Upbeat Cynicism

what do you mean i lost my mind?

Bag of Bones by Stephen King, 1998

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My, my, my, my, my, my, what a mess.

A well-written mess, true. A suspenseful mess, sure. But definitely a mess.

Tom Noonan is a successful author — making this at least the fifth book in which King has featured a writer as the protagonist‘Salem’s Lot, The Shining, It, Misery, and I’m very likely missing a few more. This doesn’t count his short stories, either!. Noonan wrote women-in-peril thrillers of the V.C. Andrews/Mary Higgins Clark variety until four years ago, when his wife dropped dead of an aneurysm. When that happened, he finished his current book, then couldn’t begin another. Since then his “new” books have been in fact old work taken from a safety-deposit box, placed there as insurance against a rainy day or writer’s block. After four, though, he’s run out of insurance. (There’s a funny scene where his publisher phones him about his newest book — really the second or third book he ever wrote — gushing about what a “breakthrough” it is for him as a writer.)

In those four years, he has never visited the sumjmjer cabin he and his wife owned, a cabin with a name: Sara Laughs. Then he starts dreaming of it, and possibly being haunted by his wife’s ghost. Or possibly going crazy.

So he goes to Sara Laughs.

Thus far, maybe 150 or 200 pages in, the book is quite good. The quiet emptiness and aimlessness of his loss are well drawn, and the description of Noonan’s creative process is excellent.

Then Noonan meets a 3-year-old girl, her trailer park (but not trailer trash) mother, and gets involved in a custody dispute between widowed mommy and her Evil Old Software Billionaire father-in-law.

This successful businessman is not just Evil and Old, he is vicious, sadistic, and very likely off his rocker. Straining to think of a heroic, or at least sympathetic character in King’s fiction who both runs a business and is successful, I come up with bank executive Andy Dufresne in Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption and a minor character in The Dead Zone, who has to be rich so he can help the hero out of financial trouble. I’ve not read all of King’s books, but his persistent portrayal of businessmen as either evil or, at best, Babbit clones who enable evil (‘Salem’s Lot does this, e.g.) becomes rather tiresome.

Anyway, the child custody thing gets connected to the haunting, and when both are finally explained…

Excuse me, but I must digress here.

I am sure sombody has already done a college thesis on this already (though, if so, I’ve not read it — or them), but I feel it would be highly rewarding to do a creer-survey of Stephen King’s work, and compare and contrast it with a study of the work of Dean Koontz.

Besides both having K-names, both are shelved in the Horror section, both have been writing and publishing over approximately the same period of time (Koontz from the late 1960s, King from the early 1970s), and both owe a great deal to traditional gothic romances. King’s work is in the vein of the original gothics like Hugh Walpole and Matthew Lewis. Weird shit Just Happens and, if there’s an explanation, it’s mystical and kept mysterious (The Shining is probably the best example here, and is arguably King’s best book). Koontz comes of the gothic expliqué tradition, where weird shit happens, but it eventually turns out to have a rational non-mystical explanation.

On the evidence, expliqué is the more difficult to pull off. If your explanation is supposed to match with known reality, but you had to make (or assume) more than a few stretchers to make it fit, informed readers will be disappointed, at best. Koontz’s books are compulsively readable, but often get undercut by their endings, or at least their explanations. These can verge from the laughably ridiculous (Phantoms) to the positively absurd (Dragon Tears). Even many of his stronger works tend to have elements that are weakly justified, at best (the naming of “The Outsider” in Watchers; the “cockroach” motif in Dark Rivers of the Heart).

But King’s mystical approach can also lead to underwhelming or ridiculous endings (It), and sometimes seems forced upon a story where it doesn’t really belong (The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon).

Bag of Bones was conceived as a ghost story and yet it would be a far better book if it had no ghosts or anything supernatural in it. King’s apparent aims here are ambitious, but his reliance on elements of mysticism and horror, even on a metaphoric level, undermine his ends, and in fact trivialize what might have been a powerful drama. For, in addition to being a book about grief and loss, it also examines, or wants to, how sins of the past can affect a community even a hundred years after their commission, how some outsiders must always be outsiders, and how family has much less to do with blood than it does with trust, love, and commitment.

The problem is that you don’t learn about why there’s a haunting until the very end, when King basically has to introduce a whole bunch of new characters, and bring back others that appeared in a nightmare once before, and convince you that they really had a significance that they didn’t at the time. And the reason that Noonan’s being haunted is a real stretch, even by the logic presented in the narrative.

The arbitrary nature of that, however, doesn’t compare to King’s authorial hypocrisy. In the climax of the book, King presents the deaths of two women, one by gunfire, and the other by a beating following rape. Both are graphic and disturbing. But Noonan the narrator, an author himself, after relating the grisly details of one of these, self-righteously swears off writing deaths into his fiction for the sake of the plot — even as he’s dealing with King having done that to him. It comes off as quite shabby, and works against the very point King was trying to make.

Can’t recommend this one.


Written by [IMH]

29 December 2005 at 9:10 am

Posted in Literature

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  1. The Dark Half also had an author as the protagonist, IIRC.

    Will Duquette

    30 December 2005 at 12:20 am

  2. King, Koontz, and a Bag of Bones

    Ian has posted a review of Stephen King’s Bag of Bones, with some interesting reflections on the writing styles and proclivities of both King and fellow-author Dean Koontz. I always pay attention when Ian analyzes a work of fiction, because he under…

  3. In fact that character is mentioned in Bag of Bones as having committed suicide. Dunno why I forgot to mention him.


    30 December 2005 at 4:04 pm

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