King's Highway pt. 39: Bag of Bones

OOPS. I checked my trail guide and realized I skipped Desperation and The Regulators. Damn, I'll have to circle back to those after-the-fact. If I may abuse my Dark Tower National Park and Wildlife Reserve conceit, these trails were temporarily closed for maintenance/ due to bear attacks. I also want to get the two hardcovers with the connected-covers, and neither of my local shops have those. So, two for the proverbial rainy day, sometime before the end of the Highway. "Everything's Eventual" will be covered next time, though.

Okay, let's start with the book itself.
"Compared to the dullest human being actually walking about on the face of the earth and casting his shadow there, the most brilliantly drawn character in a novel is but a bag of bones."- attributed to Thomas Hardy.
Kaylee: [about Simon's birthday cake] Couldn't get a'hold of no flour, so it's mostly protein. In fact, it's pretty much what we just had for dinner.
[everyone laughs]
Kaylee: But I tried to get the frosting as chocolatey tasting as possible. 
- "Out of Gas," Firefly, written by Joss Whedon and Tim Minear.

Marge: I'll be there with bells on.
Susan: Bells? Where exactly will you be attaching them to that tattered Chanel suit?
Evelyn: Don't worry, Marge. Her idea of wit is nothing more than an incisive observation humorously phrased and delivered with impeccable timing.
That captioned-quote (from "Scenes from the Class Struggle in Springfield," The Simpsons, written by Jennifer Crittenden) isn't exactly what I was looking for, but when trying to find a particular Simpsons quote, I end up sending a million emails filled with unrelated quotes to long-suffering friends. (I have the same problem when trying to find any specific Deep Thought by Jack Handey.) Like a bombardier of the Mighty Eighth during Dubya-Dubya-Two, I end up firebombing the whole damn town trying to obliterate one lousy armaments factory. So, in the interest of minimizing collateral damage, that'll do.

I include these quotes not because I look for any excuse to bring up my-other-favorite-things (though guilty-as-charged, there) but because they came to mind several times as I read Bag of Bones. Not the "her idea of wit" quote, but the one I can't find, which is something like "New dress? All I see is a re-arranged Chanel suit." (For those who aren't Simpsons-literate, the episode revolves around Marge's buying a sharp suit she can't afford, then constantly altering it to make it seem new in an attempt to schmooze with her new country club buddies.) 

I should mention, I think this is a well-written, well-plotted, well-paced, richly characterized work, but when Maddie mentions (on pg. 467) that she suspects her daughter might have psychic insight, I surrendered to the nagging feeling that I'd been served another casserole of stock-King ingredients. I don't mean to make too much of it. One, I enjoyed it (and, to continue the metaphor, well, he's feeding me and all, so I'd feel a bit like a dinner guest criticizing the menu when no one asked me to sit down in the first place); two, it's not something unique to King - all writers tend to mine similar material, over time; and three, King is certainly aware of this tendency on his part and plays around with it. 

Appropos of nothing...
So, not that it really bothered me, but does any of this sound familiar? A grieving writer (Mike Noonan) returns to rural Maine (his cabin at Dark Score Lake, called Sara Laughs), forms a psychic bond with a child, receives supernatural assistance via dreams, bangs his head against the taciturn natives, and then uncovers the source of the supernatural trauma (the rape and murder of the namesake of his cabin, a woman from the town's past). A whopper of a storm pounds the town as things are wrapping up, and then all lingering questions are mopped up to a peripheral buddy-character in the last ten to twenty pages. 

Regardless, this is quite an enjoyable book. It's interesting to speculate what people would make of this one were it the only book King ever published. My guess is it would be hailed as a masterpiece from quarters that normally don't praise King's work. I'm not sure where it fits in to my own personal rankings (but I look forward to that; that comes after the Highway is fully traversed, so, ye lovers-of-lists, make a note on your calendar)

Couple of notes: 

- There may be a bit too much about Mike's erections; I mean, seriously. If that's your thing, you're in for a treat. (The only thing missing was him comically knocking things off the table with it as he tried to get around Sara Laughs. In fact, that may even have happened once or twice.) I have a joke that would be perfect here, but damn it, our trail guide Bryant Burnette beat me to it... but I'll link to that later.

