Sunday, December 17, 2006

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"Bag of Bones", by Stephen King

I have just finished reading this King novel (from 1998) which is often cited as one of his very best--even perhaps on a literary level to justify its being considered as more than simply another slash and scare novel. I must admit that my knowledge of King's books is not great and like the majority of people, most of my awareness of his work has come in the cinema where successful movies have been made of "The Shining", "Carrie" and "Salem's Lot" (and lots of others too).

"Bag of Bones" is certainly a book where King weaves his magic in such a way as to slowly build up tension as the different pieces of the jigsaw gradually come together. The wife of the novelist-protagonist dies of a brain haemorrhage in strange circumstances and slowly the novelist, Mike Noonan, is led back to the house in the country, called "Sarah Laughs", where he and his wife enjoyed good times together. The only problem is that the house is now clearly haunted by several ghostly phantoms including Jo, the writer's wife and Sarah Tidwell, a black blues singer from the turn of the century. It transpires that Sarah's ghost haunts the house and the small community to which it belongs, due to her ghastly rape and murder at the hands of several townsfolk (including one of Mike Noonan's distant relatives)around 100 years before. The old timers in the town know what happened, but aren't telling anyone! Gradually, Mike Noonan with the help of his wife's ghost and a mysterious little girl, pieces together what happened all those years ago and also the reason for why the little town seems trapped in a silent conspiracy of fear. Sarah Tidwell's son, it transpires, had also been murdered when he'd tried to help his mother--and Sarah's ghost has sworn to get even with the descendants of the murderers. Noonan learns that several fathers have mysteriously killed their own offspring over the last 100 years (possesed by the spirit of Sarah)--and even his own wife, who had been pregnant at the time of her death, had paid the price of being connected to a descendant of one of Sarah's killers (Noonan himself). The mysterious little girl turns out to be yet another young person touched by the horrors of the past and the conclusion to the novel where Noonan fights desperately for the life of Sarah's last would-be victim is certainly cathartic. Finally, he finds Sarah's buried bones in a bag, together with those of her murdered son, and destroys them with acid. Now, Sarah's power fades and she can no longer directly threaten the child (though an unexpected twist is still left in the tail!). At the end of the book, Noonan is left fighting for the right to adopt the girl Kyra whose mother, Mattie, has been murdered during the course of the spooky mayhem.

"Bag of Bones" is a consummate dramatic work. Characterization is excellent throughout, but the girl Kyra and the dead blues singer, Sarah Tidwell, are both particularly well drawn. There is also great skill in the way King buids up the tension over 600 odd pages until the climax of the drama is reached. Small clues often attain great significance in the novel's story and little pieces of information, gradually fed to the reader, later lead to discoveries of deep significance. Is it then a masterpiece of the horror genre? Probably...at least in the modern era. Is it a masterpiece of English literature? Not quite. I found myself at the end of the book wondering why some acid poured on an old bag of bones would have made any difference to the ferocious spirit of Sarah Tidwell who haunted the house "Sarah Laughs" and also the town in general. Perhaps asking such questions is rather unfair on King who was required to come up with a ghoulish ending. However, such small blemishes hardly occur in the work of that true master of the macabre, Edgar Allen Poe.

5 Comments:

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Blogger pluto85 said...

A masterly review of a great book!

9:09 AM  
Anonymous Spooky said...

Yeah, I've read it and tend to agree with your assessment.

9:12 AM  
Anonymous Stephen King. said...

Glad you enjoyed my book!

9:33 AM  

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