Bag of Bones by Stephen King

(8.9/10) The father, the daughter and the unholy ghost

I have been rediscovering Stephen King over the past few years, and often I find I appreciate his books even more as an adult with a bit of reading and life experience, than I did when I first ran across them as a teenager. This is particularly true of Bag of Bones, which I do remember enjoying, but which didn’t make half as much impression on me back then as the likes of It or Salem’s Lot. Oddly enough though, when Mrs. Dark and I began our cooperative rummage through said bony bag; one of her favourites, I not only found the memories flooding back, but also found myself enjoying the book rather more this time around.

Everything stopped for Mike Noonan the day his wife; Johana, died. Previously he’d been a successful writer with a few million in the bank, an active social calendar, and a second home up on a beautiful dark score lake in Maine, the old wooden house Sara Laughs. Jo’s death seemed to take everything with it; even Mike’s ability to write. Led by a series of disturbing dreams, Mike moves back to Maine, hoping that a change of scene might jump start his creativity. Yet, getting embroiled in a child custody battle between young mother Matty Devore and her villainous father in law is not the strangest thing in store for Mike, since Sara laughs is the gateway to secrets upon secrets and the home of unquiet spirits. Soon, Mike will find himself uncovering a century old atrocity and confronting a spirit bent on revenge, as lives hang in the balance, and even his wife Jo might prove to have had her own mysteries.

One reason why I suspect that Bag of Bones made slightly less impact upon me than some of King’s other work, is that much of Mike’s grief, and indeed his marriage as a whole is written with such a sense of reality. Though I certainly felt sorry for Mike, there was no way that I, as a seventeen year old who hadn’t even had a girlfriend let alone been married and shared his life completely with someone, could fully appreciate either what Mike was going through, or the way King depicts it. Now of course, especially reading the book with my lady, not only Mike’s visceral and gut wrenching sense of grief, but also the relationship he had with Jo was something I found profoundly moving. Indeed, one thing which King does especially well, is paint Jo as a very real person, from her slightly ribald sense of humour, to her scatter-brained creativity, something which also serves well when Mike starts having run-ins with ghostly influences later on.

Unfortunately, well described grief and character portraits can only go so far, and this is one occasion where the common criticism of King having “diarrhoea of the word processor”, (as King himself so elegantly puts it), seems to have at least a little justification. Despite a cameo from Insomnia’s Ralph Roberts, there is no denying the first third of the book, a full six hours of its eighteen hour running time, is more than a little slow. This is not just because, as in The Stand King prefers to tantalise with dreams and visions before we get into the really spooky stuff, but also because really colourful characters or much by way of plot momentum just seem to be on hold; even accepting Mike’s numbing sense of grief.

Another reason the first third of the book dragged a little, was Mike himself. Told in the first person, whilst Mike is mostly a likable character, (especially concerning his feelings for Jo), some aspects of his personality did rather grate. In particular, his complaints about only being at number 15 on the bestseller list and just having “a few million dollars”, did not make him particularly pleasant company, indeed, it is probably only a millionaire writer like Stephen King that would regard Mike’s assessment of his financial situation and life style as “comfortable”, as opposed to literally rich. Not that wealth itself is an inherent negative character trait, but likely most readers won’t be too sympathetic to lifestyle complaints from a man with two houses and a permanent caretaker who has no financial problems to worry about at all.

Mostly, Mike’s belly aching cuts off when he gets to Maine and meets the vivacious Matty Devore and her daughter Kyra, though even here, when making assumptions about Matty based on where she lives, and that she (shock horror), buys clothes from a supermarket; you know, so common, Mike comes across as more than a little snobbish.

Fortunately, Kyra and Matty inject a little verve and much needed humour into the story right when you need it, and also give Mike both a chance to be a nice guy, and face an interesting moral dilemma. Indeed, the sensitive way King handle’s the attraction of the forty year old Mike for the twenty one year old Matty, who is attracted right back, and the dilemma Mike feels about getting together with a woman young enough to be his daughter is a refreshingly nuanced idea.

Kyra, and to a lesser extent Matty are painted a little idealistically, with King’s detailed hand ever ready to point out cute little foibles of personality or bright little figments of cuteness. Yet, for the most part King stays the right side of cliché, indeed the only times for me he crossed the cookie cutter line a little too far were the occasions when other characters told us how wonderful Matty and Kyra were, though equally I admit as someone who doesn’t particularly have a fondness for children, especially very small children, I possibly am in the wrong position to judge realism here, plus of course, as with much in Bag of Bones there is always the question of psychic influences at work, bringing Mike and Matty together.

