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.