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The Boston Phoenix Skeleton Key

Unlocking Stephen King's Bag of Bones

By Charles Taylor

NOVEMBER 9, 1998: 

BAG OF BONES, by Stephen King. Scribner, 529 pages, $28.

"The past is a foreign country, they do things differently there," L.P. Hartley wrote. The past is not a foreign country in Stephen King's new Bag of Bones, but the present is. In King's novel, the friendly town you took for granted, the comfy house that has always been a retreat and a refuge -- these become disconcertingly unfamiliar. At its creepiest, Bag of Bones is a death's head singing the theme song from Cheers: welcome to the place where everyone knows your name. The real horror of this top-flight spook show isn't in the spirits inhabiting the rural Maine town that serves as the novel's setting (though they are scary enough); it's in the sense of the past reaching forward to reclaim the present, the novel's slowly enveloping realization that what we think of as history has never really stopped happening and so it isn't history at all. The sins of the fathers are literally visited upon the children in Bag of Bones.

King has always been a canny exploiter of our archetypal nightmares. As those nightmares go, the sudden death of a spouse doesn't carry the grisly pulp shock of some of King's other inventions. It's scarier on a much deeper level, the sort of nightmare that rears its head at the age when the thought of a spook hiding underneath your bed has lost its power. What's hiding beneath the bed in Bag of Bones is far more unsettling. In an early scene, King's hero, a bestselling novelist named Mike Noonan, whose wife Johanna has died unexpectedly, reaches beneath the bed he shared with her and comes up with a battered paperback copy of Somerset Maugham's The Moon and Sixpence. A playing card still marks Johanna's place. Mike picks it up and reads a few passages, and when he gets to an inconsequential sentence on the next page -- " 'You funny little man,' said Strickland" -- he breaks down for the simple reason that his wife is never going to turn the page and read it. That passage is a potent metaphor of life interrupted. What Mike doesn't yet know is that Johanna has moved on to other stories.

Bag of Bones is King's attempt to write a classic ghost story that's also an account of reckoning with grief, of the impossibility of going forward while stuck in grief's soupy emotional dislocation. King is trying to do with this novel what Mike can't do: honor the past while going forward. Mike's emotional state translates into writer's block. He satisfies his publisher's appetite for product by dusting off manuscripts that he's squirreled away in the event that he dries up (King is very sharp on how a bestselling writer must keep producing to maintain his audience); and, in a wicked irony, these old manuscripts are praised as showing a new maturity in Mike's writing. Needing to escape, Mike decides to move to the house he and Johanna had purchased in a remote Western township, even though he's been having nightmares about the place.

Everything that's engrossing about King and everything that can be exasperating come together once Mike makes his move. He gets involved with a young widow who's raising her young daughter and trying to keep the toddler out of the clutches of her father-in-law, an insanely rich -- and maybe insane -- computer tycoon who wants to claim custody of his granddaughter, seemingly for nothing more than the sheer evil of it. That the story is melodrama isn't the problem. That it needs to be streamlined (it could stand to lose about a hundred pages), and that King's supporting characters are all types, is. (His villain, in particular, is overdrawn -- imagine Bill Gates crossed with Lionel Barrymore in It's a Wonderful Life.) But King is also an ingenious entertainer. He avoids the letdown that usually attends the solution to mysteries by tying up all the story's narrative and emotional threads in his climax.

As he has in previous books, King is poking around here at the relationship between writers and their loved ones, and between writers and their readers. He seems to regard his position as a writer of enormous pop bestsellers as one of some responsibility. In Bag of Bones, that has less to do with the book's flirtation with topical "relevance" (the solution to the mystery involves both racism and sexual abuse) than with Mike Noonan's conviction (King's, as well) that readers who are investing their time -- and money -- in your work deserve more than a writer who's coasting to maintain his market share.

That's obviously a question of craft, but for King it's also a recognition that readers have put their emotions in his hands, and he wants to deal with those emotions honorably. "I believe that even make-believe murder should be taken seriously," Mike Noonan says at the end of Bag of Bones, and on the next page, "I've lost my taste for spooks." I think what King means is that he's not interested in shock effects for their own sake anymore, that even stories spun sheerly for our amusement (with no pretension to be great literature) need to be animated by basic human feeling rather than a publisher's bottom line.

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