Bag of Bones

(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Stephen King’s highly publicized split with his longtime publisher Viking and the reputed selling price he placed on Bag of Bones have placed more expectations upon him than usual. Bag of Bones easily lives up to these expectations, but is it his best novel ever? Probably not, but it is definitely the best work he has released in the past ten years and fits comfortably as one of his best to date. It is also his most mature work short of the unfinished novel-for-television Golden Years (1991). It represents a new direction for King; for both King and his fans, this is a good thing.

King promotes Bag of Bones as a “haunted love story,” which proves to be a fitting description. The novel opens with narrator Mike Noonan recounting the death of his wife, Jo, who collapses outside the Rite Aid pharmacy of a brain aneurysm. Because they are both relatively young—Mike is close to his fortieth birthday as the novel opens—Jo’s death is especially devastating. An even more devastating blow comes when Mike learns that Jo was pregnant and had not told him. Because Mike has a medical condition that makes it difficult for him to father a child, Jo’s death causes him to question whether the unborn child is really his or whether his wife had been having an affair.

As Mike slowly adjusts to life without Jo, he is forced to make another adjustment. Mike is a successful writer of gothic romance fiction, often describing himself as a male equivalent of writer V. C. Andrews, but after Jo’s death he discovers that he is unable to write even a simple sentence. The writer’s block is so severe that Mike feels as if he is choking to death, at one point almost literally suffocating himself as he tries to bring himself to turn on his word processor. In an attempt to regain his muse and put Jo’s death behind him, Mike returns to Sarah Laughs, the vacation cabin he and Jo purchased soon after he became successful. Sarah Laughs (also referred to as “TR-90” or the “TR”) was named after Sarah Tidwell, a southern blues singer who had passed through the TR with her son and her fellow accompanists, the Red Tops, at the beginning of the 1900’s. As Mike quickly learns, Sarah Laughs is haunted by ghosts, and Sarah Tidwell’s is but one of many.

Mike soon meets TR residents Mattie Devore, her daughter Kyra, and Mattie’s father-in-law, Max Devore, a withered old man of incalculable wealth who is used to getting anything he wants. Mike rescues Kyra from walking down the middle of Route 68 and quickly becomes friends with both Kyra and Mattie. Mattie is the widow of Lance Devore, Max Devore’s stuttering son. Lance had nothing to do with his father after learning that his father had tried to bribe Mattie into not marrying him. After Lance’s death from a freak accident, Max returns to Mattie’s life in an attempt to get acquainted with his granddaughter, Kyra. The truth is, however, that Max wants to gain custody of Kyra and take her away to California and will do whatever it takes to accomplish this. To help Mattie fight off Max’s army of high-priced lawyers, Mike uses his own considerable resources to retain a lawyer for Mattie named John Storrow, a young New York lawyer unafraid to take on someone of Max Devore’s social stature.

As Mike gets drawn into Mattie’s custody battle, he also gets drawn into the ghosts that haunt the TR-90 community. Ghosts have long been symbolic manifestations of the subconscious demons that everyone carries inside, and for Mike they are no different. He is a widower who has lost his soul mate and feels the guilt of all the things that should have been done differently, as well as the guilt of falling in love with Mattie and a child that he and Jo had never been able to have together. Kyra’s name is a further reminder of his pain; Mike and Jo had planned to name their daughter Kia, which is what he initially mistakes Kyra’s name to be.

The other ghosts that haunt the novel soon begin to manifest themselves. As Mike sleeps at night in Sarah Laughs, he comes to realize that there are at least three separate spirits haunting his cabin. One, he is sure, is Jo, and one he comes to figure out is Sarah Tidwell. The third only manifests itself as a crying child, and Mike cannot determine if it is Kyra or some other child. Mike and Kyra share a special psychic connection reminiscent of King’s earlier novel The Shining (1977). Mike and Kyra are able to share dreams and even appear to have the same ghosts haunting their homes, ghosts who communicate by rearranging magnetic letters on each of their refrigerator doors. At one point, Mike and Kyra share a dream where they are both at a turn-of-the- century fair where Sarah Tidwell is playing. Another time, Mike...

(The entire section is 1954 words.)

Bag of Bones

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

Stephen King published his first horror classic, CARRIE, in 1974. Since then, King has produced numerous best-selling terrifying novels, including THE SHINING (1977), IT (1986), MISERY (1987), THE DARK HALF (1989), and INSOMNIA (1994). One of King’s special talents has been the ability to successfully insert popular culture into the horror genre. For BAG OF BONES, King has once again employed a writer as his central character and narrator. Mike Noonan is a middle-aged author from Maine who writes suspense novels. His novels have been widely successful, but the tragic death of his wife shatters his whole world. The grief becomes so overpowering that Noonan suffers from writer’s block. Since Noonan has a number of unpublished manuscripts locked away, he is able to deliver what seems to be new material to his publisher on a regular basis. Once he runs out of old manuscripts though, Noonan decides to go to his vacation lodge, Sara Laughs, in rural Maine with the hope of shaking off his writer’s block. Sara Laughs was so named for an African American folksinger who had lived in the area.

While at the lodge, Noonan discovers that it is haunted. He also becomes attached to the twenty-year-old widow Mattie Devore and her young daughter, Kyra. Through his relationship with Mattie and Kyra, Noonan finds the strength to deal with his grief and begin writing again. In addition, he must also support Mattie in her struggle to fight against Kyra’s wealthy...

(The entire section is 410 words.)


(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Sources for Further Study

Booklist. XCIV, September 1, 1998, p. 6.

Library Journal. CXXIII, July, 1998, p. 137.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. September 27, 1998, p. 3.

National Review. L, September 1, 1998, p. 46.

The New York Times Book Review. CIII, September 27, 1998, p. 9.

Newsweek. CXXXII, September 21, 1998, p. 94.

Publishers Weekly. CCXLV, June 22, 1998, p. 81.

Time. CLII, October 12, 1998, p. 116.

The Wall Street Journal. September 25, 1998, p. W6.

The Washington Post Book World. XXVIII, November 1, 1998, p. 5.