Linda J. Holland-Toll
Fiat Lux!: Multi-Generic Functionalities
in Stephen King’s Bag of Bones
Stephen King’s Bag of Bones is primarily Gothic in nature, which is to place it as a subcategory of the wider horror fiction; but even to say that much seems to me to sell the reading experience short. While Bag of Bones rings nearly ever Gothic bell imaginable, King also uses other genres that are both sympathetic, as occurs when he meshes the gothic with the romance and antithetical to the Gothic, as occurs when he uses detective fiction and science fiction. The Gothic, with its sense of claustrophobia, the chthonic images, and the time bound inheritance of guilt, all important defining motifs in King’s novel, would make a reading of the novel as Gothic or even, a Gothic romance quite accurate.
Accurate as such a reading is it does not deal with the presence of various other genres, which function with equal importance to create a multi-faceted reading experience. The additions to the basic Gothic plot work not only to create a richer reader experience but also to mitigate and resolve much of the horror embedded in King’s novel.
Among other genres, Gothic, romance, detective, and science fiction are also active presences. What is a surprise is when both mystery and detective fiction, two genres which depend on reason and logic, genres that oppose the supernatural and emotional parameters of the Gothic/romance are also embedded in the text. Detective fiction, fantasy, and romance all call for the restoration of order - the detective collars the criminal, the hero collars the villain, the femme fatale collars her man – and all is sweetness and light. Science fiction works to explain things that seem otherwise magical or impossible, thus also restoring logical order. These are, by definition, genres that work within a paradigm of disorder moving toward order. While such detective genre critics as George Grella or John Cawelti see great differences in the conventions of the formal or English detective novel as opposed to the American or hard-boiled novel, both sub-genres are concerned with the restoration of order. Neither Gothic nor horror necessarily privileges order in the same manner in which detective, science fiction and romance do.
I would like to explore how this admixture of genres works on the generic level to create the multi-faceted reading experience to which I referred earlier. Although one might expect the reader to have trouble shifting between the genres, or be derailed by the presence of genres whose reading expectations counter each other, I contend that genres like the Romance genre, while often affiliated with the Gothic, as in the Gothic Romance, also mitigate the deep disease so often created by the Gothic, as detective works to clarify the murkiness of the Gothic, and the presence of science fiction, a genre also based more on fact as opposed to emotion, works to open up the claustrophobic Gothic and also vitiate the horrific emotions unleashed and propagated by the Gothic. Thus, the competing genres add to the richness of the novel as well as the reading experience. Defining genre fiction is not all that easy, particularly in a time of genre-bending and the evolution of many genres, but the discussion below will at least clarify my view of generic conventions.
Certainly the association with King and horror is an automatic, almost a knee jerk reaction, but as in many other King novels, much more is going on than simple horror. Horror fiction, defined by its effect, is a rather slippery and amorphous genre, encompassing elements of the Gothic, all kinds of monsters, dystopias, and man’s inhumanity to man.
What makes a horror text a horror text cannot be reduced to certain "must haves" . . . .although, as in other genres, there are certain conventions or elements which do generally appear to define horror fiction. [. . .] Generally speaking, the reader of horror fictions expects at least some of the following elements to surface: an aspect of the supernatural -- an actual physical monster embodied in the vampire, werewolf, ghost, or aliens; fantastic or inexplicable events which may or may not have a non-fantastic cause, or which, as Todorov argues, may or may not be explicable; characters with super/ paranormal powers; extreme emotions, melodramatic situations and sensational plots; emotional engagements of terror, horror, or revulsion; and, of course, the paradoxical feeling of enjoyable terror [. . .] Horror fiction can also be defined as any text which induces, as its primary intention and/or effect, strong feelings of terror, horror, or revulsion in the reader, and generates a significant degree of unresolved dis/ease within society.1
Horror fiction, as I see it, is a very uncomfortable read, a read that, unlike detective or romance fictions, does not paper over the cultural dis/ease and subscribe to the “sweetness, light and/or order” thematics. Horror fictions leave the reader alone. In the dark. With the ghosts. The very existence of monsters or ghosts resists the possibility of a genre interested in restoring order. Monsters are outside the rational universe, unlike romance or detective fiction. Obviously, as I interpret horror fiction, the most effective horror fiction does not work with the restoration of order, but deliberately reveals the idea of order as an empty construct. Indeed, the best and most effective horror leaves us feeling dis/eased and uncertain. We do not feel that we inhabit a world we understand, but one which does not prize either order or happy endings. Horror fiction says that there are, indeed, monsters under the bed and in the closet, monsters that our parents cannot exorcize, monsters that exist solely to call the social construct of order into strong question. And horror fiction also says that sometimes the monsters win.
