Ghostly Love: My Review of Bag of Bones

As anyone who knows me will tell you:  I am not much of a “girly girl.”

In fact, I could almost be mistaken for “one of the guys”  (although hopefully this does not happen too often, due to certain “assets” that I possess).

NFL: Denver Broncos at Indianapolis Colts

I am rude and crude at times.  I love to watch football and scream copious of amounts of profanity  and cheer for my team.  I laugh at bodily functions.  I make dirty jokes.  After all, I can’t help that both penises and vaginas are still hilarious even after my nearly 38 years on Earth!

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Of course, the non-girly tendency extends to my taste in books, movies and television.  As a rule, I don’t “do” chic lit.  I prefer fantasy and horror, although I like to think my repertoire is vast.

GoT meme

As for movies and TV, I generally consider them a waste unless at least one person is getting blown up.  Bonus for fiery car crash scenes.  And they have to be quotable, too.  More bonuses for clever usage of the word “fuck”, which happens to be among my favorite words, actually.

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But, there are always exceptions to the rule.  Every once in a while, I feel “girly” and decide that a good, ugly cry may be cathartic, after all.

ugly cry

And my soul is not completely black, I like to think that there is a little bit of color hidden in all that darkness.  In other words, I do enjoy romance, at least a little bit.

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So who do I turn to when I need a dose of chic lit?

You guessed it…The Master himself!  Again, this blog, you being surprised…I won’t even get into it any more!

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Yep, it turns out that old Uncle Stevie can write romance really well…is there anything The Master can’t do?  Well, maybe interpretive dance, but don’t feel bad, Sai King, I kind of suck at that myself, actually!

Many of King’s books actually contain some great romances.  These include Wizard and Glass, It, 11/22/63 and quite a few others.  As I have stated many times before, King is much more than just “America’s Boogeyman.”  He includes that element of reality in his stories that take them from good to unforgettable.  And romance is a part of everyone’s life.  After all, even cold-blooded killers can fall in love and get their hearts broken, just like the rest of us.

Roland 1

The novel Bag of Bones is on the list of books written by King that do justice to romance.  On the one hand, it is “classic” chic lit.  We have a widower.  We have a single mom.  There is a cute kid.  And a mean old guy trying to ruin the lives of said single mom and cute kid, until the widower steps in and offers his help, falling in love with the single mom and cute kid in the process.  But on the other hand, it is classic King.  There are ghosts.  Lots and lots of ghosts.  Senseless deaths.  A mystery that needs to be unraveled soon, or someone (well, make that several someones) will be in grave danger.  The best of both worlds, in other words.

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So a spooky ghost story that also has some “feelsies”?  Well, it’s been awhile since I had any catharsis, so sign me up!  Time to take another journey into one of my favorite King novels, so buckle up for the ride!

As always:

Homer spoiler


 

Synopsis

The story is told from the perspective of Mike Noonan, who is a moderately successful novelist living in the town of Derry, Maine.  The book begins in tragedy:  Mike’s wife Jo dies in a drugstore parking lot of a brain aneurysm. Even more tragically, Mike finds out that Jo was about seven weeks pregnant with the couple’s first child when she died.  Mike spends the next four years in a haze of grief, unable to write.  Any time Mike tries to write again, he becomes physically ill.  Mike also begins to dream of the couple’s summer home, Sara Laughs.  Even though he has not spent very much time in the home since the death of his wife, Mike decides that he will spend a few months in the home, with the hopes that the change in scenery will help him overcome the writer’s block that he is suffering.

Almost as soon as Mike arrives at his summer home, he senses a ghostly presence.  The ghostly presence indicates that it may or may not be his late wife, Jo.  Mike also makes the acquaintance of Mattie Devore, one of the residents of small town.  Mattie is a fan Mike’s work.  Mike rescues Mattie’s daughter Kyra, who has wandered onto the highway while Mike is driving.  This spells trouble for Mattie, as she is a widow engaged in a custody battle with her rich father-in-law, Max Devore.  Almost immediately, Mike receives a harassing phone call from Max Devore, and is summoned to appear in a court deposition in regards to custody of Kyra Devore.  Mike also meets Rogette Whitmore, Max Devore’s personal assistant, and George Footman, a local sheriff’s deputy who also works for Devore on the side.  It is clear that Mike has made an enemy of the old man, and he becomes angered at the old man’s  harassment of Mattie and Kyra Devore.

