Death is the terrfying reality of life, as it is its only guarantee. At some stage in our lives, we become aware of its presence, whether this be in some abstract way or through the horrifying reality of losing friends, family, pets, or some other loved one. Tears are shed; bodies shake; admissions are made; grudges fizzle or exacerbate. There’s nothing quite like death to focus our attention on the feelings we have towards ourselves and towards others.
Bag of Bones, one of Stephen King’s later novels, and certainly one of his finest, surrounds death and its impact on the world that surrounds both its protagonists and its readers. It’s difficult to walk away from the novel without at least a fleeting consideration of one’s own mortality, to use a trite phrase. There are few books that I have read where I simply had to sit down and ponder my place in this world and the effect I’ve had upon it, if any. Yes, the novel has some King tropes—Maine, a hero writer, family, children, and the supernatural—but it also has some fine examples of a man at the height of his writing ability, and where some of his books have gone straight for the jugular in terms of a gross-out or terrifying scene in the woods, here we have King at his subtlest and most humane.
At the novel’s start, Mike Noonan, the book’s protagonist, has recently lost his wife to a freak medical condition. He’s distraught, and while a bestselling novelist, cannot bring himself to write a word. Thanks to a surplus of novels kicking around in a safety-deposit box (and I’m curious about the autobiographical nature of these pages—what does King have squirreled away in some Bangor bank?), he’s able to continue “working” despite not having written a word in many months. This is a writer’s nightmare: the inability to write. He carries on, however, and as an effort to get his life back in order, takes up residence in a lakeside gettaway called Sara Laughs. Here, and in the town that surrounds it in western Maine, Noonan befriends a young woman named Mattie and her daughter Kyra, and he soon falls in love with both of them. He’s unfortunately caught himself in a web of familial intrigue when it turns out that the resident town millionaire is Kyra’s grandfather, who wishes to take Kyra away from her mother.
Then there are the ghosts. And they’re bloody terrifying. Sara Laughs is not the quiet holiday destination Noonan once remembers, but instead a phantasmagoric maelstrom of unfinished business from the now long-dead. In-between the horrors of man, Noonan is up against the horrors of once-men (well, women, to be perfectly accurate). What I found so utterly fascinating about this novel, given the cornucopia of novels presented to date, was the most horrific elements came not from the supernatural, but from man. This is not entirely new to King (take The Dead Zone, for example), but for some reason I found it far more interesting in Bag of Bones. While in The Dead Zone we’re presented with the supernatural (precognition), the real horror comes from its antagonist, Greg Stillson. In Bag of Bones, the supernatural elements are truly scary, too, but they pale in comparison with the evil Max Devore and his bizarre harridan, Rogette. Never mind the ghosts, and they are scary—worry more about the people; because even after they’re dead, they can cause more pain than one ever thought possible.