Review

Review

Book Review: 'Bag of Bones' by Stephen King

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In the wake of A&E's two-part miniseries, it's interesting to look back at King's seminal novel, and uncover what it meant for King's canon, both within the fiction and without.  In 1998, Stephen King changed publishers for the first time since the late 1970s. Believing he was being taken for granted at Viking and New American Library, he moved to the prestigious Simon & Schuster. Bag of Bones, his first novel for the company, was billed as "A Haunted Love Story" and included blurbs from respected mainstream novelists Amy Tan (The Joy Luck Club) and Gloria Naylor (The Women of Brewster Place). Through marketing and perception, it seemed, Stephen King was trying for a fresh start, and perhaps a new audience.

Tonally recalling The Dead Zone and anticipating the subtle unease of both Duma Key and 11/22/63, Bag of Bones is an almost quiet, measured examination of how the dead affect the living. We become aware early on that Bag of Bones is a ghost story, but far removed from the horrors of a novel like The Shining. Instead modeled after gothic romances with supernatural overtones like Daphne DuMaurier's Rebecca (which Mike mentions early and often throughout the book, making him one of King's self-aware characters who knows the type of story he's in), Bag of Bones aims to answer the complex questions of why people die, how the living go on, and what happens if there is unfinished business.

Mike Noonan's first-person narrative – again suggesting King's later direction with the Duma Key and 11/22/63 – immediately makes Bag of Bones more intimate, and Mike himself instantly more open and confessional than most prior King protagonists. Very early on, he confides that he has trouble asking for help, reinforced by his complicated relationship with his brother-in-law Frank. It's an oddly personal and idiosyncratic character trait for a Stephen King character, far removed from Jack Torrance's addictive behavior, Johnny Marinville's surface bluster, or Thad Beaumont's clumsiness. At once, Bag of Bones is a more nuanced experience, plumbing layers of human response and interaction King had merely approached in the past.

In The Tommyknockers, King introduced a fresh take on adult romance: Bobbi Anderson and Jim Gardener have a complex, layered relationship that is ultimately more interesting than the extraterrestrial threat to the town of Haven. Since, King has continually mined new romantic territory in his novels with a refreshing frankness. From the elderly second-chance romance of Ralph and Lois in Insomnia to Jake and Sadie's tragically romantic and unapologetically sexual love in 11/22/63; from the cautious beginnings of Alan and Polly's relationship in Needful Things to the furtive, epic, doomed love of Roland and Susan in Wizard & Glass: King's interest in non-traditional love and sex has been an expanding undercurrent to King's more modern work. At the center of Bag of Bones is a May-October romance, starting when Mike stumbles into the lives of young Mattie Devore and her three-year-old daughter, Kyra – an important and understatedly epic sequence in the novel that feels somewhat reduced in the miniseries. Mike and Mattie's slow-burning romance is sweet and realistic, and King is careful to not only discuss the differences in their ages, but also in their classes. Mike is a successful, fairly rich novelist, and Mattie is a young widower raising her daughter in a trailer park (said trailer park within walking distance of Mike's summer cottage on TR-90, the unincorporated township in which Bag of Bones takes place). There are shallow reasons for each of them to be with the other – Mattie's age and physical beauty arouses Mike, and Mike's money could help Mattie in life-altering ways – so the fact that they connect intellectually is gratifying, as is the fact that those shallow reasons are actually discussed.

While the horror in the novel is not muted, it is less visceral than in many other King books. In some ways, Bag of Bones is more frightening for it – a sense of calm dread settles into the novel early on and generally stays there. There are, of course, moments of blunt horror, often coming from unlikely places. One scene featuring an elderly woman implacably throwing stones at a swimming Mike Noonan is as chilling as Jack Torrance running around the Overlook with a croquet mallet; the understated unfolding of the scene transcends the surface absurdity of it, allowing readers to experience Mike's panic and fear.

