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Bag of Bones

Scribner • 1998 • 529 pages 

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, and their imprint Scribner. 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 ShiningCycle 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 AtlantisOn 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.

Enter David Carver, a boy who has a special relationship with God. A year earlier, he made his first prayer, entering into a pact with God to save his critically injured best friend in exchange for later service. In the year since his friend's miraculous recovery, David has studied the Bible and prayed, trying to understand the nature of God; the decision Desperation comes to over and over is that “God is cruel.” The events of Desperation reinforce this mantra: coming home from a vacation in Nevada, David and his family are pulled over by an immense police officer named Entragian, who tricks them into town and then murders David's little sister.

The truth of Entragian is darker: he is possessed of a demonic force known as Tak, who exists (in some fashion) at the heart of a reopened copper mine in the center of town. The imprecise nature of Tak is important. King suggests that Tak might be the literal Devil (going so far as to name the mining company that disturbed Tak's prison Diablo, meaning devil in Spanish) and that Tak exists in Hell. But suggestions and sketches are all King allows, unwilling to define Hell in literal terms. This is to the book's credit. Generally, the less we know about King's villains, the more frightening they are. Witness Randall Flagg's murky origins, or the barely-sketched beginnings of Barlow the vampire in 'Salem's Lot or Needful Things' Leland Gaunt. Conversely, the final manifestation of It as a spider – a familiar image that, despite its cosmic implications, somewhat undercuts the basic horror of it.

Tak's defining characteristic is that it must work through people in order to exist physically in our world. After possessing Entragian, Tak then takes control of David Carver's mother, destroying her in the process. David's God, likewise, must also work through people to carry out his work; the crucial difference is that God's possession is spiritual, not physical, allowing for free will (a concern introduced in The Green Mile that would later recur in Storm of the Century).

David understands these things, even when he doesn't agree with them. King is very careful to make David's piety very human, making him consistently relatable. Though he is something of a prophet and can perform miracles (a particularly clever scene involving sardines and crackers recalls the miracle of Jesus' feeding the multitude in Gospels), David remains a young, scared boy whose powers are greater than he. In this context, Desperation fits in with King's early sequence of books featuring young protagonists and their “wild talents,” chief among them Carrie, The Shining, Firestarter, and It. That King is willing to revisit this type of character is interesting, given his conscious decision to move away from the “children and monsters” themes that defined much of his early work.

In some ways, though, Desperation serves as the same sort of bridge as It, connecting early and latter interests. One of Desperation's most important characters is Johnny Marinville, a novelist whose self-destructive behavior grows as important to Desperation's narrative as its religious undertones and more visceral horrors. Johnny continues the thread of writers at crucial points in their careers, starting with Misery and continuing into later work such as Bag of Bones and Lisey's Story. Importantly, Johnny's character revolves less around his writing than his fundamental lack of self-worth. Here, Johnny echoes Jack Torrance of The Shining, and his symbolic father/son relationship with David further recalls that of Jack and Danny. While Jack's internal issues stem from a childhood of abuse, Johnny's come from the horrors he had witnessed in Vietnam (a theme King would explore in much greater detail in the later Hearts in Atlantis). Slowly, Desperation emerges as Johnny's story, with the struggle to regain his soul the crux of the novel.

The introduction of God and religion as narrative forces is intriguing. The persuasive, straightforward narrative does not equivocate on the subject of religion, much as prior books do not equivocate on the paranormal or supernatural; King simply asserts, and the reader chooses whether to accept. Religious metaphor and iconography are prevalent throughout the novel; David's role as Job is one of Desperation's defining themes: after the murder of his sister and possession of his mother, his father, Ralph, is torn apart by Tak. In two important sequences, David symbolically takes the Eucharist (here represented by 3 Musketeers wrapper). False idols become an unlikely source of horror, as Tak's can tahs and can taks reveal people's baser natures and devolve them into dangerous, obsessive behavior (an effect similar to that of Maerlyn's Grapefruit in Wizard & Glass, and to some extent Christine herself). Names, always important to King's work, are here often Biblical: Mary, Steven, John, Thomas, and especially David. While the Biblical David slew the giant Goliath after King Saul allows him to attempt it, in Desperation, Johnny takes David's place in the final stand against Tak.

Despite Desperation's focus on the nature of God and religion, it remains eminently approachable to secular readers. Beyond its deeper concerns, Desperation is also one of King's most effective horror novels. Spiders, snakes, and coyotes are all deadly sources of horror, as is the initial presence of Entragian the police officer (recalling earlier murderous policemen like Frank Dodd in The Dead Zone and the more recent Norman Daniels in Rose Madder).

Desperation's primary asset is in revisiting many of King's earlier themes and combining them in new ways. Compared with The Regulators (the Richard Bachman novel with which it was released concurrently) it seems even more important, resonating deeper and making more profound statements than its more violent companion. While perhaps not as vital to King's greater canon as The Green Mile – a novel whose religious motifs anticipate those of Desperation, albeit more subtly – Desperation remains a solid, serious book, one of King's most powerful novel-length works.