What frightened me the most about Stephen King’s latest novel was knowing that after I finished reading it I’d have to sit at a word processor and try to summarize the plot. For all of its potboiler conventions (isolated house, mysterious rappings, damsel in distress), Bag of Bones is, hands down, King’s most narratively subversive fiction. Whenever you’re positive–just positive!–you know where this ghost story is heading, that’s exactly when it gallops off in some jaw-dropping new direction. After 40-odd books and a quarter century spent turning them out, our national bogeyman’s justly famous imagination shows no signs of flagging.
Joining the long list of King protagonists whose successful careers and happy marriages make their lives prime for overnight demolition is Mike Noonan, a middle-aged book-a-year romantic suspense novelist (sort of a male version of Mary Higgins Clark). On a hot August day in 1994 he idly waves goodbye to his wife, Johanna, as she leaves home to go pick up a prescription at the drugstore. Next time he sees her, she’s laid out in the city morgue. An autopsy determines the cause of death (she collapsed in a parking lot) as a brain aneurysm, but it also reveals that Jo Noonan was six or seven weeks pregnant, a shock to her husband. Did she know? She must have. Then why hadn’t she told him? As time crawls miserably by, a series of little clues and larger discoveries convinces Noonan that his wife had been living a secret life during her last few months, which complicates his mourning and taints her memory.
To make matters worse (which King excels at doing), Noonan is tortured by a recurring spook dream, then bedeviled by an apparently terminal case of writer’s block (other writers similarly afflicted should treat this novel like poison ivy). Finally, after four years of empty days and creepy nights, he makes a trip back to his summer house in western Maine–a place christened Sara Laughs–hoping to let go of his grief and revive his comatose career. As if.
From the moment Noonan moves into Sara Laughs, King revs up the old complication machine. Bad enough the log house is now haunted by a congestion of ghosts that moan, cry, and spell out cryptic messages with refrigerator magnets, but it’s entirely possible, even likely, that one of the unquiet spirits is Noonan’s own lost wife, and that her sweet disposition may have changed quite a bit. You’d move out. I’d move out. Noonan, of course, stays.
Then, suddenly, Bag of Bones appears to begin all over again. Mike Noonan, a heckuva nice widower, becomes involved with beautiful Mattie Devore, a local widow who’s fighting a losing battle for custody of her young daughter, Kyra. Mattie’s father-in-law is Max Devore, a millionaire computer mogul as crazy as he is ruthless. Mad Max has resolved to legally snatch Kyra away from her mother…so that he can drown her. No, that’s not a typo: so that he can drown her. As Noonan gradually discovers, via rumors, manuscripts, newspaper clippings, telepathy, and even time travel, there’s a long-standing tradition of murder by drowning in rural Maine. Ayuh.
Eventually, the drowning cult of Dark Score Lake, and the 100-year-old curse that spawned it, do link cleanly, if not altogether convincingly, with the zany/malignant poltergeist activity at Sara Laughs, and with the mysteries surrounding Jo Noonan’s life and death. But until they do, King’s brash and less-than-graceful juggling act (look! 10 balls in the air at once; now 10 balls and 5 pins; now 10 balls, 5 pins, and 3 oranges…) seems poised for disaster. That everything doesn’t come crashing down in the end–which, incidentally, transpires during a violent storm–seems flat-out amazing. It’s not craft of characterization or plotting that puts across Bag of Bones; it’s Stephen King’s unswerving belief in his own visions. Here they are, folks, take ’em or leave ’em.
Although sometimes, and this time especially, I’d happily settle for a tad less imagination and a smidgen more logic, I’ll keep taking those King visions, story bloat and all. Because popular fiction just doesn’t get any weirder than this.