More, both the horror and supernatural aspects of the novel are woven into the lives and experiences of these characters, rather than intruding on them from outside. King occasionally struggles when inserting external supernatural forces into novels that don't seem to require them: the "ghostly" hints in Cujo, the psychic flashes in Gerald's Game and Dolores Claiborne, and the showdown in The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon are a few examples. The abruptness of the supernatural in Rose Madder, too, seems somewhat clumsy. In Bag of Bones, however, one never senses a disconnect between "reality" and "paranormal," both informing the other as the layers of the novel unfold.

Following Misery, The Dark Half, and "Secret Window, Secret Garden," Bag of Bones is another important entry in King's take on writers and writing. Mike's inability to write following the death of his wife, Jo, is palpably frustrating. One of King's greatest strengths is putting into plain words the struggles of writing novels; here, writer's block is as real and painful as Paul Sheldon's physical pain in Misery, or Eddie Dean's withdrawal hell in The Drawing of the Three. One doesn't need to be a writer to understand Mike's torment, or sympathize with it. Beyond King's understanding of the writing (or not-writing) process is a rare glimpse into the world of publishing. Mike putting away manuscripts to be published at a later date is a fascinating, idiosyncratic detail that is also necessary to the plot.

Perhaps more than in any other novel, Bag of Bones is rife with symbolic names. Mike Noonan's maid is Brenda Meserve and his handyman is Bill Dean ("building"). Mattie's evil father-in-law is Max Devore – an echo of devour – and two of his emissaries are George Footman and Rogette Whitmore (King is adamant about pronouncing her name with a hard g, making her a rogue in the feminine). Rather than merely being a playful detail, both the extent and obviousness of symbolic names are actually clues. Names are of vital importance to the deeper mysteries of Bag of Bones.

Unexpectedly, racism becomes one of Bag of Bones' most important themes. Sara Laughs, the nickname of a blues singer who once lived on TR-90, is now the name of Mike's summer cottage. Here, too, is another name of significance: the history of both the woman and the cottage named for her are crucial to the plot (the name is omitted entirely from the miniseries, making a tense flashback during which Sara actually laughs through a demoralizing attack seem out of place). While King has discussed racism in novels before (especially in It and The Drawing of the Three), never before has it been this central to the story, representing a shifting social consciousness in the chronology of King's novels.

As with many of King's past novels (most notably The Dead Zone, Misery, Rose Madder, and Desperation), the title Bag of Bones has multiple meanings. Early, Mike references a quotation he attributes to Thomas Hardy: "Compared to the dullest human being actually walking about on the face of the earth and casting his shadow there, the most brilliantly drawn character in a novel is but a bag of bones." The quote comes early and frequently, speaking to Mike Noonan's – and Stephen King's – affinity for fiction...and its inherent dangers. Near the end of the novel, a new, literal meaning of the title is divulged, in a scene at once horrifying and sad.

Weather – especially violent weather – has often played a part in King's stories, especially in their finales. The snowstorms featured in The Shining, Cycle of the Werewolf, and "The Reach" all lead to death, albeit with different outcomes. "The Mist" hinges on a freak thunderstorm, and the sandstorm in Desperation plays an important role in keeping the survivors in town. It is bookended by storms, the one at the end wreaking wholesale destruction in the town of Derry, similar to the wreckage of Chamberlain at the end of Carrie or to Castle Rock in Needful Things. Compared to the bombastic finales of those novels, the final scenes of Bag of Bones are unusually tight, utilizing a massive storm and the book's ghosts smartly and judiciously. Where King often has a tendency to get lost in the details of destruction, here the momentum never slows, resulting in one of King's best and most effective end sequences.

Bag of Bones is one of King's best and most affecting novels. Written in an assured literary tone (without sacrificing horror), this introduces a new sort of writing for King; later books like Hearts in Atlantis, On Writing, Duma Key, and 11/22/63 would also be written in this style. Both a critical and popular success – it won a British Fantasy Award, a Locus Award, and a Bram Stoker Award for Best Novel – hitting #1 on the bestseller charts for a full month. One of King's few formally plotted novels, Bag of Bones features an engaging mystery, vibrant characters, and an expert pace, making it a remarkable achievement on every level.

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Kevin Quigley is a novelist, critic, and webmaster of CharnelHouseSK.com. You can follow his mad exploits on Twitter @Kevidently.

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