Of course, the best of Bag of Bones are the two convergent plotlines concerning the haunting of Sara Laughs, and Matty’s custody battle with Kyra’s grandfather, plots which intercept in a particularly fascinating way. As with Castle Rock in Needful Things, Chester’s Mill in Under the Dome or Haven in The Tommyknockers, King again depicts a small, insular community in Maine, and uses the small town atmosphere as a direct element in the plot, both in terms of people’s condemnation of Matty (and in fact Mike), and in a more overt, psychic sense. Again, to what extent this reflects actual communities in Maine I don’t know, but there’s no denying King is a past master at this sort of atmosphere, in particular getting the balance just right between welcoming American folksiness, and a conservative, witch hunt mentality which looks after its own and is ready to condemn those it perceives as outsiders. Yet, even here King is able to make so many of the supporting players real individuals, indeed, just as in It, one interesting thing when we eventually do find out about past crimes, is how those who committed them relate to people in the present, and how those in the present react to what is actually going on.

Of course, as a Stephen King novel, the supernatural elements are out in force and here King certainly doesn’t disappoint. Though a profoundly different story, the way King handled the ghostly goings on here reminded me strongly of Sherly Jackson’s Hill house. Like Jackson, King doesn’t pussy foot around, letting us wonder if this noise or that shadow might or might not be a ghost. From erotic and disturbing dreams, to ghostly knocking and even alphabet fridge magnets used as a Ouija board, King’s ghosts are all too real. However, neither does King fall into the trap that some horror or urban fantasy writers fall into and make his ghosts so commonplace and knowable they cease to be mysterious, indeed, I can only admire the balance of mystery and blatant phenomena here, the mix of unconscious influences and overt hauntings.

Neither are all of King’s threats metaphysical. In particular, one wonderfully bizarre sequence in which Kyra’s 85 year old grandfather, and his loathsome female underling attempt to first warn Mike off his daughter in law’s business, then attempt to kill him has a surreal sense of the bizarre that is quintessentially King. Even during what should by rights be less than interesting legal hearings, King is still able to keep the focus going. Maybe it’s the thrumming of the ghostly influences in the background, maybe it’s that anyone will identify with a young mother fearing to lose her child to a villainous old billionaire, maybe it’s just that King, and indeed Mike Noonan, now have a goal and purpose, but either way, as draggy as the first third was, the last two thirds certainly picked up speed, even if often the direction wasn’t always clear.

My only minor gripe in terms of this later section, is a recurring idea King introduces (one Mike remembers from a feminist man hating pamphlet), that during sex all men want to hear the phrase “do what you want”, i.e., that men just want their partner to be an extension of their own desires. This seems to directly contradict Mike’s own relationship with Jo shown in the book, and indeed a lot of Mike as a character, and didn’t sit well with me. Then again, I genuinely don’t know whether this idea was supposed to be Mike’s questioning of his own feelings given the extreme age gap between him and Matty, or indeed whether they were part of the overall psychic influence Mike was under, still I do wish the motif hadn’t occurred so often, especially when Mike and Matty’s feelings for each other become clear.

The book does rise to a climax, even though that climax occurs through unexpected turns and building overall tension, rather than plot threads pulling together, albeit when you’ve read the book more than once, it’s possible to guess at the significance of certain events, sequences and feelings Mike has and see where several pieces fit into the puzzle. Indeed, whilst King does fall slightly into the trap of only having 50 percent of the mystery solved by the time you get the big psychic revelation, the sheer atmospheric brilliance of that revelation, and those before it definitely makes up for any loss of timing, since the mystery itself and the revelations are so earth shattering.

King has always had a knack for grossness, sometimes appropriate, sometimes not, but here he employs it in a truly horrific revelation, one of the nastiest scenes he’s ever written. Yet, what is fascinating is King only has the revelation of that crime occur when he’s already shown the consequence of a hate filled spirit seeking revenge for that crime, indeed in an era when justified condemnation of sexual or racial crimes all too frequently turns into universal rage against the perceived majority, King’s story about how two wrongs, two especially disgusting, inhuman wrongs do not make a right, and just how much unfocused hatred can literally twist someone out of true seems all the more worth remembering.

Whilst the book’s ending isn’t entirely a “happily ever after”, it does at least provide the right amount of closure for its characters, and its plot, albeit my lady and I were a little sad that though some ghosts get laid to rest (figuratively and literally), not all do. My only minor issue in the ending, was an incredibly self-referential dialogue Mike has, about why he’s giving up his writing career, and the debt owed to characters by their authors.

Both for King, a writer who is in his seventies, and is still slaughtering characters merrily, and for Mike, who apparently had a beloved readership (despite his complaints), this decision just seemed wrong, particularly given what happened to some characters in the ending thanks to the author Stephen King, whose hand, and indeed thought process was rather too close to the surface here.

Bag of Bones has been called one of King’s most literary works. I can’t say whether this is true, but it is certainly one of his most subtle. In some places, the subtlety, self-referential dialogues and lack of momentum can slow matters down a little too much. In most aspects however the subtlety was just right, giving you matters to ponder, and yet enough thrills and colourful characters to keep you interested.

So, whilst the slow start, and Mike’s occasional tantrums mean this still probably isn’t up there with the best of King, there’s no doubt that there’s a lot here to make you think, feel and wonder, and indeed plenty of meat on these particular bones.

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