Sunday, February 19, 2012

Bag of Bones by Stephen King

Bag of Bones
By Stephen King
Copyright 1998

Bag of Bones was billed as a “haunted love story.” But Stephen King’s tale of a writer living in his haunted summer home in Castle County, Maine is another example of when the sins of the fathers are visited upon their sons.

Michael Noonan is a widowed writer, his wife having dropped dead of a stroke in a shopping center parking lot. He buries his wife, completes the book he is working on, then stops living life for the next four years. He is exceptionally pained because, when he searched the contents of his wife’s purse after she died, he found a pregnancy test. The coroner confirmed she was pregnant.

He doesn’t write. He’s completely blocked and the thought of approaching his laptop to do anything more involved than digital crosswords give him anxiety attacks. He lies to his publisher and his agent about his writing habits and covers by sending them old manuscripts he wrote years before, but never submitted.

After four years of mourning in a lifeless existence in his hometown of Derry, Noonan decides to head for their vacation home in TR90, an unincorporated township along Dark Score Lake in rural Maine. Mike’s cabin, known as Sara Laughs, sits on Dark Score Lake. The cabin is named for a turn of the century blues singer, Sara Tidwell, who lived there with her family.

Shortly after arriving at Sara Laughs, it’s clear to Michael that he is not alone in the house or on the property. He senses a presence in the kitchen and shortly after his arrival, a ghost starts leaving him messages using refrigerator magnet letters. In his living room, a bell draped around a mounted moose head rings when the spirits are worked up. In his cellar, he plays the old tap once for yes, twice for no with the spirit and even down by the lake, in his head he can hear a child’s thoughts as he drowns. Michael is not sure if this spirit is his late wife, Sara Tidwell, members of her family, or all of the above.

He also uncovers a mystery in his own life. It seems that his wife, Jo, had been coming to Sara Laughs the last year of her life without telling Michael. She was seen in the company of another man and was asking a lot of questions about the history of TR90 and Sara Laughs. He admits to himself that when he was writing, he was oblivious as to what was going on around him. But he’s stunned to find he was so oblivious as to miss his wife’s long absences from his life whilst she made the 90 minute journey to TR90 almost daily for a year.

One day, whilst pondering the mysteries of his life, Michael Noonan almost runs down a three year old girl who is walking along the side of the road. He stops and talks to the girl who’s named Kyra Devore. As he’s talking to her, the Kyra’s frantic mother pulls up. She introduces herself as Mattie Devore. She is grateful to Mike for saving her daughter, but asks him to keep it to himself. She points out that several old men are watching them from a nearby gas station with great interest. Michael promises to keep it to himself.

However, he finds out word spreads quickly through TR90 about Michael’s encounter with Mattie and Kyra Devore. Michael learns that Mattie is engaged in a custody battle with Kyra’s paternal grandfather, THE Max Devore whose name is synonymous with computing and whose fortune is matched by few. Max Devore’s grandson died tragically a year before and since then, Max has spared no effort in gaining custody of Kyra.

That evening, Michael gets a call from Max Devore, asking him to confirm details of the encounter. Michael is offended and angry and gives smart aleck answers to Devore’s questions before Devore gets angry and ends the conversation. He later finds a message on his refrigerator that says, “help her.” Michael resolves to help Mattie and Kyra, who are struggling financially, in their fight against financial titan, Max Devore.

That night, Michael has a confused and erotic dream in which he’s with three different women – his wife, Mattie Devore, and Sara Tidwell, in three different places. He awakens confused and shaken, but finds his desire to write has returned. As in the dream, he retrieves his old electric typewriter and takes it up to the attic where he starts on a new novel.