Certainly, aspects of horror fiction, with its predominant themes and constant realization of mortality, riddle Bag of Bones; the idea that we are, ultimately nothing more than walking bags of bones, being, in my opinion, one of the leading aspects. If we are nothing more than bags of bones, then such basic human qualities as love for each other, a desire to help our fellow humans, an understanding of the forces which drive people, and an understanding of the importance of community are all useless affectations, or shrouds, perhaps, which we use to cover the grim truth. Consider Mike’s dream of Jo, not in her coffin but lurking under their marital bed:
Jo was lying there amid the dust kitties. A strand of cobweb hung down from the bottom of the box spring and caressed her cheek like a feather. Her red hair looked dull, but her eyes were dark and alert and baleful in her white face. And when she spoke, I knew that death had driven her insane.
[. . .] For a moment our fingers touched, and hers were as cold as twigs after a frost.2
Clearly, if Mike Noonan’s beloved wife Johanna is nothing more than a bag of bones, as horror fiction would have us accept, and death turns those who love us into fearful and baleful figures, some form of mitigation and resolution would result in a more positive reading
In addition, another theme perhaps more consonant with horror fiction than Gothic is that of the strategies of exclusion, by which I mean that communities are constructed, not on togetherness but on exclusion: “The strategies of exclusion, demarcation, demonization, scapegoating, and sacrifice work to define the very purpose of horror fiction as exclusionary, divisive, and, ironically and antinomously, the methods by which cohesion and community can be both attained and maintained.” 3 These strategies, unpleasant as they are, are part and parcel, the very core of the horror, the heart of darkness, if you will, in King’s Bag of Bones. They are at the heart/center of the way the residents of the TR live, excluding those who are not part of the community, those who are not bound together in a common knowledge of a heinous crime, the details of which are known to the insiders and unknown to the outsiders, is one of the binding forces of the TR. And since the crime occurred a fairly long time ago, and is still affecting some of the families in the area, one way they can protect themselves is to invoke the strategies of exclusion against anyone who threatens to either cost them Devore’s funding, as does Mattie, or expose their guilty knowledge, as does Jo, inadvertently and Mike, quite consciously.
Not only are Mike and Mattie victims of this pattern, but Sarah Tidwell and her group experience the joys of the strategies of exclusion; her son is drowned by the “men” of the TR and she is raped and murdered for thinking that:
‘she could walk here like everybody else, that’s the fucking point! She thought she could walk there like a white gal! [. . .] She thought she was something special but we taught her different. [. . .] we taught her manners, didn’t we, boys? [. . .] we taught her her place,’ Devore said. ‘We taught her she wasn’t nothing but a nigger.’4
Sarah Tidwell, a vengeful ghost-cum-Outsider, wreaks vengeance on the generations following, with child after child of the original rapists’ descendants drowning in Dark Score Lake , under a pump, or in a bathtub. This aspect of the novel, with its complete disregard for justice or compassion, in its cold calculated use of the children’s own relatives to kill them, reflects the true horror of the novel. These children are the innocent victims of Sara Tidwell’s relentless quest for vengeance. To her, they are indeed nothing more than bags of bones. Michael Noonan, deep in the grip of what he refers to as “the Zone,” and related to one of the original seven rapist-murderers, almost finishes the task of carrying out Sara’s sweeping vengeance. And at novel’s end, when Mike Noonan has figured everything out, he rejects Sara’s command to drown Kyra Devore in a tub of warn water, and instead finds Jo’s owls and the last bit of information that he needs to “lye” the ghost, who screams, in her own use of the strategies of exclusion, “‘I ain’t done,’ she cried in a cracked, breaking voice. ‘He was the worst, don’t you understand? He was the worst and it’s his blood in her and I won’t rest ‘til I have it out!’”5
Certainly both Mike and Mattie are demarcated, demonized, scapegoated, and in Mattie’s case, quite literally sacrificed by the forces that control the actions of the guilty parties. When Mike becomes a ghost in the Past, he sees Carla Dean, Bill Dean’s sister, dressed in a white silk dress with red stockings and red-and-white ribbons, drowned by Fred Dean, her own father. Since Dean participated in raping and killing Sara and drowning her son, Sara Tidwell manipulates him into recreating the drowning scene of Kito Tidwell, with his own blood kin as the victim. This inhuman place makes monsters of us all as King reiterates in The Shining – and certainly Dark Score Lake and the TR, the home of “the Martians,” houses, if not creates, some fairly monstrous people.6 The behaviour of the people of the TR, their exclusionary tactics, targeting both Mike and Mattie, turning on Mattie at the behest of the inhuman villain Max Devore in order to preserve their warped community, Mike’s subsequent fear and loathing of the people of the TR, whom he likens to murdering Martians, demonstrating yet another example of the strategies of exclusion, all work to differentiate the horror elements from the more traditional Gothic. By its very nature, the Gothic title invokes mysteries, ghosts, secrets, omens and portents, supernatural manifestations, untold truths, old sins and curses passed down generationally, overwrought emotions, ”damsels in distress,” doppelgangers, missing heirs, doomed lovers and haunted houses.
