Monday, February 4, 2013

Bag of Bones - King (Novel)

Those of you who know me may have wondered why Mr. King hasn't shown up on the blog yet. After all, I've read over twenty Steven King novels and enjoyed most of them immensely. I consider some of them to be among the best books I've ever read. What then, is the reason for my hesitation? There are actually several factors which have withheld me, and I think they are worth mentioning before continuing on.

King in 2012
The first is the challenge of selecting one. I could probably write a review that would excite and interest me (and hopefully others) about most of his works, but in the end the decision was maybe not as hard as I was making it; hint: I just chose my favorite.

The second roadblock to this review, or really anything by SK that isn't "The Eyes of the Dragon", is the level of vulgarity employed in the writing. I can understand the argument opposing mine, that it is not immoral to use vulgarity or profanity in the name of realism or even interest. I'm not going to try to dissuade anyone from that belief or put forward any guidelines for appropriateness; I'm a writer myself, and I know that some of what I write and consider within perfectly reasonable limits others might find disturbing or excessive or wrong in some way, so I will wisely leave those kinds of decisions up to the reader. However, I do want to offer a little food for thought: vulgarity is supposed to have an effect of some kind, am I right? There is supposed to be some purpose to it. Then what is the point of having virtually every protagonist, antagonist, and side character use profane and vulgar language as frequently as King does? It isn't realistic, for not every person uses strong language in their day-to-day life; it isn't effective, for the effect of the language is dulled and lost from overuse.

Okay, now that I've got that out of my system, I'd like to move on to the review itself without regard to what may or may not be considered appropriate in the book. Just be aware that there is a certain level of mature content in the book, which no one will stop you from blacking out if you so choose. Although some might make fun of you, and your local library might not appreciate it.

The superior cover of the book,
since later versions have pictures
from the TV adaptation. Ick!
As stated above, Bag of Bones is my favorite book by Stephen King. It is not, however, the one I found most frightening. Technically, it is a horror novel, and yes, it's scary, but King made a concerted effort with this book to do more*. I believe he has tried to do that throughout his career, with varying degrees of success, but with this novel he struck a beautiful balance between horror and heartfelt memoir. The book opens with a sterile, sad scene. We are quickly drawn into the sorrows and problems of protagonist Mike Noonan. Like many of King's leading men, Noonan is a writer of fiction. He has suffered a terrible blow in his life which summons him into a bizarre mystery. He finds himself shortly in his vacation home in a small town where the majority of the novel takes place. The story then begins to unfold in unexpected and terrifying ways. I won't go too deeply into plot-points, as discovering them yourself is much more rewarding, but it suffices me to say that the reader does not envy Mike, and it can be both instructive and chilling to put yourself in his position as you read. What might you do in his situation? How would you react to the ringing of Bunter's bell?

It is a complex tale, woven together with many different characters, beliefs, scenes, and dreams, but the complexity is kept in check with the simple first person narrative style. King has a penchant for large casts, some of his more epic novels have literally dozens of main characters, all of which get their own page time for primary POV, and that often works for him. Here, however, he sees the value in the personal. We stay with Mike throughout his story. There are other characters of interest, of course, but their desires are secondary to us. We like Mike. We watch Mike. We feel Mike.

It's not all great. Like any work, it has its failings. Not the least of which being how some of the necessary connections feel unavailable and forced, as well as some scenes not really focusing where the reader's interests are, but we overlook them.

Adventure, romance, terror, and emotion are all on wide display, but through the believable, quickly familiar lens of Mike Noonan. Here, it is the balance of genre as much as the writing itself that impresses and enthralls the reader. Here is a melancholy and beautiful story, relatable and harrowing; here is a bag of bones.

MA 2.4.2013

* I think it's important here to note that I do not have anything against "pure" horror. In fact, I'm not a fan of down-looking at genre fiction in general. I do not think that labeling something as "horror", "fantasy", or even the dubious "romance" means that it will not be good fiction or even good literature, it just so happens that many genre fiction titles are basically trash. The good ones, however, are not guilty by association. Bag of Bones has taken another road--and good for it--but there are many acceptable roads.

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