Mike also begins to realize that he is not alone in Sara Laughs.  He continues to sense a ghostly presence, and also realizes that his wife Jo had made a few visits to Sara Laughs before her death without Mike’s knowledge.  Jo was also seen in the company of an unknown male, and Mike begins to wonder if Jo had been having an affair.  Mike also begins to receive messages from someone or something in regards to Mattie and Kyra, begging him to help Maddie with her custody battle.  Mike then hires a lawyer named John Storrow to represent Mattie in her custody battle.  Mattie is grateful, and promises that she will do anything she can to repay Mike.  Mike also begins to fall in love with Mattie, and has a strange dream that includes Mattie, his late wife Jo, and Sarah Tidwell, a blues singer who inhabited the land now occupied by Mike back in the 1900’s.  Mike grows curious in regards to the history of his house, and begins to conduct his own research.

Shortly after arriving at his summer home, Mike is able to write again, and begins work on a new novel, hoping that the writer’s block is permanently gone.

Mike also receives a visit at his home from Max Devore and his assistant Rogette, and the visit is not a friendly one.  Mike is attacked by Rogette, and nearly drowns in Darkscore Lake.  However, he receives some help from the ghost of his wife Jo, and manages to survive the encounter.  Mike also receives a visit from Richard Osgood, another hired gun employed by Maxwell Devore.  Osgood serves Mike with a letter asking him to drop the custody case for Kyra Devore, and Devore will do the same.  The letter also taunts Mike in regards to his previous encounter with Devore and Rogette.  Mike speaks to Rogette on the phone, and tells her that he will fight back if either her or Max Devore tries to attack him again. Mike also receives a distressed phone call from Mattie, who has lost her job at the library due to the actions of Max Devore.

The next day, Mike receives a call from his caretaker, Bill Dean.  Bill tells him that Max Devore passed away the previous night, supposedly committing suicide by drowning himself in the bathtub.  Mike meets with Mattie and Kyra, and shares a kiss with Mattie.  Mattie plans a party to celebrate the fact that she no longer has to worry about the custody case, and invites Mike and the lawyers he hired.  Mattie also tells Mike that there have been some strange things going on in her house, namely magnetic letters that spell out messages and the names of people, including Mike’s deceased wife.  Mattie gives Mike one of the messages, but he is not sure what it means, other than the fact that it may pertain to one of his crossword puzzles.

That evening, Mike speaks to Jo’s brother, Frank.  Mike learns that Jo had been doing research on Sara Laughs, and had perhaps stumbled onto something in regards to the house and Mike’s family history.  Frank confesses that he met Jo at Dark Score Lake, and that Jo was not having an affair.  Frank also tells Mike that Jo stated that she would never return to Sara Laughs, and that she would tell Mike her secret when she was ready.

That night, Mike has what he believes to be a dream where he visits the Fryeburg Fair in the 1920’s.  Kyra Devore also joins him the dream, and the dream is extremely vivid, causing Mike to believe that he has actually traveled back in time.  Mike and Kyra see Sara Tidwell perform with her band, The Red Tops.  Sara is wearing a dress that belongs to Mattie, and clearly has evil designs directed towards Kyra.  Mike and Kyra also encounter people who appear to be the ancestors of some of the people in town, including one man named Jared Devore, who is likely related to Max Devore.  Mike is able to escape the past through a fun house, with the help of Kyra.  After Mike arrives safely at his house, he hears someone screaming, and thinks it to be the ghost of Jo.

Mike speaks to Mattie, and tells her that she may still be in danger, although Mattie is extremely happy because she got her job at the library back.  Mike talks to several of the people in town, and learns that several children who has names that sound similar (Carla, Kerry and even Kia, his unborn daughter), have died mysteriously over the years, and that this likely has something to do with Sarah Tidwell, her brother Reg and his son Kito.  In the process, Mike loses the services of his caretaker and housekeeper, who become upset when he begins asking questions.  Mattie’s lawyer, John Storrow, also speaks to Mike and informs that Mattie has inherited 80 million dollars from Max Devore.  The only catch is that she must remain in town for at least one year after his death.  Mike continues to sense a presence in his house.  He hears a child crying, and figures that must be Kito.  He also encounters the ghost of Sara Tidwell in his bed.  Mattie and Kyra also sense a supernatural presence in their home, and Kyra’s magnetic alphabet letters mysteriously vanish.

A crossword puzzle book finally provides Mike some more clues in regards to Sarah Tidwell and the history of the town.  When he looks in the phone book, Mike sees many names that are similar, especially in the families that have lived in town for some time.  Mike begins to fear that Kyra is in danger, as her name is is one of the similar ones.

Mike meets John Storrow at the airport, and he, John and the rest of the team that assisted on Mattie’s case meet at her house for a celebration.  However, the celebration comes to a tragic end, as it is interrupted by gunfire from George Kennedy, one of Max Devore’s hired hands.  John Storrow is wounded in the firefight, and Mattie is killed almost instantly.