In the “Introduction” to The Oxford Book of Gothic Tales, Chris Baldick comments that the Gothic, in addition to all the expected keynotes must produce the following effect:
“ For the Gothic effect to be attained, a tale should combine a fearful sense of inheritance in time with a claustrophobic sense of enclosure in space, these two dimensions reinforcing one another to produce an impression of sickening descent into disintegration. This is, of course, too abstract a formula to capture the real accumulation of physical and historical associations by which we recognize the conventions of the Gothic; so it may be translated into more concrete terms by noting that typically a Gothic tale will invoke the tyranny of the past (a family curse, the survival of archaic forms of despotism and superstition) with such weight as to stifle the hopes of the present (the liberty of the heroine or hero) within the dead end of physical incarceration (the dungeon, the locked room, or simply the confinements of a family house closing in upon itself). Even more concisely, although at the risk of losing an important series of connected meanings, we could just say that Gothic fiction is characteristically obsessed with old buildings as the site of human decay. 7
If this rings a series of bells, or even Bunter’s bell, for those readers familiar with Bag of Bones . . .
Certainly the very numbers and levels of haunting, the mot fearsome inheritance and the sense of the claustrophobic and isolated TR define Bag of Bones as Gothic. By its very nature gaps and slippages are also intrinsic to the Gothic; how often, after all, are explanations given and all loose ends neatly tied up in a manner that avoids contrived devices and the good old deus ex machina? The Gothic, after all, is a mystery, but not a detective novel. Where, oh where did the armoured glove that squashed the evil Manfred’s heir come from? Why did it fall from Heaven? Why does the heroine, clad in a flimsy white nightgown, guttering candle clutched in one hand, enter the forbidden room? Why does the protagonist stay in the haunted house in the first place? Would the average Joe not beat feet? Who knows, oh reader? The secrecy, the mysteries are sometimes explained and sometimes not. But the purpose of the Gothic is to evoke emotion in the reader, as opposed to a detective novel in which figuring out whodunit is the more important aspect, as Baldick’s definition of the Gothic makes abundantly clear and as both Grella and Cawelti’s definitions, on classic and hard-boiled fiction respectively, make clear. Among many other vignettes, the evocation of disoriented claustrophobia, and Michael Noonan’s dream about his dead wife evoke Baldick’s idea of being claustrophobically trapped in the past evoke great terror – both in Mike and in the reader Who has not, at least once, awakened in a dark room and fleetingly been unable to identify one’s surroundings. Who, having experienced that numbing and sometimes terror-provoking disorientation, can forget the scene in Bag of Bones in which Mike Noonan, in the grips of a dream about his dead wife Jo and Sara Laughs, their vacation home in the T R, conflated with Mrs. Danvers and Manderley – both images from Du Maurier’s Rebecca- is blundering helplessly about his bedroom in Derry, totally disoriented:
The shrieking white thing reached for me and I woke up on the floor of my bedroom, crying out in a cracked horrified voice and slamming my head repeatedly against something. How long before I realized that I was no longer asleep, that I wasn’t at Sara Laughs? How long before I realized that I had fallen out of bed at some point and had crawled across the room in my sleep, that I was on my hands and knees in a corner, butting my head against the place where the walls come together, doing it over and over, like a lunatic in an insane asylum . . . I know that at first I couldn’t move out of the corner because it felt safer than the wider room would have done, and I know for a long time the dream’s force held me even after I woke up . . . I was afraid that if I crawled out of the corner the white thing would burst out of my bathroom, shrieking its dead shriek, eager to finish what it started.8
Between the clutch of the Past, a Past which he can neither come to terms with nor forget and the claustrophobia implicit in facing into a corner (the place where the walls come together), as well as not knowing either when or where he is, what is this scene if it is not the apotheosis of the Gothic? A more fearful inheritance in Time and claustrophobic enclosure in space can hardly be imagined.
While Gothic novels often have embedded mysteries, they do not always have rational explanations nor are the absent presences always explained. Mike, for example, believes that the white shrouded thing in his “Manderley dreams” is his wife Johanna: what he cannot explain is the ghost’s actions: “But why would she want to hurt me? Why would my Jo ever want to hurt me9?” Nor is there a narratorial or authorial answer to this question. Those sticky entangling webs through which both reader and characters must fight their way, often in the dark, without a guide, are not always easily disentangled. One of the ways in which the embedded genres work is to achieve the resolution and closure that many Gothics resolutely deny the reader. By novel’s end, after all, Mike has figured out almost everything going on at Sara Laughs, but not through access to the Gothic; instead, the conventions of Gothic fiction come into play.
Romance is a genre which works on the idea of a comedy of manners – the right people will end up together, probably married. Despite the many complications and misunderstandings and even outright loathing, by the time the last page is turned all will be sorted out. The contemporary romance genre shares some of the same aspects as the comedy of manners, although it is less concerned with an evocation of everyday life than the central relationship between the hero and heroine. Romance has much in common with detective fiction in terms of reader expectation: everything will end up properly sorted out in the end. No one expects the heroine to walk away from the right man, or not recognize the right man eventually. One also expects the hackneyed “the love of a good woman” to solve almost everything. How many romance novels, from Georgette Heyer’s Regency novels to the average pot-boiler, have a male character, who, having once been burned by a beautiful but fickle bitch, forswears women forever, except of course for his advantage. And how many novels end with this view of womankind intact? Nor do many readers admire a woman who says something like, “How glad I am that I do not have to buy the whole pig to get six ounces of sausage.” Happy self-sufficient women living alone and unattached, solitary and content in their self sufficiency are not the point to these novels, as fiendish criminals successfully torturing the citizenry are not part of detective novels, nor magic wands a part of science fiction. Very few romance novels are concerned with the actual mechanics of married life; again, a realistic evocation of life is not the goal. Real life post-marriage relationships rarely continue in total bliss; the everyday exigencies of dirty laundry, hurried encounters and intrusive in-laws pop up with depressing regularity.
