Books: Don't mention the king

Kim Newman sees a besieged bestseller look in the mirror once again; Bag of Bones by Stephen King Hodder & Stoughton, pounds 16.99, 516pp

In school, you're told to write what you know. Stephen King regularly crawls inside his own skin and writes about writers. Think of the alcoholic scribbler succumbing to the lure of the Overlook Hotel in The Shining, the romantic novelist trapped by his biggest fan and forced to write a sequel in Misery, the serious writer menaced by a pulp pseudonym come to life in The Dark Half. Each of these is carefully distanced from King, but there is no denying the intense identification the author has with his fictional counterparts and the frequent wavering of the line between them.

Bag of Bones is a culmination of this strand of King's work. Our narrator is Michael Noonan, an American popular novelist who regularly makes the Top 15 of best-seller lists and writes "romantic suspense" in the style of Mary Higgins Clark. King has Noonan cite Thomas Hardy's dictum that compared to a real person, the most vividly imagined fictional character is "a bag of bones", therefore subtly presenting his character as a significantly less ambitious writer than himself (or Thomas Hardy). Noonan, a top-of- the-second-division writer with ambitions, envies George Stark, the villain of The Dark Half, but oddly never mentions Stephen King, although they seem to be neighbours in haunted Maine.

Noonan is suddenly widowed when a cerebral haemorrhage fells his wife, Jo, in a convenience store parking lot. He is struck by a writer's block so severe that he vomits when he fires up his word processor. After four years of this limbo, Noonan moves to his summer home, a lakeside property, named Sara Laughs after a turn-of-the-century blues legend who once lived there. The house is peopled by spirits, both malign and benign, and stocked with secrets.

Noonan starts wondering about his wife, who may have been pregnant when she died, and took an interest in the history of Sara Laughs that she never shared with him. And, in a hokey bit of poltergeistery, fridge magnet letters rearrange themselves into cryptic clues. (Noonan is a championship- level crossword-solver.)

While the supernatural tides are rising, Noonan gets involved in a local melodrama: beautiful young mum Mattie is persecuted by the zillionaire grandfather of her adorable child. (The baddie is cloned from Homer Simpson's boss, Mr Burns.) Noonan steps into this instant family and offers the miracle of an expensive New York lawyer to fight a custody battle.

Skilful plot-wielder that he is, King fixes it so that the back story of the haunting relates to everything else: Jo's mysterious research, Mattie's family trials, the town's darkest secrets, the original Sara, even the commonness of names beginning with K (for King?). Menace escalates from scary dreams, through murder attempts, to a rattling storm that shakes up all the pieces and lets them fall.

An awful lot goes on in Bag of Bones, which prevents it from achieving the elegant impact of its avowed models (Shirley Jackson's The Haunting of Hill House, Daphne du Maurier's Rebecca) or even King's own high water mark, Misery. This may be deliberate since, thanks to our bag-of-bones narrator, it has to feel rather like a Mike Noonan book.

The final chapter, after all the plot threads have been tied away, seems to offer a naked promise to write no more, that it is impossible to continue with imagined horrors after having experienced real ones. Who knows whether this comes from Mike Noonan or from Stephen King?

The subtlest frisson of Misery was that, in the cold centre of his writer's heart, the hero knows he gets two best-sellers out of his ordeal. Noonan, a lesser writer, abandons one novel and seems to write this memoir with no thought of publication.

Bag of Bones does what it does impressively, but its real interest is that it is shot through with a genuinely tragic sense of the things that it cannot do.