The next day, while walking along the path that fronts the lake leading into town and the country club where Max Devore resides, Michael has his one and only meeting with Max Devore. The ancient Skeletor is a decrepit old man in a motorized wheelchair and relying heavily on oxygen. He’s accompanied by his assistant, a gaunt elderly woman named Rogette. Devore tries to run Michael down with his wheelchair and Michael stumbles backward into the lake. Rogette, gifted with a superb pitching arm, begins to throw rocks at Michael, hitting him several times and driving him deeper into the lake. Just as Michael is sure he’s going to die under the most absurd of circumstances, Jo’s spirit comes to him and provides him with the strength to swim to his own dock where he is out of range of Devore and his aide de camp.

Michael calls Mattie and tells her about his conversation with Devore and tells her he has hired a lawyer for her. At first, her Yankee pride won’t let her accept the offer. But faced with the prospect of losing her daughter, she accepts. She invites Michael over to a picnic at her doublewide mobile home to thank him. After leaving the picnic, Michael is disturbed at how attracted he, a 40 year old man is to this 21 year old single mother.

Michael attends a deposition in the custody case and with a good attorney representing him as well as Mattie, things don’t go well for Max Devore. The next evening, Devore sends Michael a note telling him that he’s giving up the custody battle. Max Devore kills himself that same night. He and Mattie, along with their legal team, plan to have a picnic later in the week celebrating the end of the custody battle, if not the end of Max Devore’s life.

Meanwhile, Michael has been about trying to solve the riddle of the last year of his wife’s life and her repeated trips to TR90 and Sara Laughs. The more questions he asks around town, the cooler the people of TR90, who before were quite fond of Michael and Jo, become. Michael learns that the mysterious “other man” was Jo’s brother who accompanied her on one of her trips to TR90. He says Jo was researching the history of TR90, Sara Laughs, and Sara Tidwell. Why, he did not know.

When Michael starts asking questions about Sara Tidwell and some of the more shocking events in the town’s history like the man who drowned his own son under a hand pump, the people of TR90 become overtly hostile. His caretaker and friend tells him they will never speak to him again. Before they part, the caretaker tells Mike that all of the old families of TR90 are dying out and soon, they will be gone for good. Another of the last of the old families has passed and the entire town will be turning out for his funeral. Michael notes that that old man was one of the ones who spread rumors about town about his encounter with Mattie along the highway.

As the town prepares for the funeral, Michael, Mattie, and their legal team prepare for their picnic. Michael picks up the lawyers at the airport and notes that storm clouds are gathering. They arrive at Mattie’s mobile home and start their picnic. As they are grilling the steaks, somebody opens fire on the group from a car driving by. Mattie is hit in the head and dies in Michael’s arms. The team’s private investigator disables the car which bursts into flames. Everybody is wounded or killed except for Michael and Kyra. Michael takes Kyra and heads for Sara Laughs just as the monster storm hits TR90.

When Michael arrives at Sara Laughs with the grief-stricken Kyra, he runs a bath for her and is overcome with the urge to drown her. Just as he’s about to carry Kyra up for her final bath, Jo’s ghost enters his head and tells him to look at his own novel for the clue necessary to stop the cycle of death in TR90. As she tells him this, Jo disappears with a scream, driven off by a more formidable spirit. The clues are on pages 19 and 92. Michael reads the first word of every line vertically down the left side of each page and it comes to him. He passes out.

As he slumbers, the clues lead him to the out building on the Sara Laugh’s property. There, he finds Jo’s notes on her research. Michael learns that he had relatives that lived in TR90 at the turn of the century. He also reads Jo’s research into the deaths – mostly murders – of the children of some of the oldest families in that part of the state. Each of the children had names that began with “K”. Had Michael and Jo’s child lived, her name would have begun with “K,” like Kito Tidwell’s name.

His dream continues. He is a black woman – none other than Sara Tidwell – walking along the lakeside path the locals refer to as the street. The year is 1902. Sara and her family have been living among the Maine Yankees who tolerate the presence of Negroes in the time when Jim Crow dominated the South. Sara and her family have performed he bawdy and raunchy blues numbers for the locals all summer. Sara is out taking a walk to rest and relax.