Romance novels are often melded with Gothic novels, as in the Gothic Romance, in which the situation of the damsel in distress becomes paramount. Bag of Bones, calling upon Daphne Du Maurier’s very Gothic Rebecca, with the repeated motif of a return to Manderley, the haunted lake, Mrs. Danvers, the demonic housekeeper, and the love interest centered upon the author’s intense love for Jo, his deceased wife, has elements of both a Gothic and a romance. As Tim Appelo aptly notes,
Bag of Bones is partly inspired by Daphne du Maurier's classic Rebecca, but there's more than homage in this novel of horror and romance. Like du Maurier's Manderley, King's scary old place (on the shore of Maine's remote Dark Score Lake) is haunted by the late lady of the manor.10
Thus it is no particular surprise when King characterizes Bag of Bones as a haunted love story. Nor is it a surprise when Mike Noonan, the protagonist, realizes that the “T R” is a system of interwoven webs and underground cables, in which ghosts and the living, the past and the present, new and old sins are all inextricably mingled together. Such an image can cover both the Gothic and the sense of connection Noonan feels to Jo – dead or alive, Jo is an integral part of his life. She may be dead from the first page of the novel, but she is a vivid absent presence throughout the entire text. It is perfectly clear to any reader at all that Mike Noonan had found and married the woman with whom he would have happily spent the rest of his life. Much of the novel is about a mourning process that cannot take place, again harking back to the Gothic sense of entanglement in time and space, because Mike Noonan does not really want to move on. Alive or dead, he loves Jo, and no one else will really do. Long past a typical mourning stage, he is still avoiding any entanglement with another woman, still immersed in memories of Jo, and even still sexually tied to Jo, as the scene detailing his erection when he sees a picture of her, and the dreams he has of making love to her, attest.
This is not the typical behavior of a man who has accepted that dead is dead, life must go on, and all mourning, like rivers that go to the sea must eventually empty out. This is a man who cannot or will not break away from his fearful inheritance. Even Jo’s brother Frank, much though he loves Jo, thinks that it is time for Mike to begin a new life. Just before Mike relocates, permanently, as it turns out, to Sara Laughs, he has lunch with Frank Arlen, Jo’s brother, who points out, caught between “amusement and irritation that he would not consider Mike “two-timing Jo. ‘She’ll have been dead four years come August.’” 11 As Mike thinks when Frank is cross-examining him about his lack of female involvement, looking at him like “some new and oogy specimen of bug”12 accounting to himself and the reader for his determined lack of involvement, which he bases on his writing problems and the fear that the woman is interested not in him but in his bank account,
Most of it, I think, was that there was just too much Jo in my head and heart. There was no room for anyone else even after four years. It was sorrow like cholesterol, and if you think that is funny or weird, be grateful.13
Mike has certainly promised to take care of both Mattie and Kyra, partially because he knows that Jo would have thought it was the right thing to do and partially because he dislikes Max Devore’s arrogance. Even when he decides he will financially support Mattie and Kyra, he says, “We’ll keep tabs on every dollar and dime, if you like. But I’m going to take care of you.” What he thinks is perhaps more to my point And you’ll never take your clothes off when I’m with you. And that’s a promise.14 Although Mattie makes her desire for Mike crystal clear, he still refuses to engage in a physical relationship with her. By the time Mike is ready to take a tentative step toward an actual sexual relationship with Mattie, time has run out on him and Mattie dies in his arms, gunned down by Devore’s henchmen.
Mattie’s death, horrendous as it is, is not an exception to the romance genre. She is quite probably not the right woman for Mike Noonan, who a genre writer (Young Woman On Her Own meets Fascinating Stranger) himself, talks about why he “prefers not” to write these days. Mattie’s death haunts him: worse, “it occurred to me at some point this fall that I had written similar deaths in at least two of my books he continues, commenting:
“Have you set up a moral dilemma you don’t know how to solve? Is the protagonist sexually attracted to a woman much too young for him, shall we say? Need a quick fix? Easiest thing in the world. ‘When the story starts growing sour, bring on the man with the gun’15 [. . .] To think I might have written such a hellishly convenient death in a book, ever, sickens me.16
And yet, paradoxically, this is the exact solution King employs in Bag of Bones to remove Mattie, a woman too young for Mike Noonan.
