Thursday, March 2, 2023

Book review: Bag of Bones by Stephen King

 This was the first Stephen King book I have ever read. As a general rule I haven't read much horror, so I wasn't sure what to expect. I suppose monsters and ghosts chasing people. It ended up being quite different than that, particularly in the first half.

The story follows Mike Noonan, who is a novelist mourning the death of his late wife. Ever since his wife died he is unable to write anything. Eventually he is drawn to his vacation cabin in Maine, where he becomes involved in the plight of a young single mother Mattie and her custody battle with the rich evil father of her late husband. Later the plot becomes entwined with the vengeful spirit of the victim of a historical hate crime and a curse that she places upon the residents of the town.

I think this story can be divided into three parts: Before the cabin, Mattie's family drama, and the vengeful spirits. The parts seem quite different to me in tone, almost to the point of feeling like different novels with a connected plot. I liked the first two parts a lot, but was not particularly fond of the last ending part.

In the first part, we get to know the depressed, mourning Mike Noonan, who is struggling with writer's block. And not just writer's block, but general existential angst of what is the point of his life if he cannot write. This section reminded me of Dying Inside by Robert Silverburg, and I was wondering if I was getting a book similar to that one: a very inward facing character driven novel. However, this section turned out to be more of an introduction and after a few chapters, the plot moves forward to his relationship with Mattie - still fairly character driven, but not inward facing like the beginning was.

In the second part, we start to see Mike come alive again with his romance with the much younger Mattie (I'm going to zoom right past the age difference. Everything sex related in this novel is kind of off-putting and creepy). We have a distinctly creepy villain in Mattie's father in law, Max. There is an episode where the elderly Max tries to drown Mike, which is both terrifying and morbidly hilarious. On the whole I liked this part of the novel. It was exciting and dramatic, while also allowing Mike's character to shine through.

The final part of the novel is where things went a bit off the rails for me. Mattie is murdered and we transition to a ghost story about a ghost, whose son was murdered in a hate crime and curses the village out of grief. While the ghost is motivated to vengeance out of the terrible crime that befell her, by the time our novel takes place, the ghost is totally consumed by vengence and dehumanized. No amount of flashing back to the past can fix the lack of character in the present. There is a dramatic plot sequence with the ghost attacking, but there is no nuance, and the ghost is too far gone to be a sympathetic character, or a character at all. Perhaps this was meant to be a foil to how the other characters dealt with grief, or something along those lines, but it felt like it just didn't work for me. It honestly felt like a different book, with a somewhat boring, mindless villain pursing the main character, and the main character having to outwit it in an action sequence.

Anyways, overall I liked this novel. It both was and wasn't what I expected. The ending was all the negative things I don't like about horror novels, while the beginning was truly interesting.

As a final aside, Stephen King should not write sex scenes. At first I thought they were intentionally off-putting to hint that something was off about the main character, but turns out, no, that's just how King writes sex scenes. The book would be much better without them.

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