I used to devour Stephen King novels in my early teens. Long summer-holiday afternoons were lost lying on the lounge room floor reading Carrie, Pet Sematary, Salem’s Lot, It. Whole days disappeared while I was absorbed in twisting narratives, desperate to know what would happen next, unable to finish a chapter without diving straight into the next one. By the time I was seventeen life had begun to get a little more serious. There were exams to be studied for, university courses to consider. And I was taking Year 12 English Literature. “After this class,” my teacher declared on the first day, “you’ll never read another airport book again.”
Airport books: Thick, eye-catching tomes in revolving display cases. Embossed covers; big, bold, gold letters; gushing blurbs peppered with adjectives like “gripping” and “unputdownable”. For years I avoided the airport books. I wouldn’t open them, refused to read even the comments on the back. I walked right by them in bookstores, averted my eyes, and headed straight for the classics section. I scoffed at them in conversation, looked distastefully at other people reading them in coffee shops and on trains. I was studying Literature. I was reading Woolf, Joyce, and D.H. Lawrence. I was never reading another airport book again.
A few years ago, however, while browsing a used bookstore in the beach town of Sihanoukville on the Cambodian coast, four large gold letters caught my eye: ‘KING’. I picked up the book. A few minutes later I was walking through the checkout, feeling like a literary rebel, with my airport novel in hand.
I was hooked from the first page. I didn’t care that the exposition was a little heavy, or the characters a little thin. The lack of subtext didn’t bother me, nor did the simple, unambiguous prose. Memories of long summers with Stephen King came flooding back. The story had me turning pages, and – on beaches and buses in Cambodia – that was what mattered.
Bag of Bones is – as all good airport books are – a mystery, a thriller, a romance, and a ghost story all in one. It is the story of Mike Noonan, a successful novelist suffering from writer’s block after the sudden death of his wife. In an effort to start writing again Noonan moves to his summer retreat in western Maine – an old, creaking house called Sara Laughs. In Maine Noonan meets Mattie, an attractive young widow fighting her father-in-law for custody of her three-year-old daughter. As he falls in love Noonan also discovers that his house is haunted, that his wife left some secrets behind when she died, and that the town itself has a sinister history.
Bag of Bones follows a classic formula: hook, development, false climax, real climax. King is a master of this structure – his skilful use of it is what makes his books “unputdownable”. In Bag of Bones, for example, the hook is the description of the death of Noonan’s wife on the very first page. Immediately King poses questions to be answered: How did she die? What did she buy at the pharmacy moments before her death? As the story develops just enough information is revealed at just the right time to keep the reader involved. King’s novels are often long (Bag of Bones is 660 pages), but every detail either reveals character or advances the action. The reader is drawn deep into the word of the characters while at the same time being swept along by the story – reading a Stephen King novel is something like stepping into a river and getting stuck in the current. And as the story nears its conclusion connections between characters and subplots begin to come clear – everything is intertwined; everything supports and explains everything else. The story has come full circle. There is something satisfying about the end of a novel – similar to the satisfaction felt when a chord progression in a piece of music is resolved. The human brain naturally enjoys this kind of creative structure, and in Bag of Bones King has perfected it.
I will never stop reading the classics – will always go back to the beauty of Virginia Woolf’s rambling prose, always be enthralled by the bubbling undercurrent of emotion in Chekhov’s plays. But it is nice to appreciate, every now and then, the art of the narrative. To pull a shiny airport novel off its revolving shelf and enjoy a good story.
Stephen King, Bag of Bones, Hodder and Stoughton, 1998.