The romance reader understands that Jo is the only woman for Mike Noonan. Even her occasional and lonely-feeling presence at Sara Laughs, where Mike lives, among the Martians, rather than return to Derry, is an indicator that Mike cannot leave the last vestiges of Jo. Otherwise, surely, he would shake the dust off Sara Laughs, put it on the market, and never return to Martian land, to the place where he has been demonized and ostracized because he will neither condone or participate in the murder of a three year old child or her mother.17 Why else would he stay at Sara Laughs, unless it is because the last faint resonances of the woman he will always love and never replace are still there? Thus, the romance genre, with its strong sense of affirmation and tendency to establish a happy future is one of the sources of mitigation in the Gothic, burdened as Baldick defines this form with the “fearful sense of inheritance in time with a claustrophobic sense of enclosure in space.” By novel’s end, neither Sara Laughs nor Mike is haunted by Sara Tidwell or the dead children; however, Mike still senses vestiges of Jo, a brief scent of Red, the feeling of someone in bed with him, a few notes from Bunter’s bell. “It is,” he says, “as though something lonely wants to say hello.”18 Although he tells us that he has told the whole story to Frank over Christmas, saying “I suppose it had to spill to someone if I was ever to get on with my life,”19 I do not think that Mike will remarry or even form a new relationship.
In “The Formal Detective Novel,” Grella defines the English detective novel as comedy, specifically a comedy of manners in the traditions of Austen, Eliot and James (88). In such a genre, it is quite unthinkable that an ordered society would not triumph. In the formal or English detective novel, the disorder in society is usually murder; the murderer is never “one of us,” but someone who is “other” or different. The sense of difference can often be reduced to “bad form,” such as cheating at cards or behaving like a cad, or being a foreigner. Once the intrepid amateur detective has exposed the miscreant, the society can go back to its normal placid and ordered existence.20 In the hard-boiled detective, although it is certainly true that the world is more corrupt and compromised than the static and class bound portrayal of upper-class English society, the role of the hard-boiled detective does not materially differ from that of the amateur detective. The hard-boiled detective, a figure on the fringes of society, hunts down and captures criminals.21 While the murderer may not be differentiated by bad form or class, and may indeed be wealthy and powerful, the point of the novel is too expose and capture the murderer, thus making society both more ordered and safer. Whether it is the Vicar’s parlour or the “mean streets” is beside the essential point. The fact that the hard-boiled detective is shoveling sand against the tide, trapped as s/he is in an infinitely more corrupt world than the classic English detective setting does not change his/her motivations. Detective novels differ materially in setting, character, crime, and a myriad of other conventions, but the movement of the genre is almost always towards order, however battered or compromised. As Roberts point out, “We think of the detective genre as the most reassuring of all genres. A crime is committed, but the perpetrator, however clever, is identified - in every single story.”22 Roberts argues further, however, that this is not what the detective story is about: “The special concern of this tradition, in all its forms,[ . . .] is the conflict between the lawful and the good.23 Horror, as well as Gothic fiction, on the other hand, is more likely to be concerned with the conflict between good and evil, often exposing the fact that these constructs cannot be neatly nailed down.
Science Fiction, as its name implies is concerned with the nexus between science and fiction; unlike fantasy and much horror, but like detective fiction, sci-fi is grounded in the rational; in at least the speculative possibility that the fictional subject is based in scientific reality. A physicist, for example, will ask, not “Can I travel in time, or even what would I find if I traveled in time, but what natural and scientific laws would permit me to disrupt the space-time continuum by performing a seemingly impossible action? And once one has firm scientific ground under one’s feet, even the unlikely becomes possible. Science fiction works to explain how things can happen, even things that seem magical or unrealistic. Magic in science fiction is curbed and explained by the rational and accepted laws of the natural world. A spaceship traveling to Mars was part and parcel of what seemed impossible only sixty or seventy years ago. A spaceship traveling to distant planets light years away was solved by such phrases as “Warp speed, Mr. Scott,” which worked as long as the dilithium crystals lasted . . . And while we might not understand the quantum mechanics behind warp speed, or know precisely what kind of mineral dilithium crystals were (except, of course, scarce, and frequently unreliable in a pinch), no magic wand or unexplained occurrence occurred, either.
If a science fiction writer, or a writer comfortable in the genre writes of the end-of-the world and the aftermath, a topic which fascinates many science fiction writers, the reader may count on it that the end of the world will be scientifically explainable. However much Stephen King’s apocalyptic novel The Stand partakes of fantasy and “white magic,” which will replace technology, the virus (Captain Trips) that nearly eliminates the human race is solidly based in science and carefully explained.24 King uses such scientific phraseology as “shifting antigen,” etc.25
Conversely, if the wizard waves his magic wand and the hapless protagonist is whisked off to the Middle Ages, it is fantasy. Poul Anderson’s brilliant short story “The Man Who Came Early,” in which a modern man ends up in medieval Iceland, without any scientific explanation, is fantasy, as is Nancy Kress’s “The Price of Oranges,” in which the protagonist simply returns to the 1930’s by walking back into his closet. If, however, a science fiction writer like Connie Willis decides to write a novel about time travel, she spends quite a bit of time setting up a scientific explanation for the probably impossible theory of time travel. In both the short story “Firewatch” and the Doomsday Book,” Willis has a ‘Net,” for time travel, net technicians, “fixes” in time, computer technology, attention to the time travel paradoxes, which are routinely studied in school, centuries rated according to risk, and even feuding academicians to establish the scientific basis for time travel. Science fiction, as it name implies, depends on at least enough science to make the fiction plausible, as detective fiction depends on enough logic and fact to accomplish the same degree of plausibility.