Mike calls the authorities, and flees to Sara Laughs with Kyra, comforting her the best that he can.  However, Mike is nearly overcome by another force that almost compels him to drown Kyra in the bathtub.  Mike is then distracted by the ghost of his wife Jo.  He realizes that he has been inadvertently writing clues in the novel he was writing.  One of those clues indicates that Mike needs to looks under Jo’s old studio for two plaster owls.  Mike heads to the studio, unsure of what he will find.

When Mike arrives in the studio, he struggles with the ghost of Sara Tidwell.  With the help of Jo’s ghost, he finds the plaster owls.  Mike finds several newspaper clippings in regards to Sara Tidwell and her band, the Red Tops.  Mike also finds several newspaper articles showing the deaths of children, all of whom have similar names to Kyra’s, and has a vision of the father of his caretaker Bill drowning Bill’s twin sister Carla.  Mike realizes that the ancestors of the townspeople had done something horrible to Sarah Tidwell, and that he is also descended from one of those men.  Mike also vows to keep Kyra safe, and put the ghosts to rest once and for all.

The ghosts of Sara Laughs then tell the story of what happened to Sara Tidwell.  Sara and her band the Red Tops had settled in Dark Score Lake and called it home.  Most of the townspeople had no objection to their presence, even though they were black and this was turn of the century Maine.  However, Jared Devore, an ancestor of Max Devore and a small group of his friends did object to the presence of black people in their town, especially a black woman with Sara’s personality.  One afternoon, Jared and his friends confront Sara as she is walking along the lake.  Sara laughs at Jared, and is gang raped for her actions and then murdered to keep her from talking to the authorities.  Sara’s son Kito also witnesses the rape and murder of his mother, and the men drown him to keep him from talking to the authorities.  Mike then destroys the remains of Sara Tidwell, putting her spirit to rest.

However, all is not well.  Mike finds out that Rogette Whitmore has tried to kidnap Kyra, and he must rescue Kyra.  With the help of the ghost of Mattie, Mike is able to do that, although Rogette is killed in the process.  Mike realizes that Rogette was not just Devore’s assistant but also his daughter and Kyra’s aunt.

The book ends with Mike telling the story to Jo’s brother Frank, when he and Kyra spend Christmas with Frank.  Mike has retired from writing, and it attempting to get custody of Kyra.  The process is slow, but the now recovered John Storrow tells Mike that the odds are likely in his favor.


My Thoughts

One of Stephen King’s strengths  is that he can write “real-life horror” extremely well.  He has demonstrated this in books like The Shining, It and Pet Sematary.  Sure, ghosts, vampires, zombies, etc are terrifying, but anything having to reality can be even more terrifying (i.e. domestic abuse, alcoholism, the death of a child and so forth).

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And King also does this really well with Bag of Bones.  Don’t get me wrong, there are some scary ghosts in this book, and I give them their due.  But the scariest parts to me had almost absolutely nothing to do with anything supernatural.

For instance, the part where Mike is chased into the lake by Rogette and Maxwell Devore…shudder!  If I had to pick a way to die, drowning would NOT get my vote, the idea just scares me to death (no pun intended).  King’s description of the torture that Mike goes through is just brutal, and definitely can make someone re-think the idea of swimming by his or herself.

Another brutal scene in the book is the one that details the rape and murder of Sara Tidwell.  When I first read the book, I always saw Sara Tidwell’s ghost as somewhat sympathetic, even before I read this scene.  But she got my full sympathy when I read this scene, no questions asked.  This is another brutal scene.  She is gang raped, in front of her son.  And then murdered, along with her son, so that they will both stay quiet.  The fact that the rape and murders are racially motivated makes them that much sadder.  The fact that no one was brought to justice because the victims were African American also makes it sad.  I do not excuse Sara Tidwell for killing generations of kids, and coming thisclose to killing another one, but who could blame her?  The kind of pain that she endured is just not something can be erased.  Covered up, perhaps, but again, that kind of pain does not stay buried, and is something that will be felt for a long, long time.

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Another thing I loved about Bag of Bones was…you guessed it…the portrayal of the small town!

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Yes, Sai King writes the small town extremely well, and Bag of Bones is just one example of that.  It was a fascinating look at how the town in question created the ghost, and just how far the locals will go to protect their own and attempt to keep that secret.  Small towns may appear to be idyllic, but they often hide an ugly side.  And it doesn’t take a lot for that ugly side to surface.  No one is safe from that ugly side, no matter who their parents, grandparents or great uncles are and no matter how strong their ties are to the town.

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As stated before, Bag of Bones is a great love story.  Actually, there is more than one love story in Bag of Bones.  The first one is Mike and Jo’s love story.  The amount of detail King puts into their relationship is tremendous.  I liked how I really got to know Mike and Jo as a couple, and all the little things about their marriage:  how they would celebrate with a glass of champagne after Mike finished writing a book, how it was always Jo who suggested that they visit Sara Laughs for a bit, how Mike ate the chocolate bunny Jo had bought before she died, feeling like that was his last connection to her, the code that they would speak (Bunter’s bell, heehee), and how easily one can almost take this for granted, and then have it taken away, for really no good reason.  Ok, excuse me while I go plant one on my awesome husband!

