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Book News

Reviewer: Once again, Stephen King delivers

'Bag of Bones'
by Stephen King

Scribner, $28

Review by Jim Argendeli

Web posted on: Thursday, September 03, 1998 12:39:09 PM EDT

From ghoulies and ghosties,
Long-leggedy beasties,
And things that go bump in the night,
May Stephen King deliver us.

Paraphrased from an olde Scottish prayer

(CNN) -- Stephen King has a new book out. That's all King's legions of fans need to know. At this point in his career, King could publish a book on "Collecting Barbed Wire" and his fans would rush out to purchase it the first day it went on sale. Thankfully, King has not decided to rest on his laurels. With "Bag of Bones" he has written a classic ghost story which should keep his old fans elated and cause others to understand why the man from Maine still has the born storytelling ability to keep us enthralled.

"Bag of Bones" is the story of a man haunted by inner and outer demons. The novel is narrated by bestselling novelist Mike Noonan who, as the story opens, has had to identify his wife's body after she suddenly dies from a brain aneurysm. The tragedy for Mike escalates into a mystery when he finds out his wife was pregnant at the time of her death. Mike doesn't understand why she kept the baby a secret from him.

Mike's troubles are not limited to his personal life. His professional life also suffers when he becomes violently ill every time he tries to put words on paper to write a new novel. After four nauseating years, Mike tries to charge up his creative juices with a change of scenery. This comes in the form of his lake house -- a tidy cabin called Sara Laughs.

It is at this point that the reader enters "Stephen Kingland".

King sets up the history and introduces us to the people of this western Maine summer hideaway, which is similar to past descriptions of King territory. But King knows how to hook the reader by providing vivid characters. Mattie is the young local widow who lives with her 3-year old daughter, Kyra. King also gives us a villain to despise -- Mattie's rich and very powerful father-in-law, Max Devore. This twisted troll wants to take Kyra away from Mattie to raise her his way.

So far, this is standard material for a King book. And Sara Laughs is much more than a cottage house; there are mysteriously appearing messages, disembodied midnight screams and ghostly communications. If you have read any kind of ghost story or seen a haunted-house movie, this is all business as usual. But King does something a less talented novelist couldn't accomplish. While keeping the cliches, he veers toward a compelling mystery full of questions: Are the hauntings caused by Mike's late wife? Is there a reason for Mike's apparent psychic link with Mattie and Kyra? Is there more to Max's desire to raise Kyra than just grandfatherly concern? Who's knocking at the door? Are the ghosts of the past being corrupted by the "outsider"?

"Bag of Bones" keeps you rapidly turning the pages to discover the answers. There are some red herrings and very surprising plot twists. Just when you think you know how the hand will be played, King masterfully shuffles the deck to keep you guessing. Unlike in some previous King novels, here the question of who lives and who dies is not obvious. Everyone is not who they appear to be.

At one point in "Bag of Bones", Mike Noonan says he's lost his taste for spooks. Here's hoping Stephen King never does the same.

Jim Argendeli is an avid reader and book collector who lives with his wife in Georgia.

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