The very combination of genres immediately poses questions: what genre predominates, what reader expectations are called into question, and how do these different genres work with or against each other? More to my point, what effect do these genres have on the reader’s experience? As such reader-response critics as Roman Ingarden, Wayne Booth and Wolfgang Iser point out, reading is a constructed experience which takes place between the author and the reader. When Ingarden refers to a text as a “schematized set of instructions for the creation of the whole work,” (qtd. in Heller 1) or Iser notes that “[. . .] the educated reader expects specific things from prose and poetry [. . .] the expectations can be shattered, altered, surpassed or deceived, so that the reader is confronted with something unexpected which necessitates a readjustment,” they are referring to the sometimes conflicted relationship between the reader(s) and the text(s).26 As Heller, discussing Iser’s “implied reader” notes, “[. . .] we are required to fill in gaps [. . .] as we read we engage in a process of creating provisional unities; we hypothesize wholes, practicing for the final concretization of the work.”27 How can a reader hypothesize a whole story when the genres shift and, moreover, often actively resist each other? I would contend that in this particular novel, the genres form a harmonious whole, actively aiding the reader in experiencing a fulfilling reading experience.
One comment that particularly caught my interest was on the connection between Science fiction and mystery/detective. Responding to a question about writing both science fiction and mystery, Robert J. Sawyer, responds “Not only is it an easy crossover, but it's a natural one. Science fiction and mystery have a great deal in common. Both prize the intellectual process of puzzle solving, and both require stories to be plausible and hinge on the way things really do work28 Thus, science fiction, with its commonalities with detective fiction and its dissimilarities with fantasy and Gothic, works in tandem with detective fiction to provide explanations. And I thought to myself that this is very true, but what else do these two genres do: how and why is explaining things important? What is going on in Bag of Bones that needs other genres for explanations? And the answer, of course, is that almost everything in Bag of Bones benefits from an explanation. The crying children, the hauntings, Devore’s actions, the secrets the core of the TR keep – not only do all of these plot strands require explanation, romance, detective and science fiction help exorcise them.
Consider my early commentary on the horror at the heart of Bag of Bones on the “strategies of exclusion.” These strategies of exclusion are turned around and deprived of their power, when Mike, with some help from his ghostly wife, uses two rational genres – detective and science fiction - to decipher the mystery, the curse and the supernatural activity. In other words, he opposes the power of the rational to overcome the irrational, the fear and horror produced by the horror and Gothic. The detective genre functions to restore the violated order not only of Jo’s murder but of the generational crime as well. Once Mike discovers what has happened in the TR, he is able to lay Sara’s ghost and save Kyra’s life, thus removing the unwelcome presence in Sara Laughs as well as fulfilling his promise to Mattie to take care of Kyra.
Mike behaves very much as a contemporary American detective would. He collects data, sifts stories, checks alibis, so to speak, as when he asks Frank whether Jo was pregnant, and then tells Frank that if Jo told him she were pregnant it was OK; or asks him, finally, why he came down to Dark Score Lake. Using desk calendars and conversations with the people Jo listed, he reconstructs Jo’s life, as though she were a murder victim, which indeed she is, tracking down each and every clue that will enable him to understand what was going on in the last months of her life. Like any other detective, much of what he finds seems contrary; much of what he finds is new to him, and much of what he finds seems, at first, to have no significance. And yet Mike doggedly pursues the facts and information he needs to solve the puzzle of why Johanna died. Since Mike halfheartedly suspects that Jo was “seeing someone” this investigation is important to him. Once he has the answers, he can lay his semi-articulated doubts about Jo to rest. As he comments, “When you start finding out unexpected things about a loved one whose been dead awhile, I rocks you. Take it from me, it does.” 29
Since Mike was in the writing zone, one of his discoveries is how little he knew or remembered about his last months with Jo. Did she have morning sickness? Might she have mentioned it to him? Might she have mentioned it to Frank? Why did she quit all her committees? Why did she suddenly stop going up to Sara Laughs? What was she writing that upset people? Why did she order the owls, where did she put them, and why are they so important? Even allowing for the supernatural character of his investigations – it is not, after all, every detective who has animated alphabet magnets providing information – Mike solves the puzzle, an integral part of detective fiction, which relies on both rationality and plausibility, by using the time honored conventions of detective fiction; much of his reconstruction is good old-fashioned detective work. This old-fashioned detective work, which carries Jo’s work on, is what eventually reveals the story of Sarah Tidwell, her murderous machinations, and gives him the information he needs to exorcise her ghost. From tracking down Jo’s notes through tracking down the plastic owls, the reassembling of clues that create the story behind Devore’s determination to obtain custody of Kyra are the rational actions in an irrational situation that eventually bring both closure and resolution. And this story of rape, murder and heinous bigotry is what must be revealed. Although it is too late for Mattie, murdered by Max Devore as surely as Sarah was murdered by his grandfather, Mike’s determination to reveal the truth and restore order, central motivations in detective fiction, are what bring the long nightmare of the TR to an end. The investigation also reveals that any of his doubts about his wife were inaccurate, a necessary outcome if he is to continue in the belief that Jo loved him and his marriage was what it seemed to be. Again, one sees the conventions of the detective genre functioning to answer the questions and hauntings the Gothic raises.
