Bag of Bones by Stephen King (Hodder and Stoughton, 1998)
Just when you think you know what kind of novel Stephen King produces, he goes ahead and surprises you...
Mike Noonan's life is going just fine. His novels are bestsellers, his wife is happy and they are financially secure enough to own a home and a lake-house for holidays. Then his wife collapses and dies from a brain aneurysm on a swelteringly hot day. Mike has to grapple with a disabling grief at her loss, made unimaginably worse by the fact that Jo was in the early stages of pregnancy when she died.
As his paralysing grief takes hold, Mike is assailed by writer's block. He drifts through the years that follow, plundering a safe-deposit lockbox for manuscripts he'd squirreled away but unable to write a fresh word at all.
When the last of these manuscripts is submitted to his agent, who is none the wiser, and the prospect of a multi-book deal arises, Mike knows he'll have to tackle his demons head on. He heads back to 'Sara Laughs', the lake house where he and Jo were so happy in the hope of being able to write again and look forward instead of back.
Bag of Bones was a long book, as many of the more recent Stephen King novels are. In fact, for diehard fans that's just what they're after, and year and year King doesn't disappoint. The three plots strands kept the action moving along.
Mike befriends a young widow being bullied by her child's grandfather into surrendering custody. He investigates the bizarre goings on at his lake home, only to discover that Jo had been doing so secretly for years before her death. He also gets down to writing again and at last faces his grief and begins to overcome it.
At 650 pages, some might say that Bag of Bones could have been told in half the length, but to think so would be to miss the point of how much Stephen King fans enjoy spending time with their favourite author and don't want the yearly experience of delving into the new Stephen King novel to end. It's a bit like having one of your best buddies tell you a story. Sure, they take their time doing it but you're enjoying their company enough not to mind.
I liked the way that the horror element was hinted at, more in the background as the main plot strands progressed. Grief can be as horrific as any monster or fiend, and Stephen King brought out that fact sensitively throughout the book. Mike's brave face and outwardly dignified demeanour made him a true hero. He started to feel better, as so many bereavement survivors would attest, when he begins to think of others: Mattie and her little daughter Kyra inspire his sympathy and he does all he can to help Mattie fight back against the powerful grandfather who wants to tear her child away from her.
Mike's turmoil was almost entirely inner challenge and there is some risk that a character who struggles emotionally for years without beginning to improve will end up feeling weak and self-indulgent. I never felt that with Mike Noonan. He lost everything when his wife died: not just the woman he adored but their unborn child, leaving him adrift in a future he no longer really cared about and unable to turn to his other love, writing fiction. When a total stranger is struggling, he steps up without asking anything in return, and this was what I liked most about him.
Bag of Bones surprised me a great deal, but I loved it notwithstanding its length. Mike Noonan is the kind of character who I think will stay with me for a quite a while.
Thank you for reading my Way Back Whensday post review of Bag of Bones by Stephen King. I'll be back Friday week. In the meantime, the comments section is open for you to share your thoughts on this book or any other horror book you've enjoyed and would recommend to others.
If you fancy something different, you might like to take a chance on my review of Congo by Michael Crichton here.