Rarely in writing this blog do I stop to consider the intellectual implications of my book choices. Do I come across as well read? And not in the sense of saying “Yup, read that shit” to 75% of the books in Barnes & Noble’s “Buy 2, Get 1 Free!” pile (which I can, and do, say) but in the sense of actually using books to improve upon my understanding of the world, or to expand my horizons or whatever.
The short answer is: probably not. I do, on occasion, read books tied to current events, or on subjects about which I hope to learn more. But for the most part my choices are made in the interest of sheer entertainment. In all media really, I’m more MTV than PBS.
So it’s with that enormous disclaimer that I admit how much I fucking love Stephen King. Which isn’t to say that King isn’t smart, or that his books don’t stretch the mind—they certainly stretch the imagination—but only that I feel a certain guilt whenever I start out the week with a fat King paperback, sort of like sitting down to a dinner comprised entirely of chocolate.
I started Bag of Bones, a 1998 King novel, a few weeks ago because I was heading home for the holidays, and love nothing more than to scare the shit out of myself in my mom’s amazingly silent suburban house. Scary stories that struggle to make an impact through the unceasing din of Brooklyn street traffic have an entirely different effect on me out there, which is to say I spent each night over the Christmas weekend convincing myself that various unfamiliar shadows weren’t intruders/ghosts/mystical beings from another dimension.
BoB is set in a small town in Maine (shocking) where novelist Mike Noonan has returned to his summer house four years after the sudden death of his wife. While there, he meets single mother Mattie and her daughter Kyra—whose name, however misspelled, immediately biased me in favor of this book—who are in the middle of a prolonged custody battle with Mattie’s father-in-law, a local millionaire. Mike gets involved in the dispute, and weird shit happens.
I feel compelled to say “weird shit happens,” because that’s really how King’s books play out, isn’t it? Bag of Bones, in comparison with some of his loopier novels, is very much a ghost story, but I spent the first hundred or so pages wondering what exactly these protagonists would be up against: King’s repertoire includes ghosts, sure, but also vampires, posessed wild animals, mythological creatures, alternate dimensions, mythological creatures from alternate dimensions and categorically insane and power-hungry authority figures. He is an author about whom one can use the word “versatile” and “consistent” in the same breath.
I don’t want to give anything away about Bag of Bones, but it’s a page-turner. I wouldn’t call it the best Stepheng King book I’ve read, or the worst: it’s simply one of them, a fast-paced and increasingly addictive novel that I found myself simultaneously wanting to read during every spare minute, and afraid to read by myself after dark (listen, my ironing board looks a lot like a monster when I’m not wearing my glasses.)
The other reason I picked up BoB, besides “distraction from intense Pennsylvania boredom,” was to watch the book’s made-for-A&E mini-series/movie adaptation, which I hoped (stupidly) would stray from the grand tradition of King’s TV movies sucking hugely. Unfortunately, despite a valiant effort on the part of an aging Pierce Brosnan, the movie (or at least the first two hours of it) were not so great, and I ended giving up for fear of ruining my impression of the novel itself. Also they pronounced Kyra “Kigh-ra” and I was not having that.
While some of King’s less fantastical novels—The Shining, Carrie, Misery—have been made into great movies, it’s his truly bananas books that never quite cross over. Ultimately I see this as a testament to King’s writing. In Bag of Bones, he manages to make ghostly spirits’ rather cliche manifestations—thumps in the cellar, voices in the hallways, refrigerator magnets spelling out messages—terrifying, despite their ubiquity in the genre. On screen, however, those same appearances came across as silly, or unoriginal.
Bag of Bones isn’t King’s most inventive novel, or his broadest in scope or his most ambitious in prose. It’s just a nice ghost story, with characters you like, characters you hate and twists you don’t expect. It’s like drinking a cold glass of water on a hot day, or stumbling on an old episode of SVU you somehow haven’t seen. It may not make me smarter, or more appealing to the Freud readers of the world, but I’ve never been known to turn down a chocolate dinner.
TITLE: Bag of Bones
AUTHOR: Stephen King
PAGES: 732 (in paperback)
ALSO WROTE: A million other things
SORTA LIKE: Desperation, Needful Things
FIRST LINE: “On a very hot day in August of 1994, my wife told me she was going to the Derry Rite Aid to pick up a refill on her sinus medicine prescription—this is stuff you can buy over the counter these days, I believe.”