The other rational genre, that of science fiction, at first seems to function to reinforce the strategies of exclusion. Although Ray Bradbury is generally classified as a science fiction writer, much of his work, like Something Wicked This Way Comes borders, as does “Mars Is Heaven” on horror fiction. But if horror fiction and Gothic are antithetical to science fiction, how exactly does the science fiction elements work to, as I contend, to open up the claustrophobic Gothic?
When Bill Dean tells Mike that “In little towns things are sometimes connected underneath the surface--”,30 Mike suddenly thinks of Ray Bradbury’s short story, “Mars is Heaven,” in which a spaceship crew who has landed on Mars discover an American-type Rockwellian small town, supposedly peopled with their friends and neighbors. Once the members of the crew join their supposed friends and neighbors, the entire crew of the ship is killed by the not-so-Norman-Rockwell-type Martians. Although the captain of the ship doubts the possible existence of the town, he is eventually sucked in by a vision in which he wishes to believe. Unlike Mike, Captain John Black finally realizes what is going too late. As he bolts for the door of his replicated childhood home, his “brother” kills him.31 In “Mars Is Heaven,” the rocket crew are unaware or refuse to accept that the Martians hate Earthlings, first recreating the perfect American town with all their loved ones in it to lull their suspicions, entice them from their ship, and kill them all. What brings this story to mind is Mike’s awareness of the currents running under the TR – he is aware that the TR and the people who live there are not entirely the friendly types they seem. Mike sees the residents of the TR as Martians because he does sense a secret – invisible cables is his metaphor -- beneath the friendliness and because he is aware that he is rapidly proving a threat to them. Unlike the unfortunate crewmen, Mike becomes aware of the crosscurrents beneath the friendliness, a friendliness which rapidly disappears when he starts “meddling” in the Mattie Devore’s affairs and stirring up old ghosts. Mike’s caretaker and general factotum also comments that Jo had been working on a story and had stirred a lot of better-left-unrevealed stories up. As Bill Dean says, trying to explain the town’ attitude, “But Mattie Devore isn’t the only person on the TR livin hand-to-mouth, you know. There’s others got their woes, as well. Can’t you understand that?”32 Instead of telepathy, the TR’s population is joined together by the network of underground and invisible cables composed of the crimes and lies and ongoing child sacrifice of the last forty/fifty years. Like the unwary crew, Mattie and Mike, as well as attorney John Storrs, investigator Arthur Kennedy, and local attorney Romeo Bissett have all stumbled into a Rockwell town that is not.
As the situation in the TR darkens, and as Mike realizes that the situation is infinitely more complicated than a simple custody battle of young and penniless mother versus filthy rich grandfather, Mike starts to see the residents of the TR as actively complicit in evil. As Mike becomes more and more aware of the underground network of cables that holds the TR together, he also feels more and more like the outsider he undoubtedly is. Mike is, after all, a summer person, both persona grata and persona non grata to the townspeople. He is one of the ones with money enough to not have to scratch for a living, and he is one of the one that helps provide a livelihood to the caretakers, and handymen, and craftsmen, and storeowners and restaurants who, however much they dislike “the summer people” depend on them also. But these part-time residents are not part of the network of invisible cables. They are not the Martians; they are the unsuspecting crew. And, of course, the use of the word “Martians” evokes alien life forms, unrecognizable cultures and beings that must by their very nature be hostile. As the Martians in Bradbury’s short story are viewed as horrific, so Mike views the residents of the TR, who would allow, and even encourage, the murder of a three year old child to keep their guilty secret. By defining them as Martians, moreover, he dismisses their humanity and any connections with them. The very nature of science fiction, however, which is both logical science and fictional truths opens up the claustrophobic Gothic – the short story “Mars Is Heaven" while it seems to be about the crews’ friends and family logically cannot be; the crew is in alien territory, on Mars, so it is impossible for the crew to see their families. Just so, because Mike knows his genres, he knows that it is also impossible for the TR residents to actually be alien to him. Thus, while the Gothic and horror accept the idea of human monsters, science fiction tends to define them as actually alien, which opens up the claustrophobic feeling generated by the Gothic.