But I also loved the relationship between Mattie and Mike, even though it was brief and never consummated.  No what your views on parenthood are, there is something enduring and even sexy when a man can take care of a kid (or a dog or cat for that matter, they count as kids).  If I were in Mattie’s place, I would have been smitten too:  good with kids, easy on the eyes and smart.  You can’t ask for much more than that!

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Another thing I loved about this book was the tie-in to Herman Melville.  Now this is where King shows that he is much, much more than a writer of horror (although us Constant Readers knew that already).  One of the criticisms that I hear A LOT about King is that he is not literary enough, whatever that means (not sure how many books one has to sell to cross over from being “literary” to being the “literary equivalent of a Big Mac and fries” though).  And to those people, I say this:  read Bag of Bones, fucker!

Bartleby the Scrivener is considered to be a literary classic.  And here we have Bag of Bones, written by the man who is considered by many to be the master of modern horror.  The book is a Gothic ghost story, set in a small Maine town, and deals with topics such as racism and rape, along with the trials of single parenthood.  You would not think that we can insert a literary classic into the fold and have it work.  But it does, and it fits in perfectly with the ghosts, the small town and all the serious topics that this book deals with.

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The theme of Bartelby is the premise that our jobs keep us “tethered” to this world, if you will.  And this is very true.  One of the first questions that people ask when they meet someone is usually in regards to employment.  We have “career day” when we are in school.  “What do you want to be when you grow up?”  is a question that children are asked all the time (for the record, I am still mentally about 12 years old and have not grown up and am somehow trapped in the body of someone who is almost 38. At this rate, I will have an answer to that question in another 38 years or so).  So work is a big part of most of our lives.

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And, as Mike mentions in the book, marriage is a book part of most of our lives too, especially for men.  Take away one or the other, and one starts to become “un-tethered.”  And I think this goes for both men and women:  I have endured both divorce and job loss (thankfully not at the same time), and there were times when I thought I might just drift away, into the wind, metaphorically speaking.

However, our hero, Mike Noonan, actually loses both.  First he loses his wife, Jo.  Then he is unable to write, so he loses his job.  Like his characters, and Bartleby, he essentially becomes “a bag of bones”, and begins to wonder why he exists and what his purpose is.  Like Bartleby, he nearly exits this world, becoming a ghost of sorts.  Ironically, it the ghosts that save Mike and give him sort of substance.  He can write again (although that is more of a trick of the ghosts).   He has a purpose, in helping Mattie and Kyra.  He may find love again with Mattie (although that hope is cruelly dashed).  And even at the end of the book, after enduring unspeakable tragedy, Mike realizes that he is more than “a bag of bones”, even though he is without his work and without a partner in life.  However, Kyra gives Mike’s life a purpose, and he can no longer write off his life because he “prefers not to.”  The responsibility for Kyra provides substance for Mike, and he can no longer exist as a ghost.

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Well, that’s it for Bag of Bones, aka chic lit from the master of modern horror.  Join me next month, as I review and dissect a book that has some personal meaning for me, and is just a great story:  Rose Madder. Oh, and we may take a detour and visit the world of our friendly neighborhood gunslinger while we are at it!

Tune in next month:  same bat time, same bat channel!

batman and robin


 

Connections

Here we go again.  Just for fun, here are some of the connections that I found to King’s other work in Bag of Bones:

Bag of Bones partially takes place in the city of Derry, Maine.  Derry is the location for several other works of Stephen King, including It, Dreamcatcher and Insomnia.

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-Mikes encounters a man named Ralph Roberts.  Ralph Roberts is the main character in the book Insomnia.

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-Mike also mentions knowing someone by the name of Thad Beaumont.  Thad Beaumont is the main character in the book The Dark Half.  We also find out that Thad commits suicide not long after the events in The Dark Half.

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-Norris Ridgewick makes an appearance at the end of Bag of Bones.  Norris is a character in the book Needful Things.  Mike also inquires after Polly Chalmers and Alan Pangborn, who are also characters in Needful Things, and learns that they have moved to New Hampshire.

Castle Rock 1

-Kyra and Mike travel back in time to the Fryeburg Fair.  Roland sees a sign for the Fryeburg Fair in the final Dark Tower book.  Kyra and Mike could also be considered to have gone todash, which is a state of altered consciousness that allows one to travel through space and time, as experienced by Roland and his friends in the book The Wolves of the Calla.

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-In the final book of the Dark Tower series, the character of Stephen King owns a house called Cara Laughs.  This house may a Twinner to Sara Laughs, as strange things also happen at Cara Laughs.

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