Bag of Bones

Bag of Bones

New books dissected over email.
Sept. 28 1998 1:23 PM

Bag of Bones

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Dear David,

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The only briefing I had for this exchange was a question as to how I felt about Stephen King and the information that you loathed him. Loathed his writing, I take it. This seems a good place to start, although King's new book, Bag of Bones, may not be the ideal ground for a discussion. It's not as good as King's best works, doesn't have the edge or surprise or shrieking conviction of Carrie, say, or The Shining, and it's not as lamely awful as stuff like The Langoliers. Still, there's plenty of it, and it should provide food for something, if not for thought.

Bag of Bones is slow and miscellaneous, trying to be several novels at once. In a letter posted on the book's Web site--it's possible that the ghostly picture hanging there, taken from the dustjacket, a faded lodge on a faded lake, gets more of the atmosphere than much of the book's prose--King says he was looking for the "romantic suspense of Rebecca," a novel which is often mentioned in Bag of Bones, and a "sense of otherwordly terror." The publishers tell us the book is "a haunted love story." The title, though, as you know, comes from a remark attributed not to Daphne du Maurier but to Thomas Hardy. Compared to any actual living being, Hardy said, "the most brilliantly drawn character in a novel is but a bag of bones." King makes all kinds of play with this idea: bags of bones can't hurt you, live people can feel like bags of bones, look like bags of bones, we are all bags of bones in waiting, a literal bag of bones is at the source of the book's haunting.

Let's remind ourselves of the story, or at least of its setting and its premises. Mike Noonan, a writer of sub-King Gothic--I know you may want to say that this category doesn't exist, that below King there is only the floor--can't grieve for his recently dead wife, because he's Eastern Maine Irish, not the complaining type. Because he can't grieve, he's haunted, and has to go back to their country place in Western Maine to face his ghost. Well, several ghosts, because the house is infested not only with Mike's unconfronted loss but with all the murderous, racist history of that idyllic territory: pretty much all the skeletons in the neighborhood hang out there, although it takes Mike a long time to find out who they are. Meanwhile, in the historical present, an evil old man is trying to get custody of his granddaughter, and Mike, a terrible writer but a good man, steps in to protect the little girl and her vulnerable (and beautiful) mother. Death and destruction follow, but not for everyone.

I like the way the ghosts send messages by arranging the alphabet letters on the fridge. I like the oblique methods by which the outraged dead manage to persuade live people to kill and be killed--Mike calls these "directed murders." It's good to have several conflicting spooks, and King gets some scary effects out of telepathy, since it is always alarming to know for sure what you're not supposed to know at all. The little girl is unbearably cute at times, at others genuinely engaging. The feel of the remote rural place is strong, not the predictable story of the ugly past, but the charm of the old house and the dark lake and the heavy trees, and the shabby, unmoralized appeal of yesterday's unhealthy food in the diner. But there is too much lumpish poltergeist stuff, simply flinging the fixtures around, and too much conventional bad weather, and the fact that Mike is supposed to be a hack writer producing a memoir allows King to write any old how. What I'd like to argue is that this a work by a good writer who has gotten a little lost, and is trying to write his way out of his plight. The fact that every new book of his has to be a Big Book says more about the King industry than about King's imagination. But I'm anxious to know what you think.

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Yours,
Michael
 

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David Edelstein is Slate's movie critic and author (with Christine Vachon) of Shooting to Kill. Michael Wood is author of Children of Silence: On Contemporary Fiction and a professor of English at Princeton University. This week they discuss Stephen King's Bag of Bones (Scribner; 560 pages; $28).