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May 1999
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by Elizabeth Hand

by Stephen King
Scribner, 529 pp, $28.00


I live in Maine, about an hour south and east of Bangor, and I can tell you, Stephen King is an iconic figure in these here hills. Equal parts Robin Hood, George Bailey, and populist Shakespeare, King is king, and everyone I know has a story about him: the ageing hippies who've made a part-time career of being extras in his movies; the midlist mystery writer who claims that in the mid-1980s, the interior of King's office looked like the final scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark, choked with boxed manuscripts from aspiring novelists and hopeful editors awaiting blurbs; the guy who used to clean my chimney, a man I came to think of as The World's Foremost Authority, whose opinions on everything from global warming to house construction were as adamant as they were utterly daft. When it came to Stephen King, The World's Foremost Authority grew absolutely eloquent, nearly apoplectic with eloquence; because he knew the truth, you see, the real god's honest truth about Stephen King. And one day the whole world would know what he knew, and when it did -

Well, that was best left to the imagination, like the rest of the Authority's chaotic theories. What he shared with me, not once but many times over the years, was that he had it on absolute unassailable authority that Stephen King did not write any of his books. Oh, maybe the first one, Carrie -

What about those early stories? I interrupted, The ones in Gallery and Cavalier? (I'd been so impressed by them in the Night Shift collection that I sent my own fledgling efforts to the same magazines, receiving the only hand-written and kindly-intentioned rejection letter of my early career: "I enjoyed your story but we are more interested in SEX.")

The Authority allowed, grudgingly, that King might have written one or two of those; but as for the rest -

Well, he said, lowering his voice as a black hail of creosote spattered down from the chimney, they were all written by other people.

Oh, you must mean the Richard Bachman books, I said. Stephen King wrote those under a pseudonym ---

No. The Authority shook his head and stomped his long-handled brush on the floor. I mean he's got an entire factory of people writing for him. Friend of mine saw it, once. Buncha people livin in trailers over t' Veazie. They write the books, he pays 'em, then they get published under his name. Stephen King, the Authority repeated in a cold voice, and gave me a baleful look. And anyone ever mentions the truth about it, well, he just shuts 'em up. I know.

Well, I've only lived here for eleven years, but even I know better than to argue with a native about Stephen King. Though I'm unsure as to what the Authority would make of Bag of Bones, King's most recent book. It's long, and it was written fast - in just over eight months, if we go by the novel's dated coda - and it is, ostensibly, a horror novel. But even this is up for debate, since the book's (unaccustomably subdued) jacket declares Bag of Bones to be "A Haunted Love Story.". This from the man who had a huge seller with a book titled It?

Ah, but identifying Stephen King is a game that moves as you play it. The fact is, the iconic figure Stephen King most resembles at this point is Rhett Butler. Not the whoring, rum-running, craftily grinning Rhett; not Rhett in the passionate clinch, nor Rhett striding coolly away down that tree-lined street while Scarlett looks desperately after him. I'm talking about the other, more mature Rhett, the one tipping his hat to sidewalk society and earnestly taking the advice of every old bluestocking biddy he meets, the Rhett who at midlife has found new purpose and a new passion - to make sure his baby daughter gets the respect he never had. Substitute Bag of Bones for Bonnie Blue Butler, and you have the makings of a millennial American folktale: the second act reinvention of Stephen King as a beloved, respected and - drumroll, please - remarkably fine American writer.

Because, good as Bag of Bones is - and it's very, very, good - what is even better is the thought that it is the harbinger of more books to come. This may seem an ironic utterance, considering the veritable Fibber Magee's Closet of Stephen King works that have preceded this one. Over thirty books, as stated on the jacket of his newest one, the first published by Scribner. A few of these books are named, but what is more interesting is the somber invocation of King's university education, his O. Henry Award, his devotion to the causes of literacy and writing. King's recent contributions to The New Yorker, an intriguing yet flawed short story in the summer fiction issue, and a hauntingly elegiacal essay in its winter counterpart, seem to wrap it all up with a nice big shiny red bow. After almost twenty-five years, innumerable film adaptations, legions of devoted readers and 500 gazillion books in print, Stephen King has finally arrived as an author to be taken seriously.

In its plotting and characterization, Bag of Bones doesn't veer too far from that wide well-travelled King's Road that hies from Carrie to The Green Mile. The protagonist, Mike Noonan, is a successful writer, "V. C. Andrews with a prick," as some wag tags him (though I do wonder if a millionaire author whose books regularly turn up on the bestseller lists - even those that extend all the way down to fifteen - can realistically be termed "a midlist writer"). Four years earlier, Mike's beloved wife, Jo, died of an aneurysm outside of Rite-Aid. Among her effects, Mike found a just-purchased home pregnancy kit. The discovery gives an even crueller icy sheen to Mike's grief, since the couple had desperately wanted children and he hadn't known she was pregnant. In the aftermath of Jo's death, the formerly prolific Mike develops an unsettlingly resistant case of writer's block (for those of us toiling in those reaches of the industry somewhat beyond even the Number Fifteen Spot, this is one of the scarier parts of the book, and the only one that actually disturbed my rest); fortunately, he has a few spare manuscripts rattling around in his safe deposit box, and for a few years he's able to coast along comfortably on those.

