Early on in Stephen King's new novel, Bag of Bones, the narrator—a suspense novelist living in New England—compares himself to his contemporaries and comes up wanting. While Mike Noonan was never a Grisham, Clancy, or Ludlum, he's done all right, just so long as he never publishes at the same time as Mary Higgins Clark, the 900-pound gorilla of his particular genre: "the Lovely Young Woman on Her Own Meets Fascinating Stranger," as he terms it. The one writer that Noonan never refers to, either at the beginning or anywhere else in the book, is Stephen King, an interesting omission considering that Bag of Bones is a crafty look into the world of modern publishing.
Apart from that, Bag of Bones is many things; it's a chilling ghost story, an intricate thriller, a mystery, and an almost painful psychological portrait. Mike Noonan, the aforementioned suspense writer, is in the grip, literally, of a four-year writer's block following the sudden death of his wife, Jo. When he sits at his computer and boots up WordPerfect, he gets physically ill. If this weren't enough, he has nightmares about Jo, and about Sara Laughs, his summer house in rural Maine. He is also troubled by the suspicion that his wife may have been having an affair before her death.
In an effort to confront these demons within him, he moves back to Sara Laughs only to find that they are very real, and that the summer house is haunted by several spirits, including Jo. While trying to understand what is happening around him, he meets Mattie and Kyra Devore, a young widow and her toddler daughter. In doing so, he runs afoul of Max Devore, Mattie's multi-millionaire father-in-law, who is determined to gain custody of Kyra. All of these plot lines crisscross-cross throughout the book and converge on one point Sara Laughs in a shattering conclusion that is both tragic and breathtaking.
Already drawing comparisons to Daphne du Maurier's Rebecca, Bag of Bones also recalls Shirley Jackson's The Lottery and The Haunting of Hill House, as well as the movie Poltergeist. It goes without saying that it is a chilling tale.
Mike Noonan compares himself to Grisham, Clancy and Ludlum, though he never evinces the desire to reach their level of achievement. King is at their level, but I can't help but think that he wants to move beyond them, to the literary acceptance of, say, a John Irving or John Updike. Certainly Bag of Bones is a giant step in that direction. Is this his best novel? No, I think that's yet to come.
James Neal Webb lives in Nashville, Tennessee.