Witness the downside of literary fame and fortune:
Stephen King has gotten to a point in his writing career where he can pretty much write his
own ticket. Feel like doing a miniseries screenplay not based on any one of your books? Be assured that someone is going
to buy it and make it. Finished an uncontracted novel just for the hell of it? Your publisher is going
to print it, bind it and distribute it with maybe a cursory pass in front of an editor's eyes.
It's the Stephen King name that sells books. With his last few books (not counting Wizard
and Glass, the last installment in the addictive masterpiece series "The Dark Tower"),
King seems to be resting on his laurels -- not trying as hard to keep his prose lean, mean and
Bag of Bones has been pegged as Stephen King's first "literary" novel -- a love
story that happens to involve ghosts. That's true on a level. It feels a lot at times like, say, Toni
Morrison's fantastic Beloved: scary, otherworldly, and full of horrible truths about the
story's milieu. Of course, no bookseller in the world is going to pull Beloved out of
the literature section and drop it onto the horror shelves. Just so, it's not to likely that Bag of
Bones is going to find a home anywhere but in the horror section. Readers and booksellers
are funny like that. So how different is a "literary" King novel from the rest of his works? The answer
is "Not much."
Ever since the sudden death of his wife by aneurysm on a sun-baked pharmacy parking lot,
middle-aged popular novelist Mike Noonan has been unable to write. It's not mere writer's block that
has him stymied. He actually experiences overwhelmingly severe panic attacks when he tries nothing
more than simply turning his trusty word processor on. For four years, he's kept his agent and
publishers satisfied and unaware of the dried-up status of his storytelling well with extra manuscripts he'd squirrelled away back when the words would flow
out of him in a steady stream. But now Mike Noonan has used up his story stores, and his agent
is pressuring him for a new novel. Mike knows that he's got to do something to kickstart his writing --
it's not that he needs the money; it's just that he needs a life. Four years of word puzzles played
in solitary grief have proved to be a less than satisfactory way to play at being alive.
Mike decides to spend at least a few months at Sara Laughs, the cottage where he and his
wife Jo spent so many summers, because or in spite of some very frightening nightmares he's been
having about the place.. Set on the edge of a nameless Yankee town known simply as
"the TR," Mike and Jo's summer home was named after a long-gone blues shouter. Sara Tidwell
and her extended performing family spent a few mostly happy years on the TR at the turn of the century,
fitting in with their white Yankee neighbors as much as was possible for a "bunch of niggers" back in
the 19-aughts. Mike returns to the TR to discover that Jo, in the few years before her death, had been
researching Sara Tidwell's story, and apparently ruffling no few feathers of the locals in the process.
Mike's beloved small-town Yanks are more reticent than normal about how Sara Tidwell and her
entourage came to leave the TR.
But Mike Noonan's real problems seem to be more rooted in the present. He's become involved
in a custody dispute between a poor, young widowed mother and her daughter's paternal grandfather,
an ancient, millionaire who has the folks in the TR wrapped around his skeletal finger. Childless himself,
Mike finds himself falling inappropriately in love with the little girl and her beautiful young mother.
Mike's other big problem? Sara Laughs is haunted -- by the ghost of Jo, the spirit of Sara Tidwell,
a little drowned boy, more. Mike Noonan's life becomes a weird interaction with the supernatural --
messages on the refrigerator in magnetic letters, the tinkling bell around a mounted moose head's
neck, nightmarish visions of death and pursuit. Mike has to put up with it all at Sara Laughs, though,
for the miraculous has happened: he's writing again.
His returned ability, though, reveals itself to be part of a subtle ghostly maneuver to bend Mike to the will
of a vengeful spirit. Caught between the relentless machinations of a rich, dying old man and the
persistent urgings of his dead wife as she fights to save him from an otherworldly force hell-bent on revenge,
Mike Noonan will suffer yet another devastating loss which he may very well not survive in a climax
that manages to thrill as much as any classic King story.
So what's the problem with Bag of Bones? It's got a great story, the requisite spooky
small-town Maine setting, that weird hint of a darker, nastier world just underneath the top layer of
our perceived reality. It's just not as tight as it could be. Not as lean. King addicts will buy it with a lift of hope in their
hearts, read it, and be glad that the horror-meister has graced us with another novel. But they'll know
that he can do better.