She encounters five local young men lead by Max Devore’s ancestor, a lumberjack. They proceed to gang rape Sara Tidwell. Sara’s son, Kito, is fishing nearby and hears the attack upon his mother. When he tries to intervene, one of the men drowns him. The men eventually beat Sara Tidwell to death and bury her. Jo’s spirit guides Michael to Sara’s grave along the path. The ghost of Sara Tidwell is determined to have Kyra Devore, the last of the offspring of the men who killed her. Mike digs frantically and finds a desiccated canvas bag holding a bag of bones. Michael destroys those bones and with it the ghost of Sara Tidwell. Jo’s spirit departs as well with a message of love.

In the epilogue, we learn that Michael has retired from writing, living off the proceeds of his five best sellers. He is trying to adopt Kyra Devore.

This book marked the end of a six book series which could be subtitled, “The Evil that White Men Do.” In the first two of this series, Gerald’s Game and Dolores Claiborne, the evil that white men do is overt. In Gerald’s Game, Jessie Burlingame is tied to a bed by her husband who can only become sexually aroused by tying up his wife. Dolores Claiborne lays out a long confession to killing her husband who beat her and sexually abused their daughter.

In Insomnia, a man driven by a passion for stopping abortion attacks a battered women’s shelter. In The Green Mile, white men aren’t as overtly evil, but in the subtext of the novel, they carry out the second crucifixion of Christ who comes in the figure of a giant black man. In Rose Madder, a battered woman is pursued across several dimensions and worlds by a husband determined to not let her escape his abuse.

In Bag of Bones, the hero of the novel is a white guy determined to do the right thing with purely altruistic motives. But in the subtext is the century-old evil done by white men upon a black woman. The ghost of Sara Tidwell is not presented as evil or malevolent – just bent on revenge upon the descendents of the men who wronged her. By not presenting Sara Tidwell’s ghost as an evil antagonist, King hints that perhaps the death of these descendents was justice.

Stephen King’s feminist phase was a miserable time for King fans because he did most of his worst writing in this time span from 1992 to 1998. Gerald’s Game, Insomnia, and Rose Madder rank as his least enjoyable books along with Lisey’s Story – another attempt at a haunted love story. The Green Mile was a great story and a great book, but still contained that distracting subtext.

King made it clear with the publication of Needful Things that he was switching gears; putting the haunted town of Castle Rock behind him once and for all so he could resist the temptation to revisit it and move on to different types of fiction. While a writer must mature and his writing must transition with that maturity, King lost a lot of credibility with the publication of Gerald’s Game in 1992 and his career has never been the same. Never well received by critics, King was always well received by his legion of fans. Gerald’s Game was the first King book to be derided by his fans and critics alike. Before Gerald’s Game, every book King wrote was certain to be a best seller. After Gerald’s Game, his books struggled to make the best seller list.

Bag of Bones’ subtext of evil white males isn’t revealed until the end and isn’t as overt as in the previous books, making it an enjoyable read. Michael Noonan is a strong character and King superbly develops the bond between Noonan and his wife even though she died before page one. The many mysteries contained within the book hold the attention of the reader and despite King’s need to write socially relevant fiction at that time, he never lost his knack for compelling narrative.

As a side note, someone needs to tell Stephen King that Jeep did not build the Scout. This is the second book in which King refers to a "Jeep Scout," driven by one of the characters. The Scout was manufactured by International Harvester as a competitor to the four wheel drive Jeep CJ, marketed with farmers in mind.

Standing alone, Bag of Bones is a pretty good book and for the reader who is not one of King’s “Constant Readers,” it was a compelling story. For those of us who’d read everything the man had written and were suffering through his feminist phase, the end left us with mixed emotions, wondering when the feminist phase was going to end. Thankfully, it did with this book.

Bag of Bones
was made into a two part television miniseries that aired on A&E network in December 2011. It starred Pierce Brosnan as Michael Noonan.

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