December 18, 1992 at 05:00 AM EST

It’s an American ritual of sorts, as touching in its way as the breathy starlet who assures Jay Leno that what she really wants to do is play Chekhov. Having made more dough than L.L. Bean and the entire Maine lobster fishing industry combined, horror novelist Stephen King is turning serious. No more man-eating house pets, no vengeful rotary lawn mowers run amok in junior high schools, no skeletal hands reaching up out of deep-fat fryers to drag pubescent virgins to agonizing, high-cholesterol death.

Not this time out, anyway. Dolores Claiborne, a companion of sorts to Gerald’s Game — King’s 1992 tale of a woman’s ordeal after her husband handcuffs her to a bedpost, then inconsiderately dies — must be counted as what critics call a tour de force, a kind of show-off piece. The entire novel consists of a long, seamless, first-person monologue told to two local police officers and a stenographer by an aged, embittered, engagingly profane Maine housekeeper who is suspected of murdering her equally aged, highly unpleasant, moderately crazed, and very wealthy employer, ”Mrs. Kiss-My-Back-Cheeks Vera Donovan.”

Well, she didn’t do it, Dolores assures her silent (and very patient) listeners, although there were plenty of times when she wanted to, and she’s ”half-past give-a-shit” whether they believe her or not. ”No power in heaven or on earth,” she knows perfectly well, ”can stop people from thinkin the worst when they want to.” What she does want to confess and explain, however, is the crime everybody on Little Tall Island suspected her of doing 29 years earlier — murdering her no-good, drunken husband, Joe, during a total eclipse of the sun on July 20, 1963.

Despite the absence of poltergeists and a somewhat preachy emphasis on domestic violence and sexual abuse, King’s energetic tale manages to put on display a veritable museum exhibit of gothic conventions: two women alone in an isolated, storm-tossed house by the sea, sharing guilty secrets and tortured by nightmares that drive them to the edge of madness. All that and the author’s timelessly adolescent fascination with bodily functions, especially all matters excremental. (”It does have its funny side; shit always does. Ask any kid.”) So how can King go wrong? Viking has printed something like 1.5 million copies of Dolores Claiborne — a truly astonishing number. Chances are they’ll sell every one. B

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