Novel * Stephen King * G-g-g-g-ghosts! * 1998
Would you be surprised if I told you that Stephen King can write an effective ghost story? It probably shouldn’t, although come to think about it I’m having a hard time thinking about a book he’s written about actual ghosts before the publication of Bag of Bones. I guess The Shining. Maybe? I feel like there’s more going on with that one, what with the telepathy and whole “no T.V. and no beer make Homer something something” aspect of the story. Anyway, Bag of Bones is a different kind of story, and has the atmosphere and feel of a proper ghost story. We have a lonely protagonist who lives in a haunted-ass house filled with a bunch of boogins and the story is basically him dealing with this weird supernatural threat. While there’s actually quite a bit more to it than that, the one thing Bag of Bones does exceptionally well when telling its story about angry ghosts is acknowledging the weight of human history.
The protagonist, Mike Noonan, is a widower. The opening of the novel is the sad, random death of his wife, and her loss colors the entire novel. Now this part might shock you, so brace yourself. Mike is a novelist. I know, a protagonist in a Stephen King novel who is a writer, will wonders never cease. He’s like a mid-tier novelist, successful but not like Stephen King successful. Anyway, he discovers in his grief that not only has he lost his beloved wife but he’s lost the ability to write. Every time he sits down to work he gets the shakes and ends up nauseous to the point that he needs to leave the room. This is not great for Mike since he really has nothing else to do to occupy his time. I’m not sure why he doesn’t take up gardening or volunteer with Houses for Humanity or something to try and pass the time, but all he does is sit around and do crossword puzzles. It’s a bad scene, and he kind of knows it. At this point in the story Mike is haunted by his wife, but it’s the normal kind of being haunted by sadness. Not the spooky ghost haunting, which comes after a frankly too-slow beginning hundred pages or so.
Eventually, Mike relocates to his summer home in order to try and move on with his life. This home is a cabin on a like in rural Maine, and he used to share it with his wife back when she wasn’t dead. This house has a name, Sara Laughs, which is a stupid name for a house but there it is. Now, the reason Mike moved back to this place is because of a series of vivid dreams which turned out to be a little more manifest than one would like. Once he gets to the house, the ghosts start kicking up pretty much right away. As soon as the haunts show up, King ratchets up the spooky tension superbly, and if it wasn’t for this one other thing I would be all about this book. The ghosty bits are effective and creepy, and as I’ll get to in a hot minute, King is doing some cool things with historical menace. But first that one thing I’m having a hard time dealing with. You see, the successful middle-aged author protagonist is a little on the nose already. Then he meets this predictably “most beautifullest girl in the whole wide world” who is maybe twenty years old, and besides being hot she is also smart and funny and blah blah blah. Of course she falls in love with the successful middle-aged author. Of course the middle aged author has reservations. This all plays out in ways which I do not like at all. We’ll get to that.
Bag of Bones if full of ghosts. All ghosts, in one way or another, are tied to a sense of history. They are uneasy history made manifest, and nearly always this history is intensely personal. Mike is haunted by more than one restless spirit over the course of the novel, and only the ghost of his wife is linked directly to him. Johanna isn’t hanging around poor Mike because of any kind of malevolence, of course, there’s never really any question that these two loved each other very much. Nah, Johana is lingering in the physical realm because of the other ghosts languishing in Sara Laughs, and those ghosts are pissed off. The primary angry ghost is also the namesake of Mike’s house, Sara Tidwell, and this is where the weight of history is felt. Sara was a black blues singer around the turn of the 20th century, and her travels eventually brought her and her family/band to this Maine backwater. This might not surprise you, but rural Maine in the early 20th century was not exactly a bastion of progressive values, especially when it came to race. However, the community mostly accepted the presence of the Tidwell family because they were pleasant and a dang good blues band.
