In the hopes that you’ll pick up this book if you haven’t already, this review will be spoiler free.
I’m an aspiring writer myself, and I can tell you this book depresses me, because it’s one of those books that made me think: “Damn, I’m never gonna write anything this good.” I’m not afraid to admit this either, because Bag of Bones deserves all the praise that it gets.
This book… By golly this book was scary. It probably won’t keep you up at night, especially if you’ve read other horror novels or enjoy watching horror movies, but it will most definitely get in your head and leave behind a whole lot of unpleasant imagery. The experience of this novel is powered by King’s superior narrative, and his incredible imagination and re-imagining of the standard ghost story.
Published in 1998, Bag of Bones tells the story of Mike Noonan as he copes with the death of his wife (which happens in chapter one) and his consequent writer’s block. This novel was the winner of the Bram Stoker Award and the British Fantasy Award, and deservedly so. Plot, characters, and narrative are executed almost to perfection, coming together to create a story that is haunting, immersive, and an irresistible page-turner. As always, we will look at those three elements in this review.
After his wife dies, Mike Noonan visits their old summer house in a small town somewhere in the state of Maine. Strange things begin to happen, and Mike realizes that he is not alone; ghosts reach out to him, their actions culminating into a series of events that are tied to the history of the small town.
This book has one of the best plots I have read in any book of any genre. An argument could be made that King uses many cliches (this story is, after all, your typical rural, haunted house story), but his presentation is unique and inspiring; he has once again found a way to tell a ghost story that is novel and creepy, no matter how much of a horror buff you are.
I don’t think it’s possible to pinpoint one single element of King’s writing that allows him to achieve this, but I do believe his strong plot point (the entire impetus for this story, and thus the final secret of the climax) is a key feature in all of this. The plot King has created naturally places his characters in emotionally-charged situations, bringing out the best and worst in humanity. On the spiritual/mystical side of the plot, the horror within this story is described with enough detail to send a shiver down your spine* but still vague enough to be terrifying and unsettling.
*for the first time ever, this actually happened to me as I was reading a book, and I was blown away! For those in the know, it was a scene that involved a refrigerator.
For the longest time I had believed Stephen King’s greatest strength was in his characters. From Pet Semetary to Insomnia, I have always admired King’s ability to make characters feel so real, and how he can make readers (like me) bawl when bad things happen to them. Surprisingly, however, characters are not the strongest feature of this story. It’s not that they’re bad, but the plot and the narrative do most of the heavy lifting to keep us engaged.
Nonetheless, Mike Noonan is most definitely a sympathetic character. His wife dies in the beginning, and his sorrow eventually leads him down darker paths both externally and internally. Mattie and Kyra are also excellent portraits of single motherhood, and the rest of the supporting cast fulfill their roles with enough quirks and motivations to make them real and unique.
One thing that King definitely accomplishes is turning the town, TR-90, into a character itself. We don’t really see this enough, but the setting is, more often than not, worthy of being treated as a character in of itself, with its own physical description, history, and psychology. Small, back-country towns are a trope in horror, and I haven’t been around long enough to know whether or not King helped to shape that stereotype in horror, but I can say for sure he uses it to its maximum potential with this book. Throughout the story readers will get the feeling that the town is alive, and it’s an ominous feeling to say the least.
But no matter how good the plot or characters are, none of that matters if it isn’t communicated effectively to the reader, which brings us to…
Bag of Bones is a triumph because King’s prose helps the story come to life not just through fancy and meaningful diction, but by using common everyday words in new contexts and new meanings. Basically, what I’m trying to say is that this book conveys complicated events and ideas (most of which are awful and horrifying) into simple and enjoyable prose, and that is a truly difficult thing to do.
Think about it: how would you convince readers that a haunted summer house exists, and that it is intertwined with the town’s history? How would you throw in a custody battle between a single, loving, down-to-earth mother versus a rich and terrible dying old man? There are complicated things happening in this plot, but it’s easy to follow because King is a great tour guide. He is relentless in pointing out the popular sights, such as the creepy lake where someone drowned and the clock with eyes on the wall. This extends to the emotions of the characters as things also; King tells the story so well that their emotions become our emotions. I swear, only King can make it convincing for a character to stay at the scene of a horror story and have it make sense too.
Stephen King is truly one of the great storytellers of our time, and I am very tempted to say that Bag of Bones might be his best, but I haven’t read It and The Stand and in a while, so here’s a grain of salt for you.
Reeeeeeeeeeeeeead this booooook!!!! It’s so good! I recommend it to any and all horror fans, obviously, but also to anyone looking for a damn good story with engaging characters, an edge-of-your-seat plot, and a hauntingly beautiful narrative that isn’t afraid to also punch you right in the gut. It’ll make you laugh, it’ll make you hold your breath, it might even make you put it down, but you’ll likely pick it up again, because we just have to know what happens next! And I promise you the ending doesn’t disappoint (unlike other King novels, unfortunately).
It is still my overall number one favourite King book, but now there’s a contender to Insomnia for second place, but that’s a blog post for another time. I am only sad that I hadn’t read Bag of Bones sooner, but then again, like most great novels, you’d only appreciate it all the more after reading a heap of mediocre books. Stephen King is still king of the storytelling hill.
This has been a gamobo review. Thanks for reading!