"The aspiring novelist should understand from the outset that fiction's goals were forever beyond his reach, that the job was an exercise in futility. 'Compared to the dullest human being actively walking about on the face of the earth and casting his shadow there,' Hardy supposedly said, 'the most brilliantly drawn character is but a bag of bones.'"
I always find myself saying that Bag of Bones is my favourite Stephen King novel that nobody's ever heard of. It's true, but then again, there are SO many Stephen King books that people have heard of that it doesn't really say that much. More accurately, then, at this precise moment it's my second favourite Stephen King book of all time (after It, of course) and I just love it, love it, love it.
I've been trying to decide exactly what I love about it, but trying to think of any specifics just gets tied up in a swirl of love for the book and then I get all dazed and am none the wiser. There are a few things that, structurally, I really appreciate- it's written in the first person, which is rare for King and which makes it SUCH a treat when he does it because he's so good at it. It's also perfect for this book because there's so much Mike (our narrator) doesn't know for so long, which means WE don't know it either which really ramps up the suspense.
I also love the fact that the supernatural is very subtle in this book, but it's also completely integral to the story, so it's there in the background for the whole book UNTIL it becomes THE thing in the last 100 pages or so, at which point you realise just how important it's been the whole time. It's all very clever, and it's also pleasing to know that the book kind of works without the supernatural elements, too.
Now, the actual story (supernatural things that make you reconsider the entirety of the book aside). It's essentially the story of Mike Noonan, a Maine writer (SO ORIGINAL. But I'll let that slide because he lives in Derry which is AWESOME and also, I like the guy) who becomes a widower at the beginning of the story. When he finds out that she was pregnant, his grief is multiplied by at least two, setting him off into a spiral of numbness and writers block that lasts for four years. Thanks to some increasingly creepy dreams, he decides to go to his house at an extremely creepy lake for the summer, where he meets a beautiful young widow (Mattie) who's tied up in a bitter custody battle with her creepy father-in-law (it's all very fairytale like) and he decides to help her because he's a nice guy. And things sort of spiral from there.
Only, of course, that's really only what's going on on the surface, and underneath that there's the distinct possibility that Mike's house is haunted by more than one ghost, the mystery surrounding what Mike's wife was doing in her final months, the weird dreams that Mike continues to have. The thing is, though, I could tell you about everything that happens in Bag of Bones, and it would be pretty exciting, sure, but none of that explains what I really love about it, because I think that's really in the details, and in the things I've kind of made up in my head about it over the past bazoollion years (seriously, I first read this a looooong time ago). Here are a few of them:
- It's very literary- Because Mike is a writer, he has also read a lot, and that means this book is filled with references to other books. And it's not that they're really a huge part of this story, but they're definitely noticeable, and they're just thrown in casually like the whole book is basically just having a conversation with a friend who has the same cultural references as you. Which is actually a really nice feeling. Off the top of my head, I can think of references to Rebecca, Bartleby, The Moon and Sixpence and Thomas Hardy.
- The many meanings of 'Bag of Bones'- This concept is introduced in the story in the quote above, and it does a couple of things- tips a little meta nod to the fact that hey! You're reading a book!, and also describes the emptiness Mike feels after his wife's death. And I like all of that but THEN later in the book (waaay later) there's a whole other meaning to it that kind of rips my heart out. So you're going to want to read that.
- It feels very personal- This is very much a thing that I've made up in my head, but it feels right so I'm going with it. So Bag of Bones is all about a Maine writer whose wife dies and leaves him with basically just memories and writers block. I'm absolutely just choosing to believe this, but it seems that for a (Maine) writer such as King, who loves his wife very much (it's really well documented), his two biggest fears would be losing his wife and getting writer's block. And I'm not at all saying that Mike Noonan just IS Stephen King, but just that it seems like King would be able to tap into this fears fairly easily to make this book so realistic, and yeah, heartbreaking. And also it makes me feel closer to Stephen King as a human but I know that's only in my brain so shh.
- Connections to his other works- Ok, I always love these, but this was the first time I've read Bag of Bones having ALSO read the books referenced in it, so it was like reading a whole new book and it was EXCITING! (For the record: Mike has a chat with Ralph Roberts from Insomnia, asks after Sheriff Pangbourne from Needful Things and mentions the grisly end of Thad Beaumont from The Dark Half). Eve more excitingly, I feel like I found a connection to a book he hadn't even written yet- there's this bit during a dream-that-isn't-a-dream where there's clearly an allusion to the aftermath of JFK's shooting, which could just be, y'know, a reference to a historical event BUT King had been trying to write 11.22.63 since the 70s, so. The Jury's out on that one.
*Yeah, I basically just said 'this book is for everyone!' But seriously, read it read it read it, I love it so much!