I was asked to write something about how Stephen King has influenced me, but I don’t think I can. Not because he hasn’t influenced me – he may have – but because Stephen King’s writing is in my nervous system, rides my patterns of thought like an old Chevy rides a smooth highway, is superimposed on the map of my brain.
Stephen King is part of me. And I know I’m not alone. It’s striking, browsing Goodreads reviews, how many people talk about being Stephen King “junkies” or “addicts”. His is writing that you mainline: it is not something that you track, line by line, on the page – it is something that leaps from the page through your eyes and into your brain, unspooling the story in the cinema of your inner eye, like film from a reel.
So I suppose I don’t really think of Stephen King’s novels as books – I think of them as windows onto worlds of story. Sometimes slightly naff story, admittedly, as when the previously-excellent Duma Key descends into grand guignol at the end. But always immersive, always real-feeling, and always – yes – addictive.
Probably, therefore, the best thing I can do is to name the Stephen King book that has left the most lasting impression on me, and the one I would most like to emulate. This is – and it won’t be a surprise to other addicts – his masterpiece, Bag of Bones. In fact, I’m going to contradict the opening of this piece and say that Bag of Bones has influenced me enormously, or at least has given me something to aspire to: its blend of convincing everyday detail, a very personal journey of redemption, and gradually mounting horror is something I have tried to capture in my own book There Will Be Lies, as well as the backdrop of history and myth.
Bag of Bones is arguably a key transitional book for King, the one that opened the way to the more literary style of Lisey’s Story and Duma Key. It’s also, like Lisey’s Story, a truly affecting love story, and captures that longing for a lost person – in Michael’s love for his lost wife Jo – with (literally) haunting power. It has the classic King quality of building a world of incredible detail and verisimilitude – the opening scenes, narrated by writer Michael, of drugstore and street and cars are etched indelibly in my mind and totally REAL – and then slowly introducing into it, drip by drip, the supernatural. And when it comes, the ghost part is horribly, horribly believable and plausible – even now, thinking of the messages spelt out with fridge magnets makes me shiver. (Interestingly, it comes across as cheesy in the TV adaptation – there’s a whole essay probably in why it might work in print and not on screen…)
But, and it’s a big but, this isn’t just a horror story and it isn’t just a love story – it’s also a tricky, wobbly, hard-to-pin down story about injustice, and the crimes of history. The ghost is a black woman, raped and then murdered along with her baby by a close-knit white community that then covered up her death, and in this sense America’s not-so-distant past is a major theme. There are some who have argued that the book is itself racist, in that the ghost is a vengeful one, and so King is essentially putting a white middle-aged writer – the narrator – in charge of vanquishing a (dead) villain who is a black woman.
Me, I don’t think it’s so simple. Yes, King probably makes victims of women too much and yes he should lay off the Magical Negroes. And yes, Sara is a vengeful ghost, but she has good reason to be, but King is nothing if not a very aware writer, and if Michael is an avatar for King, then Sara perhaps stands as an avatar for a general outrage. And crucially, I think it’s meant to be a little uncomfortable, I think we’re meant to notice the complexity of the issue, the framing of the narrative by a white voice, to start having these thoughts about race and power, and this is what gives the book its incredible, queasy, teetering potency. It’s no accident that there are subtle, passing references throughout the book – glances here and there – to the Micmac Indians who lived in the town and were driven out by white settlers; this is intrinsically linked to the book’s simmering, sickly theme.
Just as Sara disrupts the tranquillity of this little privileged lakeside town in Maine, now a summer retreat, I’m sure her backstory is intended to discomfit the reader too, along with those carefully poised, jarring reminders that this part of Maine didn’t belong, originally, to those who live there now. It’s true literature, and that’s why it’s such a stepping stone in King’s work: not just a popular thriller but a neglected classic of the twentieth century, I’m convinced that it’s a deliberately ambiguous book, and one that’s intended to show us how it might feel to lose someone we love, like Michael does; to remind us of our own mortality, that we are all just bags of bones; to awaken our sense of guilt; and to reveal the new world itself as a bag of bones, a grown-over cemetery, a country built on blood.
Oh, and let’s just forget the whole Mattie storyline shall we? Every Stephen King book has to have some naff bits.