|Bag of Bones|
A Novel Critique
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 and Gloria Naylor. Through marketing and perception, it seemed, Stephen King was trying for a fresh start, and perhaps a new audience.
Closer in tone to The Dead Zone than perhaps any other novel in King's canon, 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 immediately makes Bag of Bones more intimate, and Mike himself instantly more open and confessional than most other 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 fragile, tentative beginnings of Rosie and Bill in Rose Madder to the elderly second-chance romance of Ralph and Lois in Insomnia; 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. 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 roque 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's 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. 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, the true, 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, Lisey's Story, and Duma Key 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.
In light of the several controversies surrounding the publication of Bag of Bones, some may be quick to ignore the actual content of the novel. King himself has been fond of saying critics prefer to review his contracts rather than his novels. But in time, the memory of contracts and money subside, and readers are still left with the book - and what a book it is.
The phrase "Stephen King's best writing in years" (in addition to giving a coyly phrased snub to King's recent work) is bandied about often and now holds little meaning. But know this: the magic that brings King's best fiction to life is at work here, and in years it probably will be thought of as one of Stephen king's best books. It begins with a writer named Michael Noonan, telling us about the death of his wife, Johanna.
The death itself plays out in a quiet sort of tragedy in the opening pages. Soon after, Noonan begins to suffer from writer's block, crushing grief, and a series of terrifying nightmares that he can't remember upon waking. These dreams center on his summer home on Dark Score Lake (a site familiar to King readers), the place where he and his wife Jo had always been happiest. The small cabin is known as Sara Laughs, named after a popular black singer who dies on Dark Score roughly two decades into the twentieth century. In the wake of all this misery, Noonan decides to revisit Sara Laughs, symbolically confronting all his fears at once. What he doesn't imagine is that symbolic fears will soon be the least of his worries.
Because Sara Laughs is haunted - and the spirits are restless.
But the worst is still to come - soon after Noonan comes back to town, he runs into a young woman named Mattie Devore and her daughter, Kyra. Mattie is half his age and beautiful, and Mike is taken at once with a surprising lust for her. Even more unexpectedly, he begins to develop an almost paternal love for Kyra, which may be partly due to the fact that his wife had been weeks pregnant before she died. Mike learns that Kyra and Mattie are both in trouble - the girl's grandfather, aging computer magnate William Devore has plans to take custody of Kyra - using some very dark and, at times, terrifying methods. There is a custody battle, which at first seems prosaic, but only until we discover the supernatural underpinnings of Devore's need to own his granddaughter, and why it's so important for Mike to prevent it.
The closing sequences open up into realms of the supernatural King hasn't even touched before - most importantly, a more thoroughly examined view of ghosts and why they come back to haunt the living. As with many Stephen King novels (Misery, Desperation and Rose Madder being the most obvious) , the title Bag of Bones has multiple meanings; at first, the phrase is metaphorical, later divulging its literal (and shocking) meaning. The final scenes may surprise some readers - they are unusually tight for a King novel (one of the major complaints with the bulk of King's work is that the endings drag on for days), at once scary, supernatural, and quite moving. While the actual body count is significantly lower than, say, Needful Things, the deaths are all that much more disturbing. This is not a plot-by-numbers exercise.
King has stated that he wanted to return to his Maine turf to write one more scary novel before he turned fifty. Fair enough - here, King certainly returns to Maine, scattering references to such familiar places as Derry and Castle Rock, and such people as Thad Beaumont (The Dark Half) and Bill Denbrough (It). And lest you worry - Bag of Bones is that scary novel. But it is also a new sort of book for King, written entirely in the first person (unlike the shifting-point-of-view of Christine and the spoken word monologue of Dolores Claiborne), and examining the art and business of writing more intimately than ever before. He also explores love and lust more frankly, too, having shied away from healthy sexual relationships in his past works. And the ending, while hopefully not prophetic, reveals a more assured writer than the one who published Carrie in the mid-seventies. Stephen King, in the voice of Michael Noonan, tells us he has grown up, but he still packs a punch, and don't you forget it.
Bag of Bones is an intense, electrifying novel - it would be a career-booster if King needed one. Equally appealing to fans of "early King" and to those of "recent King" - as well as a strong enough book to give to someone who has never read a Stephen King book before. Instantly engrossing, swiftly paced, and very, very scary, ,Bag of Bones is the type of book that makes you glad you learned how to read. No bones about it.