Another aspect of science fiction that helps mitigate the Gothic horror of Bag of Bones is the use of the science fiction subgenre of time travel. Mike and Kyra travel back in time to the Fryesburg Fair, where Mike learns a great deal about what the TR was at the turn-of-the century, particularly how the people lived, how the crowds responded to Sara Tidwell and the Red Tops, as well as who still lived on the TR in the late twentieth century. Later, walking down “The Street,” seeing it through Jared Devore’s eyes as it was in the early twentieth century, he realizes that “The Street” was beautiful, and that the cables that he has always felt in the TR originated on “The Street” and were central to the sense of a community. He further realizes
“ . . how wrong I have been to think of them as Martians, as cruel and calculating aliens. . . . They are not Martians; they are little lives dwelling on the edge of dark, that’s all.33
When he can see and actually experience Past, he refutes the “Martian theory” and accepts their humanity. They are not, after all, an alien race out of science fiction, but people much like he and Jo.
If a Gothic reading were privileged to the exclusion of other genres, Mike might continue to hate and fear the TR “Martians”; instead, he realizes that they are people carrying a heavy burden of unexpiated guilt, people doing their best to live in an unsatisfactory world. Since he continues to live in Sara Laughs, he must come to some sort of terms with the people he will be living among. Holding on to the Gothic sense of claustrophobic enclosure and the fearful sense of inheritance in time would make living in Sara Laughs among the “Martians” either impossible or would turn both Mike and Kyra into embittered loners, forever haunted by the Past. As it is, the novel ends with Mike hopeful of getting custody, and telling us, “
I’ve seen things I never expected to see and felt things I never expected to feel—not the least of them what I felt and still feel for the child sleeping down the hall from me. She’s my little guy now, I’m her big guy, and that’s the important thing. Nothing else seems to matter.”34
Consider how unsatisfactory a reading experience Bag of Bones could be if the detective, science fiction, and romance genres did not mitigate the uncertainty and claustrophobia of the Gothic or Mike Noonan were unable to uncover the truth about Jo. Instead of being reassured that she was actually the woman he always thought she was, without the intervention of other genres, he might always wonder who the man she was meeting was; he might eventually grow embittered as her memory steadily darkened. Caught within the confines Baldick describes so cogently, those of claustrophobia and a “fearful inheritance in time, “ as he is, no particular Gothic convention is going to enlighten him.
1 Linda J. Holland-Toll, As American As Mom, Baseball, and Apple Pie: Constructing Community in Contemporary American Horror Fiction (Bowling Green: Bowling Green University Popular Press, 2001), 6-9.
2 Stephen King, Bag of Bones (New York: Scribner, 1998) 15.
3 Holland-Toll, As American, 25.
4 King, Bag of Bones, 483.
5 King, Bag of Bones, 492.
6 Stephen King, The Shining, (New York: Signet, 1978) 147.
7 Chris Baldick, “Introduction,” The Oxford Book of Gothic Tales. Oxford: Oxford U P, 1992. xix-xx.
8 King, Bag of Bones, 53-4
9 King, Bag of Bones, 55.
10 Tim Appelo, http://americasbookshelf.com/index.php?section=find&action=browse&catid=9810&parid=49&itemid=067102423X
11 King, Bag of Bones, 73.
12 King, Bag of Bones, 74.
13 King, Bag of Bones, 75.
14 King, Bag of Bones, 307.
15 Actually, the quote is this: “When in doubt, have a man come through the door with a gun in his hand.” The quote referred, not to a moral dilemma, or even the need to kill off an inconvenient heroine, but in reference to the need of the hard-boiled story for constant action Raymond Chandler, “Introduction.” Trouble Is My Business. New York: Ballantine, 1972 (copyright 1938, Curtis Co.
16 King, Bag of Bones, 527-8
17 This ending has always reminded me of Hawthorne’s “Young Goodman Brown,” another story about what our neighbors might really be like. I wouldn’t continue to live in Salem, MA, after my little jaunt in the woods, and yet Brown does. I would have left Sara Laughs for Derry without a second thought, regardless of whether or not I had come to understand the inhabitants of the TR, or not.
18 King, Bag of Bones, 521
19 King, Bag of Bones, 518.
20 George Grella, “The Formal Detective Novel” Dimensions of Detective Fiction. Eds. Larry N. Landrum. Pat Browne, and Ray Browne. (Bowling Green: University of Bowling Green Popular Press, 1976) 94-7
21 John G. Cawelti, “The Hard-Boiled Detective Story.” Adventure, Mystery and Romance: Formula Stories as Art and Popular Culture, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1976. 139-161.
22 Thomas J. Roberts, An Aesthetics of Junk Fiction. (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1990) 140.
24 And while it is still a horrifying novel – try reading it with a bad cold as I did, and you will see why – the disease that wiped out humanity is science fiction
25 Stephen King, The Stand
26 Wolfgang Iser. The Implied Reader: Patterns of Communication in Prose from Bunyan to Beckett, (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins U P, 1974) 58.
27 Terry Heller, The Delights of Terror: An Aesthetics of the Tale of Terror (Urbana: U of Illinois P, 1987), 3
29 King, Bag of Bones, 278.
30 King, Bag of Bones, 278.
31 Ray Bradbury, “Mars is Heaven,” The Martian Chronicles. (Garden City: Doubleday, 1958) 49-67.
32 King, Bag of Bones, 280.
33 King, Bag of Bones, 482.
34 King, Bag of Bones, 528.