But time comes when the last bottom-drawer novel has been parcelled out to his agent, and Mike still hasn't started writing again. Stalling requests from his agent and editor, and hoping that the move will re-energize him, Mike leaves the home in Derry, Maine, that he shared with Jo, and lights out for the Territory - unincorporated Township TR-90, or the TR, as locals call it.

The TR is in western Maine, a region that has acted as a sort of dark Never- Neverland not just for King but Carolyn Chute and the lesser-known Michael Rothschild, writers who have also drawn on this harsh landscape and the insularity and occasional sheer orneriness of its inhabitants. Once there, Noonan settles in at Sara Laughs, a rambling log structure built at the turn of the century and named for Sara Tidwell, the legendary black blues and gospel singer who briefly made it her home nearly a hundred years earlier, and whose belting voice and contagious joie d'esprit could not save her from the rigid caste structures and hatreds of small town New England.

Sara Laughs is haunted - no surprise - but King does his usual deft job of juggling one's doubts as to just who is doing the haunting, and why. Is it Jo? Sara Tidwell? The ghost of the recently deceased young man who left an uncommonly pretty twenty-one-year-old trailer-trash widow and four-year-old daughter living in a double-wide down the road from Mike? Mysterious messages appear on the refrigerator, screams and bumps are heard in the night; but the real mystery is whether or not Mike will sleep with widowed Mattie, the first woman he's fancied (okay, he really loves her) since Jo died.

Ah, but Mattie is trouble; rather, she's in trouble, since her father-in-law is the horrible Max Devore, an eighty-five-year-old software mogul who wants custody of his little granddaughter Kyra. If Devore is Charles Foster Kane, Kyra is Rosebud, and Devore will stop at nothing to get his wizened claws on her.

That's pretty much it as far as plot synopsis goes; any more and I would do readers the disservice of revealing who gets it in the neck, the groin, the throat, the heart. Suffice to say that there are pyrotechnics and terrible storms, drownings and near-drownings in Dark Score Lake, reversals of fate and fortune, revelations of dark deeds done when the century was new, and innocents paying the price now that the century is dying. Standard Stephen King stuff, in other words.

What is extraordinary here is how good the writing is. I'm neither a diehard fan nor a Stephen King snob: over the decades I've liked his short stories very much, loved his nonfiction book Danse Macabre, but found his novels frustrating. Too long, too flaccid, too many bloody eyeballs and boogers and intestines crackling like kielbasa on a Weber grill before they burst. My frustration grew, reading later works like Rose Madder, because King's writing was so obviously getting leaner, more elegant and more mature; but still there were those interminable Grand Guignol segments, and the aggravating suspicion that no one was editing them.

I have no idea what's happened with Bag of Bones. Has King simply shucked all that boogery kid stuff? Does he have a more stringent editor? Or - this is kind of a scary thought - has he actually been this good all along, just stringing his millions of fans out for all these years? Has Stephen King just been toying with us?

No matter. I didn't skim through Bag of Bones at all; I loved it. The characterizations are plummy, the dialogue sharp, and even the ghosts play second fiddle to Mike Noonan and his genuinely anguished midlife crisis. There are sly references to Melville, M. R. James, Somerset Maugham, Daphne du Maurier, Elmore Leonard, Lafcadio Hearn, George Seferis, and Thomas Hardy (take that, nose-in-the-air literary critics). And yes, I think that Stephen King is toying with us here - all those rumors of bottom-drawer novels, all those characters from other King books, pretending to write while going slowly mad in wintry places; all those mean-spirited reviews from the mainstream press, decrying King's success and blaming his books for falling literacy rates when they should have been keeping on eye on mean Bill Gates (take that, Max Devore). The real happy ending, of course, is both fitting and ironic: Bag of Bones is a terrific book that has garnered serious reviews for its author, and it's still in the Number Two spot on the Times Bestseller List.

Meanwhile, here in Maine, Stephen and Tabitha King quietly go on doing good deeds for the university system, the library system, the Arts and Good Old Fashioned Sports. In Bangor one day around Christmas, I saw this message posted on a signboard outside the municipal baseball field:


Later that afternoon, when we stopped for lunch at a downtown cafe, an elderly man dressed as Santa Claus came into the restaurant and cheerfully worked the room, talking with children and giving out candy canes as their beaming parents watched.

"Hey, look!" said my companion. "It's Stephen King!"

It wasn't, really; but six weeks earlier I had glimpsed King, narrating "Peter and the Wolf" at a Halloween benefit for the Bangor Symphony. The performance was at the Bangor Civic Center, a cavernous gymnasium that usually hosts state basketball playoffs, and the place was packed - the only thing I can compare it to was seeing another hometown sweetheart, Bruce Springsteen, playing in another gym twenty-odd years ago. Anyway, I went backstage at intermission with a friend who's a violinist in the symphony, and there was Stephen King, standing in a doorway and saying nice things to all the musicians, looking rather shy and very tall and - yes - incredibly buff in tight white t-shirt and jeans. The burly, beer-drinking working-class hero of Carrie and The Shining and The Stand had been replaced by Jeremy Irons.

"Go ahead - say Hi to him," my violinist friend urged. "He's wonderful, he's really so nice, go say Hello -"

But I didn't. Too shy myself, I guess. Plus, once Stephen King knows that I know about all those poor writers toiling in trailers up in Veazie - well, don't say I didn't warn you.

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