Of course, the very presence of other humans with darker skin is an affront to a certain brand of insufferable half-wit. The mere fact that Sara and her family dare live their life on the periphery of a white community was enough to send a small group of assholes into a murderous rage. The leader of these fuckers is a guy named Jared Devore, and long story short him and his crew rape and murder Sara Tidwell on the shore of the lake. Oh, and as an extra added bonus to their depravity, they also drown her son. Naturally, the ghost of Sara Tidwell is none too pleased with this death, and spends the next hundred years haunting the shit out of the families of her murderers. The malevolent spirit contrives to possess the descendants of these people in order to murder their own children. Turns out, Mike Noonan is distantly related to one of the murderers, and so the spirit of Sara Tidwell lashes out at him. Only problem is, Mike doesn’t have a kid. His lack of procreation is an explanation for the death of his wife, perhaps, because she was pregnant when she died randomly. Of course, it’s not certain the malevolent spirit has that kind of range, and also because Sara picks a new target.
The new target is the perfectly adorable and smart and precocious daughter of the aforementioned beautiful, smart, and funny young woman, Mattie. Now she has her own big subplot, because she is the target of the very rich and powerful descendant of Jared Devore, Max. He’s also insane, but he’s leveraging his power to try and win custody of the daughter, Kyra. Mike swings in and buys her a lawyer, and then there’s a bunch of fairly insufferable hand-wringing on his part. Eventually these plots merge together, because Sara Tidwell needs a new target, and that target is Kyra. The other descendants of the original murderers all know what’s up with the macabre history of the community, and all shamefully hide their family secrets from everyone else. They believe that the sacrifices of these kids must continue to assuage the vengeful spirit. That’s why some of them pop up toward the end and straight fucking murder Mattie. Mike manages to save Kyra, and is saved from a questionable sexual relationship with a girl half his age because of some deus ex machina.
This book is frustrating, because the ghost stuff is really quite good, and maybe you can’t really pull that off without Kyra to act as an emotional lever for our protagonist. Mike needs to let go of his personal history and move on with his life, and a daughter would help him do that. Sara also needs to let go of her own personal tragedy and move on, which she only does when forced to. Because the weight of history is heavy, and is inescapable. Those roots go deep, and some cases those roots are rotten. King has always been at his best when exploring the dark shadows of small towns, and that’s mostly what’s going on with Bag of Bones. It’s that quality which makes such a distracting bummer out of the whole Mike-Mattie relationship. The fact that they never consummate their attraction for each other because she gets murdered is annoying, all the more so because King gets weirdly meta and calls out the laziness of that trope in the text itself. And yo, just because you recognize and call out your own bullshit does not, in fact, keep it from being bullshit. He basically wrote an entire character as gross fantasy fulfilment, realized it halfway through writing, and tried to obfuscate his intentions. And whatever. It doesn’t ruin the book, which is still mostly a cool ghost story.
All Things Serve the Beam
There was a time during the 90’s and early 00’s when Stephen King was very much consumed with The Dark Tower. This wasn’t necessarily translating into new novels, mind you, but elements of those novels were popping up in his other stories with some regularity. Once he finally finished the series, the publisher even took to highlighting the titles of other Stephen King works which were related in some way to the Dark Tower series. It’s a fun bit of meta-fiction for fans of the series, which of course I am. Recently I noticed that Bag of Bones was highlighted, and since I read this back in ’98 and never again, I pretty much forgot everything about it. Once I finished, I actually had to look up what the connection was, because it was so slight. The first I did notice, because Ralph from Insomnia showed up briefly and interacted with Mike Noonan. The other escaped me. Turns out Sara Laughs is the twinner to another house in the final Dark Tower book, Cara Laughs. Where Stephen King lived. So he must be Noonan’s twinner, as if I need further validation of my above statements. Ugh. Okay. I guess it would have been slightly out of place if Oy showed up and started chasing the little girl around. Still, I might not have highlighted this particular book as being particularly rich in Tower lore.