Turn of the Screwball

Bag of Bones

Turn of the Screwball

Bag of Bones

Turn of the Screwball
New books dissected over email.
Oct. 2 1998 12:18 PM

Bag of Bones

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Dear Michael,

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I wish I could "overwrite" so lyrically. You speak of Henry James's assertion that thought and desire always get caught in the snags of the world. By coincidence, I watched last night an adaptation of the one (early) story in which James seemed to be testing that idea: The Innocents, based on The Turn of The Screw. (I'm listening to Britten's chamber opera version as I write this--rather a different feel when the ghosts get their own arias.) What as a ten-year-old I experienced as an extremely scary ghost story now possesses me in a different way: Both the film and the story broadly hint that the ghosts are projections of the governess's sexually-repressed psyche. Yet the story doesn't anticipate Freud, since forcing the children to face their demons brings neither catharsis nor healing but insanity and death. To shift to pure horror, there are similar ideas in David Cronenberg's The Brood. In earlier films like They Came From Within and Rabid, Cronenberg carried the consequences of repression (the repression of what he has called the "debodyized 1950s") to their monstrous extreme. Then he turned around and made The Brood, which was the antithesis of the earlier films in the way that The Wild Duck, for Ibsen, was the antithesis Ghosts and An Enemy of the People. In The Brood, a doctor is convinced that "going all the way through" a primal trauma will bring about physical symptoms and thereby relieve the tortured psyche. He discovers a woman with the ability to bear homicidal mutant babies, "the children of her rage"--a rage that, alas, doesn't abate but only builds, with grisly results.

This, truly, is horror as metaphor, and the power of the artist to bend the physical world to explore these conflicts gives him or her resources literally undreamt of by most others. King harnessed this power in stunning fashion when he wrote Carrie, which is crudely drawn but has at its core a near-mythic vision of adolescence--a young woman caught between an insanely repressive parent on one side and jeeringly promiscuous peers on the other. Throw in adolescent female hormones at a high boil and you have a recipe for the book's Carthaginian climax--a climax, that, in context, feels realistic.

So far, so brilliant. Now imagine a world that caves in too easily to our wishes--a world in which reality is so malleable that any violent twitch of the psyche produces a physical manifestation. That is, finally, as tediously predictable as a world in which nothing out of the ordinary ever happens. King dilutes the power of his vision in the climax of Bag of Bones by **Spoiler Alert** bringing back the ghosts of Jo, Mattie, and Sarah for some kind of ectoplasmic wrestling match, along with bald, ferocious Rogette and, I think, the Rockettes and the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. It's like that damn picture Ghost with Patrick Swayze--if all murder victims came back to tussle with their (conscienceless) killers, then no one would ever get away with murder, would they?

I guess that's what finally sours me on Bag of Bones--that King is so promiscuous with what I see a rather precious commodity. Perhaps he thinks the slam-bam climax will please his readers, or make for a furiously good final sequence in a movie. Or maybe he doesn't think anything--maybe what makes him so damn prolific is that he has no pesky inner critic to slow him down.

Well, I have too many inner critics--that might be the premise of a good horror novel, if I could ever elude my critics long enough to write one.

Thank you for making this discussion about the supernatural seem as natural and offhand as breathing. I envy your students.

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).