Much as Stephen King appears to want to reinvent himself as a Book of the Month Club author of mid-list bestsellers aimed at women -- the jacket blurbs on his newest novel come from Gloria Naylor, Anne Rivers Siddons and Amy Tan -- something inside him keeps pulling him back to the dark places. The same thing could be said of Mike Noonan, the tormented romance novelist (he contemptuously refers to himself as "V.C. Andrews with a prick," and even in King's universe it's hard to imagine anything more frightening than that) who is the greatly flawed hero of "Bag of Bones," one of King's most disturbing and revealing works.
Mike's beloved wife, Jo, died suddenly from a stroke in a strip-mall parking lot four years ago, and since then Mike has been haunted, in every sense of that word, by her loss. He hasn't written a word or gone on a date, he drinks too much and does crosswords all day, and he can't shake the shock of learning that Jo was pregnant when she died, though she never said a word to him about it. To make matters a great deal worse, Jo -- or a shambling corpse-shape that looks like Jo -- has begun showing up in his nightmares. Someone or something has invaded Mike's disturbed subconscious, and wants him to return to Sara Laughs, the oddly named lake house in remote western Maine that he hasn't visited since well before Jo's death.
This is one of King's creepiest setups in years, and I'm giving nothing away in telling you that Mike arrives at Sara Laughs only to discover he isn't precisely alone there. (No other horror writer has ever had King's ability to employ innocuous household objects to such sinister effect -- you'll never look at your refrigerator magnets the same way again.) Jo's spirit may well be haunting the place, but so, apparently, is something older and less definable -- something that requires Mike to excavate the troubled history of the rural community surrounding Sara Laughs, where a disturbing number of children have died under puzzling circumstances over the last century.
The idea that a community's present is held hostage by the crimes of the past is familiar King terrain, and in fact "Bag of Bones" contains faint echoes of such earlier books as "Pet Sematary" and "It," although it's more delicate than the former and much more adult than the latter. Between the historically rooted supernatural tapestry, the meticulously rendered portrait of rural life with its incestuous secrets and the saga of a widower's emotional reawakening, "Bag of Bones" seems to be trying to channel Shirley Jackson, E. Annie Proulx and Toni Morrison all at the same time. It doesn't always work, and King's characters still sometimes talk in the long, fully formed expository sentences of boys' adventure stories. But there's no denying that the horrormeister's struggle to become a more mature novelist has begun to pay off.
What terrifies the 40-ish Mike -- and his creator -- much more than the ghoulies and ghosties who crowd the shores of Dark Score Lake is the fleshly apparition of Mattie, a 21-year-old single mom who lives with her 3-year-old daughter, Kyra, in a nearby trailer. Mattie is battling her father-in-law, a nefarious software billionaire, for custody of Kyra, and Mike is inevitably drawn into the struggle as the spunky duo's protector and (in the eyes of their nosy neighbors) Mattie's sugar daddy as well. In fact, Mike feels a powerful attraction to Mattie, and it's apparently reciprocated, but he can't shake the idea that a union with a girl young enough to be his daughter is flat-out wrong. "I don't believe that people automatically have a right to what they want, no matter how badly they want it," Mike muses. "Not every thirst should be slaked."
It's surely some kind of victory for feminism that a bestselling male novelist should view the prospect of getting his middle-aged hero laid by a barely legal trailer babe as a moral quandary rather than just a masturbatory fantasy. But King's central theme, as ever, is that monsters live inside ordinary people, and it takes a combination of willpower and luck to keep them locked in the basement. When he titillates us with Mike's disturbing, erotic dreams about Mattie and her daughter (uncomfortably blended with images of his dead wife), or has the villainous tycoon Max Devore leer at Mike, "Does her cunt suck?" the suggestion is that no matter how much love may exist between a 40-year-old man and a 21-year-old woman, the imbalance creates a kind of doorway for evil, a doorway most men lack the strength to close.
King has been called both a sexist and a feminist, and in this tremendously compelling but ultimately rather baffling novel he earns both epithets. His resolution of the Mike-Mattie-Jo-Kyra quadrangle is so unsatisfying (I won't tell you, though you can probably guess) that even Mike, inside the story, sees it as a male novelist's cheap trick. In the end, after a late-summer hurricane hits Dark Score Lake, the town's skeletons are brought to light and the spooks of Sara Laughs are laid to rest. The last ghost glumly dragging its chains through this novel's house is its author, sickened by his own uncanny facility for yarn-spinning, convinced, like some caricatured Andrea Dworkin-style gender essentialist, that inside him and every other man the demons never sleep.