Stephen King,
Bag of Bones
(Pocket, 1998)

I began my love/hate relationship with the unsuspecting Stephen King in high school, where someone in the library was quietly bucking the system by actually ordering post-Melvillian fiction that we the huddled masses of Central High had actually heard of -- not in a lit course but out in the real world. It was anarchy, heresy, positively unheard of, and we the masses silently thanked our anonymous hero or heroine and lined up to check out the books in a way manner most surreptitious for a bunch of teen huddlers. In order not to draw too much attention from the Establishment (read principal and other future members of the as-of-yet-unfounded Moral Majority), we passed the book from student to student. One found out who had it and asked for it next or got the name of the one who got it next and then hunted that party down. Eventually one would be given the book to take back to the library to turn in whereupon one could immediately ask to check it back out.

The chain worked flawlessly, and thus did I get to read Carrie, Salem's Lot and The Shining before my mother requested firmly that I try another genre for awhile (since I hadn't slept with the lights off in months). I finally scared the holy bejeezus out of myself with the Night Shift collection and vowed never to read his works again. I was by then in college, working the afternoons at a laundry-dry cleaning establishment in the front office, and had to go into the back where the machines and presses were in order to clock out every dark and lonely evening. Let's just say that little piece about the possessed laundry press might have been amusing in some other circumstance. I took up Agatha Christie, taking macabre comfort in cyanide.

But I broke that vow of course. It was too much temptation. So let us look at the newest offering from my hero/nemesis. This novel is an anomaly in the horror genre: a ghost story. Say goodbye to aliens, monsters of scientific mismanagement, and seriously sociopathic axe wielders. Mike Noonan is a writer of suspense fiction (inside jokes, name dropping, and gentle and not-so-gentle irony abound -- much fun!) who loses his beloved wife and must struggle with writer's block and a lot of scarier, meaner things. He is driven by nightmares to the highly questionable sanctuary of his second home where the things that go bump in the night know his name and have his number in all sorts of nasty ways. He must put together the many clues left by the invisible denizens of Sara Laughs, his lakeside home, to try to save a little girl and her mother (along with his own soul and sanity) from a greedy and clutching millionaire and a haunted past.

The sins of the fathers are still vital and vengeful in the little unincorporated township known as TR-90. Mike Noonan must riddle the past and survive the present to salvage the possibility of a future.

The book is one of the best I have ever read by King. He is sneaky and sly in manipulating the reader with not only the pacing of the story, but also with the seemingly innocuous trivia liberally sprinkled throughout that are really vital clues. The pacing at first seems slow, lumbering and nearly bored me to tears. Where is the scary stuff, I thought; I been gypped. The fast pace of today's super slashers had dulled my sense of appreciation for growing suspense. Then, out of the nowhere, something stunning blindsided me. It didn't take long for me to rediscover that appreciation for suspense ... but I slept with the lights out because I am older and more jaded now. (At least that is my claim, and I'm sticking with it.) As for the hidden clues, I spent a lot of time hitting my forehead and saying "Doh!" a la Homer Simpson. Agatha would have been so disappointed with me.

Stephen King is indeed a master, and this book is proof positive of his ability to tell a tale on numerous levels and make them work. Bag of Bones is a rare and wonderful treat for fans of horror who want more than shallow hack-em-ups and cliched violence. King has certainly regained my loyalty and my respect for his latest effort. So kudos for King, and someone else turn out the lights; I'm gone.

[ by Debbie Gayle Rose ]

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