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Dornan as Christian Grey in Fifty Shades of Grey

film Sex scene trailer sees a shirtless Jamie Dornan turn up the heat

Arts and Entertainment
A sketch of Van Gogh has been discovered in the archives of Kunsthalle Bremen in Germany
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Eleanor Catton has hit back after being accused of 'treachery' for criticising the government.
books
Arts and Entertainment
Fake Banksy stencil given to artist Alex Jakob-Whitworth

art

Arts and Entertainment
'The Archers' has an audience of about five million
radioA growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift is heading to Norwich for Radio 1's Big Weekend

music
Arts and Entertainment
Beer as folk: Vincent Franklin and Cyril Nri (centre) in ‘Cucumber’
tvReview: This slice of gay life in Manchester has universal appeal
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
‘A Day at the Races’ still stands up well today
film
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tvAnd its producers have already announced a second season...
Arts and Entertainment
Kraftwerk performing at the Neue Nationalgalerie (New National Gallery) museum in Berlin earlier this month
musicWhy a bunch of academics consider German electropoppers Kraftwerk worthy of their own symposium
Arts and Entertainment
Icelandic singer Bjork has been forced to release her album early after an online leak

music
Arts and Entertainment
Colin Firth as Harry Hart in Kingsman: The Secret Service

film
Arts and Entertainment
Brian Blessed as King Lear in the Guildford Shakespeare Company's performance of the play

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
In the picture: Anthony LaPaglia and Martin Freeman in 'The Eichmann Show'

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Anne Kirkbride and Bill Roache as Deirdre and Ken Barlow in Coronation Street

tvThe actress has died aged 60
Arts and Entertainment
Marianne Jean-Baptiste defends Joe Miller in Broadchurch series two

tv
Arts and Entertainment
The frill of it all: Hattie Morahan in 'The Changeling'

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Gillian Anderson and David Duchovny may reunite for The X Files

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Clarkson, left, and Richard Hammond upset the locals in South America
TV
News
A young woman punched a police officer after attending a gig by US rapper Snoop Dogg
people
Arts and Entertainment
Reese Witherspoon starring in 'Wild'

It's hard not to warm to Reese Witherspoon's heroismfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Word up: Robbie Coltrane as dictionary guru Doctor Johnson in the classic sitcom Blackadder the Third
books

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Hacked off: Maisie Williams in ‘Cyberbully’

Maisie Williams single-handedly rises to the challenge

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything and Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game are both nominated at the Bafta Film Awards
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Isis hostage crisis: The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power

    Isis hostage crisis

    The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power, says Robert Fisk
    Missing salvage expert who found $50m of sunken treasure before disappearing, tracked down at last

    The runaway buccaneers and the ship full of gold

    Salvage expert Tommy Thompson found sunken treasure worth millions. Then he vanished... until now
    Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

    Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

    Maverick artist Grayson Perry backs our campaign
    Assisted Dying Bill: I want to be able to decide about my own death - I want to have control of my life

    Assisted Dying Bill: 'I want control of my life'

    This week the Assisted Dying Bill is debated in the Lords. Virginia Ironside, who has already made plans for her own self-deliverance, argues that it's time we allowed people a humane, compassionate death
    Move over, kale - cabbage is the new rising star

    Cabbage is king again

    Sophie Morris banishes thoughts of soggy school dinners and turns over a new leaf
    11 best winter skin treats

    Give your moisturiser a helping hand: 11 best winter skin treats

    Get an extra boost of nourishment from one of these hard-working products
    Paul Scholes column: The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him

    Paul Scholes column

    The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him
    Frank Warren column: No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans

    Frank Warren's Ringside

    No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans
    Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

    Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

    The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
    Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

    Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

    Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
    Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
    Larry David, Steve Coogan and other comedians share stories of depression in new documentary

    Comedians share stories of depression

    The director of the new documentary, Kevin Pollak, tells Jessica Barrett how he got them to talk
    Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

    Has The Archers lost the plot?

    A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
    English Heritage adds 14 post-war office buildings to its protected lists

    14 office buildings added to protected lists

    Christopher Beanland explores the underrated appeal of these palaces of pen-pushing
    Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

    Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

    Scientists unearthed the cranial fragments from Manot Cave in West Galilee