- Some of King's difficulty in portraying well-rounded non-white characters comes into play here. King co-dedicates this novel to his editor, Chuck Verrill, with "Your personal best, Chuck." That very well may be, but I humbly beseech Mr. Verrill and editors everywhere to be more on the lookout for stuff like this. Unless you think every black person ends each and every sentence with "Sugar."

 Reminds me of how every Luke Cage sentence from the seventies ends with "Turkey." (And yes, I realize the example provided, above, does not, but it is emblematic of... other aspects.)
- Much was made of the pre-publication history of this novel. (As discussed here, among other places.) The short version is, King parted ways with Viking after 17 years and 44 titles, over money; Bag of Bones was his first book with Simon & Schuster, with whom he still publishes. Viking, it is said, balked at his asking price for Bag of Bones, something he laments in On Writing, which is too bad. In general, I think King is often too nice of a guy for his own good. I think people hear things like, "He wanted $17 million and 50% of the profits" and think Oh, here we go; greedy-ass writers/ prima donnas... without taking into account how many people get rich off the labor of artists who in no way contributed anything to the process. Like John Lennon said about the Beatles early career, "We held on to as much of it as we could, but we made a lot of millionaires along the way," i.e. guys in suits with MBAs who get chunks of the publishing/ syndication. Numerous examples abound. (Can you believe long-retired/ only-barely-connected producers still get residuals on All in the Family reruns? It seems criminal.) Anyway, on this score, my sympathies lie 100% with the artist. Particularly when said artist is a writer, without whom... (Along these lines, I quite enjoyed the glimpses behind-the-publishing-world-scenes in the first hundred pages.)

- As for the Dark Tower connection, i.e. how we ended up on this trail at this point in time:

From the Dark Tower wiki: 'Bag of Bones features a house named Sara Laughs. This house is the Twinner of Cara Laughs, the house on Turtleback Lane that was the center of the walk-in activity. By extension, Mike Noonan is also the Twinner of Stephen King, both being writers who own a summer house name Sara/Cara Laughs.' And lest you ask, I'm not sure what some of that means, either. While reading, I assumed the connections were to The Outsider (the malevolent being that seized upon Sara Tidwell's rage to piggyback its own evildoings) and to...
The Green Lady (i.e. that tree, there). I thought this might relate to The Green Man from Insomnia, who helped our protagonists in that story, as it helps our protagonist in this one. (Green Man? Crimson King? Power of the White? The Man in Black? Cuckoo for Color Motifs!)
- King mentions in the afterword, "Hope this gave you one sleepless night." Did anyone anywhere get scared sleepless from this? I'm not knocking its "scare" elements, just seemed an odd novel on which to hang that particular sentiment. It's more literary fiction than horror, for me. Perhaps I'm too jaded when it comes to horror. The last work of horror to upset my sleep was The Shining back in junior high, and I'll save all attendant-anecdotes for when I get to that one.

- As per usual, Kev has a fantastic review out there. Just wanted to quote this part: "Perhaps more than in any other novel, Bag of Bones is rife with symbolic names. Mike Noonan's maid is Brenda Me-serve and his handyman is Bill-Dean ("building"). Mattie's evil father-in-law is Max Devore - an echo of devour - and two of his emissaries are George Footman and Rogette Whitmore (King is adamant about pronouncing her name with a hard g, making her a rogue in the feminine). Rather than merely being a playful detail, both the extent and obviousness of symbolic names are actually clues. Names are of vital importance to the deeper mysteries of Bag of Bones." I didn't catch any of that; well-played, Sai King.

- There are a hell of a lot sponge-worthy passages/ turns-of-phrase in this one:

'Grief is like a drunken houseguest, always coming back for one more goodbye hug.' (pg. 94)

'Things conceived by minds and made by hands can never quite be the same, even when they try their best to be identical, because we're never the same from day to day or even moment to moment.' (pg. 109)

'My first editor used to say that eighty-five percent of what goes on in a novelist's head is none of his business, a sentiment I've never believed should be restricted to writers. When trouble comes and steps have to be taken, I find it's generally better to just stand aside and let the boys in the basement do their work. That's blue-collar labor down there, non-union guys with lots of muscles and tattoos. Instinct is their specialty, and they refer problems upstairs for actual cogitation only as a last resort.' (pg. 245)

'Perhaps sometimes ghosts were alive - minds and desires divorced from their bodies, unlocked impulses floating unseen. Ghosts from the id, spooks from low places.' (pg. 317) (Low Men in Yellow Coats?)

