What If We Survive, But It Drives Us Insane?

(Bag of Bones)

Bag of Bones is not my favorite King story. Not by a long shot. If I try to reduce the plot down to its bones, what I come up with is this: a rich widower in his 40s relocates to his summer place to try to cope with his professional struggles (writer’s block, primarily) and his personal struggles (suspicions about his late wife that he can’t easily resolve). While there, he meets and becomes enamored with a very young single mother and her daughter who are currently being hassled by a rich grandfather who wants custody of the child. The widower resolves to use his resources to help them out, for altruistic reasons, he tells himself, all the while indulging in lecherous fantasies about the mother. He gets into an altercation with the rich grandfather, the rich grandfather commits suicide, the widower and the single mother nearly hook up even though the power imbalance and her desperation make this remarkably inappropriate, the single mother is then killed and the widower ends up with the child — who he also wanted, though hopefully not for the same reasons he wanted the mother. In the background, there’s a ghost story happening, one that’s tangentially related to the violent, racist, rapey actions of the ancestors of both the widower and the child, putting the child in mortal danger. The ghost of the widower’s ex-wife saves the child and widower so that they can live happily ever after.

I mean, it’s more than that, of course. In the hands of a lesser writer, this would be a disaster, but this book isn’t really that, maybe because King books aren’t really all that plot-dependent to begin with. Their strength is in the character studies, the relationship studies, the studies of the sociologies of specific places and times. Some plots are better than others, but the resolution of the plot is never really the point, the journey is the point, and King is good at the journey, even if you don’t love the plot. He’s good at the characters, too. Even when you don’t like them.

I don’t especially like Mike Noonan, the book’s main character and our POV character. My notes are full of things like “Yikes!” and “I hate this” and “Jesus, Mike, what are you thinking and why? Or King, what are you thinking? Not sure who to dislike here.” I mean, he makes some seriously unkind remarks about trailer-trash, and the fact that he eventually decides they don’t apply to the young single mom who is the object of his lust throughout most of the book doesn’t really help, because he’s still pretty sure they apply to someone. He goes on a whole diatribe about what he calls “Evil Little Fat Folks” that’s just cringey as hell, and his racial attitudes aren’t super evolved either, although he’s pretty sure that he’s better than the white folks who use the n-word outright, apparently not realizing that just not calling black people slurs or killing them for existing doesn’t exactly make him a civil rights hero.

And then there’s the romance, which is just yucky. Who really wants to read about 40-something men trying to hook up with desperate barely-legal women? Maybe 40-something men, but I’d actually guess most of them would rather watch it in porn. And on top of that, the relationship that Mike develops with the daughter and his ending up with her, probably permanently, by the end is yucky too, in a way that’s hard to articulate. Like his dead wife didn’t manage to give him a baby, so it’s just fine that he snags one from this kind of sad, desperate waif of a single mother he found because he’s a big rich important man who really wanted a daughter with a “K” name, so why shouldn’t he get one? And no worries — he gets close enough to screwing that daughter’s hot mom but never has to deal with her getting older and less hot, or disagreeing with him about how to raise her, or leaving him for someone age-appropriate and taking the kid with her because she gets shot to death. Lucky him. I guess we’re supposed to feel bad for him that he didn’t actually manage to get it all consummated with Mattie? I don’t. She deserved better. It just seems very entitled, even if he didn’t necessarily demand any of it or cause it to happen that way.

