Things That Go Clunk in the Night

Bag of Bones

Things That Go Clunk in the Night

Bag of Bones

Things That Go Clunk in the Night
New books dissected over email.
Sept. 29 1998 1:51 PM

Bag of Bones

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Dear Michael,

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Oy. It's hard to talk in any detail about a book like Bag of Bones without giving away its plot. I come up against this all the time in film reviews, which I'd prefer that people wait to read until after they've seen what I'm writing about. ("But how do we know we want to see it until we've read what you to have to say about it? We aren't paid to see movies and read books like some people! You're supposed to function as a consumer guide!" Yeah, yeah, yeah.) I never read book jackets or summaries because I want to be oriented by the author, not by the book's editors, marketing personnel, or critics. This is especially true of works in the mystery or horror genre, where, as I've suggested, the principal source of dread comes from what you don't know. (One of the best things about TV's Law and Order is that each episode starts out being about one thing and then takes a jolting turn into something entirely different--a turn that isn't so jolting if you've read the synopsis in TV Guide.) My advice to readers of this discussion is: Be wary. Meanwhile, I'll do my best to insert "spoiler alerts." (Could we get some little skull-and-crossbones icons?)

Yesterday, I suggested that King sits at his keyboard and tries to turn off his left brain and to let the words flow directly from his unconscious. That might at once be giving him not enough and too much credit. On the one hand, his Leviathan output testifies to his enviable, extraordinary discipline. (While we conduct this little discussion, he'll have already knocked out a draft of a novel, a screenplay, and an introduction to someone's collected stories.) On the other hand, I wouldn't exactly call his prose "unmediated." Your quotation--"I was in the zone, deeper than I'd ever been, down where the town's unconscious seemed to run like a buried river"--is the perfect illustration of what constantly throws me out of King's stories: They're predigested. It's as if he writes the novels and also the Monarch Notes for the novels. Looked at another way, he's like an amiable, garrulous tour guide through his own work--spelling out all the connections, ruminating on the themes as "themes," invoking movies and books and TV shows. (Now it's a development out of Rebecca, now it's a character who looks like a Munch painting, and so on.)

I suppose this tendency is one of the reasons for King's amazing commercial success: He bridges the gap between the universe of Gothic/Grand Guignol horrors and the quotidian here-and-now. But when he mentions over and over that the malevolent crone in Bag of Bones resembles Munch's "The Scream," it's both a failure of invention (he doesn't have to describe her in much detail) and imagination (he needs a scary figure, he reaches not very far into his unconscious to find an overfamiliar masterpiece). So much of King's language is second-hand. And his self-consciousness doesn't create a postmodern hall-of-mirrors or tell us anything fresh about the popular culture that he so avidly mines. It's just recycling.

What I like about Bag of Bones are the places where King is clearly working out of his own experience. Which brings me back to our discussion of genre. I think it's more than being able to distinguish "live conventions" from "dead conventions." King arrives at his haunted house, so to speak, through the back-door. (Or should I say the cellar?) What he wants to explore (or, at least, what he explores most successfully) is the idea of a writer whose equilibrium is jarred by the seemingly random death of a loving spouse, and who is suddenly forced to question both what he thought he knew about that person and the very source of his creativity. This much is organic. Now he must choose a setting in which these ideas can be played out. And it's here that he chooses the haunted house genre, with its ghosts both literal and metaphorical, its ties to the protagonist's past and the past of the community that shaped him.

What's that you say? I have this backwards? That King decided first to write a haunted house novel and then filled in the details with the death of the wife, writer's block, and so on? Call me a lowbrow impressionist, but that's not how it feels. Much of what King does in the first part of the book seems organic and fluid--until the tired genre conventions take over and things go clunk in the night.

I shall be taking tomorrow off to atone for my sins (among them: giving away too much plot in this and other reviews) and look forward to picking up our discussion on Thursday.

Yours,

David

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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).