Pocket, 1999 mass-market reprint of 1998 original, 732 pages, C$10.99 mmpb, ISBN 978-0-671-02423-9
Halfway through Bag of Bones, I realized that I had come to take Stephen King for granted. It’s easy to do so: With a decades-long body of work that makes even so-called prolific authors look like slackers, King has been a fixture of the American publishing scene for decades, and while he’s had both high and low points, his work delivers a dependable reading experience. Studying my reading history, I see that I tend to read King in big batches every five years or so, running up his back-catalogue until I’m (relatively) caught up once again.
Now it’s time for another batch, because clearly I had forgotten how much fun a King novel could be.
Not that Bag of Bones is fun in itself: After all, it begins with the death of our narrator’s wife. Things don’t necessarily get any better after that: For four years, our scribbling protagonist is physically unable to write even one line of fiction. It’s only when he returns to their summer home and finds out that she may have been up to a secret project that something changes in him. This being a King story, our grieving narrator soon finds himself stuck between vengeful ghosts, benevolent spirits, an obsessed billionaire and a cute single mother.
As a reflection of King’s pet themes, Bag of Bones starts out respectably: Our narrator’s status as a well-selling writer of romantic thrillers allows him to talk about the publishing industry with insider’s knowledge, and King manages to make something as esoteric as writer’s block seems accessible to everyone. Later on, a few twists end up being referred to as plot devices by an all-too-aware narrator. What’s less familiar is the theme not just of matrimony, but of domestic intimacy that emerges from Bag of Bones’ description of a widower being reminded of what he shared with his deceased wife. For some reason, that’s an aspect of life that few writers attempt, let alone pull off convincingly.
But Bag of Bones was, for me, another opportunity to be immersed all over again in King’s prose style. He doesn’t have much of a reputation as a stylist because his writing seems so clear, but the way he manages the technical aspects of his prose are still nothing short of amazing: Inner monologue, action, explanations and flashbacks proceed seamlessly, and the voice of the narrator holds it all together. The only passages that seem atypical are a pair of lengthy dream sequences that eventually prove far more important to the plot than they seem at first. Still, King’s prose has rarely been as pitch-perfect as it is here, and he is able to highlight various emotional tones from joy to dread to despair.
Structure-wise, there are a number of sharp turns in the story, some of whom feel gratuitous at first, but all eventually coalesce by the end of the book. While Bag of Bones is a ghost story, it multiplies the parties involved (both real and occult) to an extent where the usual plot templates don’t readily apply. The portrayal of small Maine communities has always been one of King’s strengths, and he once again excels at that here. Add to that the more literary ambitions of a story in which half the battle is a widower getting over his grief and there’s a good chance that non-genre readers pulled away from King’s more bloodthirsty reputation will find much to like in this more nuanced story. (It’s no accident if the title alone has literal, metaphorical and thematic interpretations.)
Bag of Bones may not have the conceptual punch of some of King’s other novels, but it all adds up to a big book that’s worth the time to read. It’s well-crafted, strongly characterized, entirely within King’s pet themes and yet a step beyond into powerful reality-based fiction. It’s a deft blend of genre horror and character-driven fiction. It’s also a reminder, even ten years after publication, that I happily still have a lot of King left to read: I ended up drawing a list of his titles that I haven’t read yet, and ended up with enough material for the next two years. By then, he will have probably published three or four new books. But that’s OK: The only danger in that much of a good thing is that we come to expect it without a proper amount of gratitude.