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Bag of Bones, 1998
Neither the best nor the worst from King's prolific pen, Bag of Bones tells a moderately interesting story about a man at grips with a mildly frightening haunting. Billed as a chilling thriller, it bears scant resemblance to the genuine article (The Shining, for instance, or The Stand) that King has previously proven he can deliver. Oh, yes, the events are scary enough if they should ever happen to you, but here the protagonist manages to bear with all the ghosts cluttering the vicinity without undue qualms or shudders, despite his supposed dread, and the reader can fearlessly accompany him as he sets about laying the curse and pacifying an unquiet grave. The book begins slowly as King tinkers with the introduction to his main yarn, his word-processor apparently humming on automatic to churn out prolix details about marginal particulars, but around page 50 the pace picks up briskly and the tale swings into stride.
Mike Noonan, living in present-day Maine, is a successful author of adventurous-romance novels and, except for his marriage being childless, has lived a happy life until his beloved wife Jo dies unexpectedly of a stroke while running errands at a local shopping-mall. While learning to cope with his grief, Mike finds that he is now incapable of writing; debilitating nausea strikes if he even approaches his computer with work in mind, but for a time he is able to fob off his insistent agent with unpublished manuscripts he had set aside. Meanwhile he is afflicted with terrifying repeating nightmares set at his lakeside summer-cottage, called Sara Laughs -- dreams so realistic that they seem almost to be out-of-body travel-experiences. And when he finally goes there, he is unsurprised to discover that small novelties he had observed in his nightmares, such as a group of sun-flowers or a sticker on a sign-post, actually exist.
That something uncanny is abroad at Sara Laughs is apparent from the first evening of Mike's stay, but he does not flee when subjected to the sobbing of an invisible child, blood-curdling shrieks, the tinkling of bells, the mysterious repositioning of magnetic letters on the refrigerator door, and disorienting dreams and visions. He is drawn by the fact that one of the presences infesting the house seems to be the benign spirit of his dead wife Jo, whoever the others may be -- and he quickly becomes convinced that the woman for whom his cottage was named, the black blues-singer Sara Tidwell, is chief among them. Before her unexplained disappearance around the turn of the century, Sara had briefly lived in the district along with the members of her band, known as the Red-Tops; local memory still retains legends about Sara's earthy, exuberant performances and the doings of her crew of musicians, who drifted away shortly after she vanished.
Although he has plenty on his plate with the ghostly presences manifesting ever more menacingly in and around the cottage, Mike becomes involved with the struggle of a fetching young widow to retain custody of her three-year-old daughter Kyra, an enchanting and precocious child whose spontaneous attachment to Mike immediately wins his heart, even before his inevitable attraction to the mother sets in. Little Kyra shares Mike's sensitivity to the supernatural forces brooding all around them and his protective instincts are swiftly aroused. Kyra's rich and powerful grandfather, the ageing invalid Max Devore, is demanding custody of the child and is prepared to harass his dead son's widow Matty by any means, fair or foul, until he gets what he wants. Devore has always been accustomed to appropriating whatever strikes his fancy; the mere wish to possess is sufficient justification for the methods employed. A computer tycoon, he is of local origin and his influence, supported by bribes, is all-pervasive; the townsmen on his payroll, many of them knowledgeable of old secrets concerning Sara Tidwell that Mike is seeking to uncover, will first warn Mike away from Matty and Kyra, then turn their backs and leave him to his fate. Devore and his grotesque harpy of a daughter, Rogette, are the human villains in the piece.
These are the basic ingredients King competently stirs together, tossing in a tragic undiscovered crime, the curse of a vengeful ghost on the descendants of the perpetrators, the intrusion of a hungry evil force dubbed The Outsider, the brutal murder of Matty, and the storm of the century at the climax. Nobody who dies in Bag of Bones ever quite rests in peace; everyone's spirit turns up sooner or later, either to help Mike or to hinder him. King does without any reasoned underpinning to his supernatural postulates and here strives only for sensational effect, which is often duly obtained. The episode in which Mike and Kyra appear to step 98 years back in time to the Fryeburg Fair of 1900, where Sara Tidwell and the Red-Tops are in full strut, is particularly vivid and successful. So, too, is the scene on the lakeshore where Rogette viciously pelts Mike with rocks while Devore gloats in his mechanized wheel-chair.
But the most absorbing facet of this novel is King's generous and expert description of creative processes in reference to Mike Noonan's writer's block. King has shared his insights on these matters before, notably in Misery, but in Bag of Bones his revelations are particularly intriguing and informative.
© Wordreign, July 1999
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