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Bag of Bones

Stephen King


US Hardcover First Trade

ISBN 0-684-85350-7

529 pages; $28.00

Reviewed by Rick Kleffel © 1998




03-07-02, 04-29-02, 07-15-02, 09-20-02, 11-13-02, 12-31-02, 04-30-03, 06-12-03

Reviewing the top of the horror food chain is not an easy task. It's not as if there is anybody who has not heard of Stephen King. Those who have heard of him fall pretty clearly into two camps: those who will read his books, and those who won't, with the latter a decided minority. There is a gray area, a small selection of a few undecided, but you actually have to look pretty hard to find them. With 'Bag of Bones', King's first release from his new, more literary publisher, Scribner, you're going to have to look even harder. The reviews thus far, and they have been plentiful, are all cautiously positive. Newly annointed with an O Henry award, Stephen King is slowly being moved from the category of prolific bestseller writer to that of American Institution. He's actually been in the latter category for quite some time, but 'Bag of Bones' is the clearest indication yet that Stephen King is not about gore and terror; he's the closest thing to an American Charles Dickens we're likely to get.

'Bag of Bones' is a ghost story that shows how much King has learned over the years. Yes, the trademark references to everyday Americana are there, but mixed in with them are an equal number of well-placed literary references, from the Dickens to Melville. The effect is to make his narrative quite a bit more interesting and multi-dimensional. As usual, he leavens his narrative with some low-key humor, keeping it from becoming maudlin or trite. But the prose is a bit more restrained and focused. It allows him to create some interesting motifs, such as a section midway through the novel when we get a dream sequence loosely based on Dickens 'The Christmas Carol', with a ghost from the past, the present, and the future. To King's credit, he integrates these references seamlessly within his usual prose and plot.

King does not abandon his core audience with all this pith. He still gives his readers the excellent supernatural touches, and writes a plot that keeps the pages turning. In 'Bag of Bones', he explores some interesting aspects of what could only be called 'ghost theory', something he's done before, but looks at in greater depth here. These supernatural concerns are woven into a plot that does not detour into the occasional excesses we've seen in the past. He keeps his story on target, and mixes in some legal maneuvering that demonstrates his skill when working in any genre.

Where 'Bag of Bones' will fall within the world of American literature is something that will only become clear with time and distance. In the interim, we have an excellent novel to enjoy. With 'Bag of Bones', King has made it clear he does not intend to write pure supermarket fodder, and that the literary cuisine he is now serving is something beyond the Big Mac.