Guest review by John Grant: Bag of Bones by Stephen King

(Hodder & Stoughton, 516 pages, hardback, 1998)

Jo, the wife of successful thriller writer Mike Noonan, dies suddenly and still quite young from a brain aneurysm. In grief, he suffers a dramatic case of writer’s block, but is able to get by for a few years by covertly publishing novels he’d written earlier but never told his publisher about. But then the “spares” run out, and he must, somehow, get his act together to write something new. In desperation, he decides to go to the summer home he and Jo had in a remote part of Maine, a house he hasn’t found the courage to visit since Jo’s death. On arrival he finds that the house, called Sara Laughs in honour of a local turn-of- the-century blues singer called Sara Tidwell, is haunted. Also he meets and falls in love with widowed Mattie Devore and her three- year-old daughter Kyra; Mattie’s vastly wealthy father-in-law Max is determined to get custody of the child, and so Mike steps in to help Mattie fight him through the courts. In so doing, Mike begins to unearth a truly ghastly tale of what happened one summer’s day ninety years ago to Sara Tidwell, and the terrible revenge her spirit has been exacting from the descendants of her murderers.

King has always been a masterful page-turner — even his weakest books are usually immensely readable. But through most of his long career he has rarely aspired to be more than that — which is an observation rather than a criticism, because there’s many a respected literary novelist who could improve his or her art by learning a little of King’s craft. At the same time there has been the feeling that, in books like Rose Madder and Insomnia, King himself has become a little impatient with the self-imposed shackles of “mere” craftsmanship.

With Bag of Bones he’s finally made the breakthrough, and it is as a serious literary novel that this book should be judged. That’s not to say that he has lost any of his ability to tell a spellbinding tale — and this is one of his very best, a stunningly good and often very frightening ghost story that owes much to the tradition of M.R. James, Sheridan Le Fanu and, to name a modern example, the excellent Jonathan Aycliffe. But what makes this book so intensely gripping is something more than that — and more, too, than the fine, perceptive and often disturbingly funny writing: it is the superb depiction of character and situation. We care about these people; we share with Mike Noonan his slow discovery that his loss of Jo is at an even more profound depth than he or we could have imagined, that she was a finer person than even he had realized; and lordie do we come to share his growing love for Mattie and the child Kyra. And all this is achieved through the use of a very difficult narrational gambit: although Mike is our narrator, our storyspinner, and thus is present on every page and is the eye through which we see, he is not in fact the central character — that role is shared by Kyra and Mattie and by the dead Jo and Sara, for this is in part also a novel about women and the male perception of them.

There are various undercurrents in this novel. Inevitably there are aspects of metafiction about it — for King is like his creation a successful novelist (more successful and more prolific than Mike Noonan) and the very title is drawn from a remark by Thomas Hardy to the effect that even the finest fictional character is but a bag of bones when compared to a real person. If King falters anywhere, it is in the handling of these metafictional aspects — a slight failure, seemingly born of timidity. But the most important underlyer is the sense of and deep appreciation of human loss: Jo is lost to Mike and the world, as even more profoundly is Sara, whose songs are available only through interpretations at the hands of others, for no recordings of her survive. Mike’s ability to write is lost — ask any writer and you’ll be told that this is a true nightmare of the soul. The only loss that can be averted is that of the child Kyra, who is sought by both the living and the dead.

This is a very powerful book, and a fine example of what the late-twentieth-century novel can do. And should be doing more often.

Warm Words and OtherwiseThis review, first published by Samhain, is excerpted from John Grant’s Warm Words & Otherwise: A Blizzard of Book Reviews, published on September 19 by infinity plus ebooks:

A bumper collection – over 150,000 words! – of book reviews, many of full essay length, by the two-time Hugo winning and World Fantasy Award-winning co-editor ofThe Encyclopedia of Fantasy and author, among much fiction, of such recent nonfiction works as Corrupted Science and (forthcoming) Denying Science.

Scholarly, iconoclastic, witty, passionate, opinionated, hilarious, scathing and downright irritating by turn, these critical pieces are sure to appeal to anyone who loves fantasy, science fiction, mystery fiction, crime fiction and many points in between … and who also enjoys a rousing argument.

Warm Words & Otherwise is available from: (Kindle format, $1.99) (Kindle format, £1.44)
Smashwords (various formats, including epub, mobi, Sony and PDF, $1.99)

About Keith Brooke and infinity plus

Keith Brooke is a writer of crime fiction, science fiction, fantasy and other strange stuff, and editor and reviewer of same. He is also the publisher at infinity plus, an independent imprint publishing books by leading genre fiction authors. View all posts by Keith Brooke and infinity plus

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