Friday, May 27, 2016

Bag of Bones by Stephen King

Genre: horror
Published: 1998
Pages: 736

Synopsis: Four years after the sudden death of his wife, forty-year-old bestselling novelist Mike Noonan is still grieving. Unable to write, and plagued by vivid nightmares set at the western Maine summerhouse he calls Sara Laughs, Mike reluctantly returns to the lakeside getaway. There, he finds his beloved Yankee town held in the grip of a powerful millionaire, Max Devore, whose vindictive purpose is to take his three-year-old granddaughter, Kyra, away from her widowed young mother, Mattie. As Mike is drawn into Mattie and Kyra's struggle, as he falls in love with both of them, he is also drawn into the mystery of Sara Laughs, now the site of ghostly visitations and escalating terrors. What are the forces that have been unleashed here—and what do they want of Mike Noonan?


As an assistant at my high school's library, I came to know the titles and covers of Stephen King's books very well.  They were some of the few books at the school library that I had to constantly check in and out; Stephen King is very popular with teenagers, as well as with everybody else.  I myself checked out Carrie, which I didn't really like, and Firestarter, which I loved.  Other than that, I had not read any of Stephen King's oeuvre until I picked up Bag of Bones a few weeks ago, although I love horror and the film adaptations of King's novels like Misery and the Shining.

Unfortunately, Bag of Bones did not live up to the high expectations I had for Stephen King.  This book is an absolute brick, weighing in at more than 700 pages, and though it starts off with a bang (the death of Mike Noonan's wife Jo), I found the story to be surprisingly slow-paced after that.  King actually does an excellent job creating Joanna as a likable character, even though she dies in the first few pages.  He also sets up this mystery of what she might have been up to before she died (Noonan discovers she was secretly pregnant with a child that might not have been theirs together.)  But the reader has to slog through about a hundred pages of Noonan grieving for Jo and having the occasional creepy dream about their lake house before he actually decides to go to the lake house, called Sara Laughs, on Dark Score Lake.  

An old lakeside shack with a pretty but eerie name and a dark past!  I had a feeling the book was going to become a lot more interesting, and it did.  A little.  King's writing and the level of detail which he delves into is such that he makes the atmosphere and the characters feel incredibly real.  It is also such that I felt myself growing a bit bored on more than a few occasions.  I wanted to learn more about that old creep Max Devore, determined to steal the daughter of Mike's new friend Mattie, not read about Mike going to the Village CafĂ© for the third time.  The haunted happenings in the lake house Sara Laughs progress a bit stereotypically, for someone who freely admits to having watched every episode of Paranormal Witness.  Mike feels a cold breeze, the magnets rearrange themselves on his fridge, he hears a child crying, he dreams about corpses (a lot!)  The aspect of the novel I liked best was Mike's discovery of the tragic story of Sara Tidwell, the original "Sara Laughs," a Blues singer who lived and died near Dark Score Lake.  

And the aspect of the novel I liked least, other than the overly detailed writing and slow pace?  That would be the protagonist and first-person narrator, Mike Noonan.  It is easy to feel sorry for him since he has lost his wife, but for whatever reason, I did not find it so easy to like him.  Admittedly horror is not a genre known for its likable characters.  Protagonists in horror tend to have shadowy pasts and dark secrets, which is interesting, but Mike did not even have that.  His deceased wife Jo was the one with the unknown past and secrets, but the story is narrated by Mike, not Jo.  And Mike is a bit bland, as are a lot of the characters he meets around Dark Score Lake.  

Not so Pierce Brosnan or Anika Noni Rose, though!  After I finished reading Bag of Bones, I watched the 2011 mini-series.  It stars Pierce Brosnan as Mike Noonan and features Anika Noni Rose (The Princess and the Frog, Dreamgirls) as the Blues singer Sara Tidwell.  While I would by no means call Bag of Bones the greatest horror mini-series ever, it was well-acted, riddled with creepy jump scares, and tells basically the same story as the seven hundred page novel in a mere two hours.  Best of all, the mini-series can currently be watched for free on Youtube.

In short, this is one of very few cases in which I would recommend the movie instead of the book.  I really wanted to like Stephen King.  He is obviously a masterful writer, but honestly, the slow pacing of his books and their high page counts may mean that they are not for me.  However, if anyone knows perhaps a lesser-known Stephen King book that they really enjoyed, then I would love a recommendation.

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