And – I may have subtly accused Mike of wanting the single mom’s daughter for reasons other than wanting to parent her. I probably shouldn’t – there’s certainly nothing textual to suggest that what he really wants is to groom her. There’s nothing subtextual that I can point to that suggests that either. And I can’t even say that it’s because of who wrote it – I’m sort of hesitant to even think to myself, let alone say out loud, that a male celebrity of any kind is one of the good ones, because it seems like every other day we get a dark secret about some previously respected prominent man. But as of this writing, King has never had a me-too moment that I’m aware of, and I would honestly be shocked if he had that sort of skeleton in his closet. Yeah, anything’s possible, never meet your heroes, etc, but nothing I’ve ever heard or read about the man suggests any of that kind of fuckery, and nothing I know of that he’s said or done personally sets off alarm bells for me, so… like, he might write that kind of character, sure, he’s a horror writer. But endorse it? Include it as part of the makeup of one of his novel’s heroes? Especially a writer-hero, which is almost always at least partially an author stand-in? No. I don’t think we’re meant in any way to think that Mike wants Kyra for this purpose, and I don’t even think it could be an accidental tip of the hand by the author kind of thing. I just think the whole way that Mike ends up with Kyra is so yucky and unfair to her mother and convenient for Mike that I think my mind says “why couldn’t this go even further into disgusting territory? Maybe 40-year-old Mike is thinking that 60-year-old Mike is going to be in prime position to screw a barely legal Kyra. Or worse.” I mean, the story is not saying that. But if Mike Noonan were a real person, and not a Stephen King writer-hero, I would suspect him of at least thinking that. Because he really seems to get what he wants without seeming to try too hard and without regard for anyone else, particularly in the area of young women, at least from what we see in this book. But I’ll admit that that’s probably unfair of me toward hypothetical real-Mike, and it’s definitely unfair of me toward book-Mike. I don’t really understand why he seems to think Kyra should be his kid from first meeting, but I don’t doubt that it’s only meant to be fatherly. It’s still yucky, though, and I guess that yuck makes me think that other yuck could be lurking behind.

And yet… as much as I dislike all of this, it’s hard to avoid liking Mike Noonan at times. We’re in his head, after all, and King is a talented enough writer to make Mike sympathetic through his internal monologue, even if he maybe shouldn’t be. We can tell King intends for us to sympathize with Mike, and unlike some presidents I could name, King actually does have the best words — or he’s just good with the same old words everyone has access to — so it’s really hard to hate him while you’re in his head.

Of course, the story is always about more than what it’s about, too — a lot of this one is about writer’s block. I don’t know if that has ever been an actual problem for King (his publishing schedule seems to argue against it) but even if he’s never had a moment of writer’s block, it seems certain he’s had the fear of it. Every writer does. And that translates well here — Mike seems more personally affected by the writer’s block than by the actual ghosts who are leaving him undeniable ghost messages. And I don’t know how anyone else might feel about it, but I find it kind of hard to blame him. Writer’s block does seem pretty horrific from where I sit, too. But I don’t know, other people might not take being haunted quite so much in stride.

However, if I remember correctly, King has a better book about writer’s block coming. The ghost story is sort of intriguing here, no question about that, but I’m put off a lot by the so-called love story, mainly because the male lead here seems generally unworthy of the love he received from both his late wife and his barely-legal paramour here. It just seems like male wish fulfillment. But I’m not going to lie — I don’t dislike Mike Noonan enough to not be able to get into the story, and while his flaws jolt me out of the thing a little more often than happens usually with King, I like him well enough most of the time while I’m in his head. It’s mostly when I’m examining the book later, when I’m not actively reading it, that I find issues. As per usual, the storyteller here can mostly keep me involved in the story while he’s telling it. It’s not my favorite King book, but it’s still an absorbing read, and better than a lot of writers would have done with a similar plot idea.

Bag of Bones was made into a TV miniseries with Pierce Brosnan. I have not seen it (surprise, surprise) but reading about it leaves me with the impression that it was just a middle-of-the-road movie, and I don’t know if that’s because it’s a middle-of-the-road story for this author or because they didn’t do as good a job as they could have adapting it. They do seem to have changed a bunch of random details for no obvious reason, and it seems to me that’s never a good sign. I could see this particular story being pretty cinematic in a way that a lot of King stories aren’t, but it would still take some skill to make it work, and it seems like this one probably didn’t meet that threshold.

By the way, connection-wise, Mike starts this story in Derry, where he interacts with notable characters like Ralph Roberts. His late wife bought medicine from Joe Wyze just before her death. His summer place is on Dark Score Lake. This doesn’t seem to be a story that’s super tied in to the larger King-verse, but if you look closely, there are a lot of little Easter eggs that add up to evidence that Mike’s summer home, Sarah Laughs, and the ghosts that inhabit it are part of the wider universe that King is putting together here.

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