comments often turn out to be quite useful.
- "My father was a skindiver", the picnic basket in the attic, and the china dolls in the koi pond are among the most obvious. Some of her last words to Wireman also turned out to be helpful: The table is leaking", "Drown her back to sleep", "You will want to but you mustn't".
- Hiding Behind Religion: Ilse's boyfriend is devoutly Baptist and sings in a religious music group, but he still cheats on Ilse with the girl he sings with.
- Hope Spot: Edgar thinks he has saved his daughter, Ilse, from Perse...until he sees the tennis-balls floating ashore on the beach.
- Ironic Echo: "I win, you win" on Ilse's childhood dress. Then Edgar says these words to Perse after Ilse is killed.
- Kill the Cutie: Ilse. Oh dear God, Ilse.
- Judging by her last conversation with her father, also qualifies as Break the Cutie first.
- Last-Name Basis: Edgar calls Wireman by his last name.
- Life Will Kill You: Wireman survives the encounter with Perse, only to die of a heart attack a few months later.
- Mad Artist: Edgar is not one by nature. But he suddenly is one when Perse is manipulating him.
- Nice Job Breaking It, Hero: In the middle of cheering on Edgar and Co. after defeating Perse, one must remember that it was Edgar's paintings that unleashed Perse in the first place.
- Our Zombies Are Different: Emery, Adie, and the twins certainly count.
- Parental Favoritism: Ilse is Edgar's preferred child, and Elizabeth was sort of always vying for her father's love.
- Red and Black and Evil All Over: Perse wears a red robe and has black...hair?
- Sealed Evil in a Can: Perse, quite literally by the end of it. The protagonists know she is gonna return eventually but make sure to make it as difficult as they can for her.
- Silver Bullet: Oh, alright, it actually is a Silver Harpoon, but you get the point.
- Socialite: Elizabeth, in her youth, as well as Mary Ire.
- Spooky Painting: Several of them, by Edgar.
- Stringy-Haired Ghost Girl: The twins, Tessie and Lo-Lo.
- Uncanny Valley Girl: Perse is described as beautiful in her doll form, up until the moment one realizes she has a hidden third eye under the bangs. Later, she attacks Edgar, and it is implied she also has an unnerving set of razor-teeth and claws.
- You Should Have Died Instead: After Ilse Freemantle is murdered, Pam lets Edgar know that he should have died in the accident, which, to her at least, would have been a "happy ending".