'This is how we go on: one day at a time, one meal at a time, one pain at a time, one breath at a time... We turn from all we know, all we fear. We study catalogs, watch football games, choose Sprint over AT-and-T. We count the birds in the sky and will not turn from the window when we hear the footsteps behind us as something comes up the hall; we say yes, I agree that clouds often look like other things - fish and unicorns and men on horseback - but they are really only clouds. Even when the lightning flashes inside them we say they are only clouds and turn our attention to the next meal, the next pain, the next breath, the next page. This is how we go on.' (pg. 361)

(on writing) 'It never really felt like work to me, although I called it that; it felt like some weird kind of mental trampoline I bounced on. Those were springs that took away all the weight of the world for awhile.' (pg. 384)

'The muggy, smutchy look of mid-July was gone; the sky was that deep sapphire shade which is the sole property of October.' (pg. 492. 'Smutchy' is perfect, sort of like when he nails the sound a Polaroid makes as it spits out its image as 'squidgey' in The Sun Dog.)

'Something rattled in the underbrush to my left... It had undoubtedly been nothing but Chuck the Woodchuck headed home after a hard day at the office.' (pg. 559)
'I could see through him, but I could also see into him: the rotting remains of his tongue in his mouth, his eyes in their sockets, his brain simmering like a spoiled egg in its case of skill. Then he was gone, and there was nothing but one of those swirling dust-helixes.' (pp. 647-648, but shouldn't that be dust-helices? Where were you on that one, Chuck?)

'One eye popped; a dripping yellow splinter ran up her nose like a dagger; the scant skin of her forehead split, snapping away from the bone like two suddenly released windowshades. Then the lake pulled her away. I saw her face a moment longer, upturned into the torrential rain, wet and as pale as the light from a flourescent bar. Then she rolled over, her black vinyl raincoat swirling around her like a shroud.' (pp. 707-708)


Okay, so there is a film adaptation of this one...

and I have tried to watch it four separate times. I never make it to the end. Luckily, a very entertaining overview and book-to-film comparison already exists at our aforementioned trail guide's site, and I highly recommend any of you who have seen it check it out post-haste. (See if you can find the joke I wanted to use, above - not that it's all that, ahem, hard.) I will say, of what I have seen, it is a very fair takedown of the changes from page to screen. io9 also has a good one. And lest I focus only on the negative, here is one positive review, though I should mention I disagree with just about everything in that one, particularly "He is faithful to the flow of the story, the characters behavior and the tone of the book itself." I couldn't disagree more, on that score. Here are some pics.

Jason Priestley, Matt Frewer, and Pierce Brosnan.
I felt bad about my 'Donna Martin Graduates' crack from my Children of the Corn blog, but I also didn't want to erase it, as just typing those words makes me chuckle. So, you get two pics, Mr. Priestley; carry on.
God, this makes me homesick.
This does not.
William Schallert (Max Devore) and Anika Noni Rose (Sara Tidwell)
One final note: do answering machines exist anywhere except for in movies, these days? I wonder when that will change. It's a convenient plot device, to be sure, one that has proven quite resistant to the advent of cellphones/ voicemail in the real(er) world. Anyway, it was nice of everyone who left Mike Noonan a message in the movie to leave long-enough pauses for Mike to make comments aloud as he listened to them.



  1. Hmm. Interesting point about Mike being a possible Twinner of Stephen King, but I don't think I agree with that. I've certainly never heard King indicate anything of the kind. That Wiki may be a tad misleading...

    It's a good novel, I think. The first time I read it, I was kinda wrecked by a certain plot development that occurs toward the end. The second time I read it, I was busily fretting over how badly I expected the movie (which was getting ready to air in a week or two) to screw it up. And boy was I right. That movie sucks.

    1. When it comes to what connects and what doesn't to the Dark Tower mythos, I am flying blind. I'll have to blog an errata once I get through to the end. Bev Vincent's book is en-route, so I'll have that for the ones left, here, but until then, yeah I'm at the mercy of the 'net.

      I can imagine which part you may be referencing, but as you worded it in a way to avoid spoilers, I'll do the same. There are a few different heart-hitting moments, to be sure.

  2. Damn, I forgot to mention - both Joe Wyzer and Ralph from Insomnia make an appearance here, at the beginning of the novel. Not really all that important to the scheme of things, but it was nice to 'see' them again.

    Carry on.