Bag of Bones, a 1998 horror novel by genre emperor Stephen King, is in some ways a typical book for its author. It’s got extremely strong characterisations backed with a rich weft of story-telling. There’re also multi-plot sequences spuriously kicking off alongside, but not necessarily synchronously to, one another atop a freaky picket-fence township and paranormally-infused Maine, New England setting.
The style of its opening is as trademark to King as furtive glances from diminutive clusters of pale-green skinned, atavistically challenged web-toed sea-shanty dwellers are to Lovecraft. We get to know our narrator via a touching retelling of the events surrounding his wife’s death some years prior to the main events of the book, and along with that a cavalcade of other innocuous, irrelevant, minor, major and crucial players in this story are marched out into the narrative.
And who better a protagonist to relay what’s at time encyclopaedic knowledge recounting but best-selling author Mike Noonan. The death of his wife hits Mike quite badly, as might be expected, and an additional side-effect from the grief is writer’s block; it’s not inconsiderable either, as he finds himself unable to write for four years.
Mike’s got a few manuscripts in storage, in case of emergency, so as far as the outside world knows all is relatively okay. But there’s another issue. Weird nightmares begin to haunt him. These dreams are set in his holiday home, known as Sara Laughs, that he and his wife used to frequent in a town known as TR-90 (it’s an unnamed township hence the strangeness of its non-name).
He challenges himself to go here, and once at Sarah Laughs finds constant discord in his life in the town, a new relationship that springs up, and a paranormal set of events that unravel before his eyes. A chance encounter with a seemingly lost child sets up the main real-life interaction and introduction to the beast of the book in the child’s Grandfather, multi-millionaire Max Devore, and potential love-interest in the child’s widowed mother Mattie.
But equally to this, there’s some whacky bell, book and candle inspired style communication going on at Sara Laughs. The thing is, they’re really not scary. Nor do they seem that mysterious in comparison to the goings on around them.
The nature of the town gives it an almost ghostly, incorporeal feel: the town with no name. That’s not without a sense of irony given the cast-iron quality of its residents and their daily ablutions, their habits and histories as imbued by King’s story telling. The town has no name, but it’s got plenty of history and character. It’s interesting stuff too, soap-opera-like goings on that kept me quite peeled to the text. In fact, this is one of my issues with the book.
I found that I was far initially more interested in these goings on, these quirks and intricacies of the townspeople, and with some of the more major players and characters, than I actually was with the supernatural elements, and main story, of the novel. This became problematic as I found when I was over half-way into the book and they no longer captivated, and I became really quite bored with plots, events and overall progress as it currently stood.
Yes, Max Devore is an excellent nemesis to Mike’s well-grounded good-guy, and granted there was a decent Petri dish from which to grow the supernatural essences cloying at the edges of the dramatic sub-plots built up along the way, but I found that the outcomes of such were underwhelming in comparison to what were supposed to be the scaffolding of this construction.
It’s not that was I seeking solace solely in the supernatural. As someone who reads a lot from the genre, you can understand I enjoy a change as much as the next man. However, the book’s supernatural element mostly felt harried and somewhat ineffectual. Its breeding ground the halls and corridors of Sara Laughs, its source the corruption hidden deep in the town’s foundations; a deep dark secret – or several – is counterbalanced later by the innocent relationship blossoming between the widower author and widowed young woman. I guess whenever I think of King and supernatural done well, I think The Shining. Of small towns gone awry, I think ‘Salem’s Lot or Needful Things.
Despite the flawed foundations of the supernatural element, this is trying to be a classic gothic novel at heart. The empty, creaking floors and walls of Sara Laughs; the large, behemoth lake with murky depths; the rugged and dangerous surroundings of the nameless town, a genetic subconscious tied in to. Not to mention the haunted spirits that frequent the halls and paths of the Noonan holiday home. All of these things should merge well with the other building blocks, but they don’t.
Toward the last quarter of the book, things start to heat up, and at times you think King is going to pull this one back from the brink (from the point at which revelations about the town’s background/goings on begin to emerge). Let’s just say that things really do pull together, and the quite fastidious details that King pieced together do make sense. But, for this reader, by then it was much too late. I did understand what had been done, and to admittedly decent effect, but I feel too much had been invested in setting up the conclusion – I’d made a long journey to what I thought was a five-star restaurant only to get a Big Mac. And a squashed one, at that.
So, in keeping with its gothic traditions, Bag of Bones moves to end in a manner more akin to The Castle of Otranto than The Monk; that is with a whimper, and not a bang. It’s a book somewhat worthy of inclusion in the canon, and feted by others as being great (from other reviews I’ve read), but not to this reader. Whilst interesting in parts, the separate chunks of text really don’t come together to make it a better whole, only to make reaching the ending a more painful endeavour.