Bag of Bones

In front of idyllic lake house, a woman screams
The house is Sara Laughs.

Bag of Bones is a Stephen King thriller in which, as in many of his other novels, layers supernatural horror over human horrors.

The story is narrated by Mike Noonan, a novelist who hasn’t put pixels on his word processor since his wife died four years before.

That would have been enough material for an Edith Wharton novel.

Mike goes to their summer home, Sara Laughs, on Dark Score Lake in Castle Rock, Maine, after a series of vivid nightmares convince him he has to come to grips with his loss.

He finds the village is under the thumb of ruthless millionaire who has returned to his roots. Max Devore’s aim is to wrest custody of his three-year-old granddaughter from her mother. Mike falls instantly in love with both Kyra and her sexy mother.

That would have been enough for a John Grisham novel.

Mike also picks up some bad vibes about local history from the jazz age that nobody will talk about.

That would have been enough for a Toni Morrison novel.

King takes what is at least three novels’ worth of material and adds supernatural elements to them.  It’s overkill. People and history are sufficiently horrific. Readers don’t need ghosts, too.

Bag of Bones by Stephen King
Scribner. ©1998. 529 p.
1998 bestseller #3; my grade: B+

©2020 Linda G. Aragoni

The Dark Half (novel)

undistinguishable dark blurs are background for author and title name
Nothing’s clear here

The Dark Half is a Stephen King novel with all the creepy ambiance and nightmarish monsters for which King is justly famous.

And, like most King novels, at its core is a fairly common occurrence: Writing under an assumed name.

When novelist Thad Beaumont slammed into writer’s block, he occupied his time writing violent novels under the pen name George Stark. Stark’s name was on four very successful novels.

A dozen years later, in a mock ceremony captured in People magazine, Thad and his wife buried Stark beneath a tombstone inscribed “Not a Very Nice Guy.”

Stark’s readers are furious.

So is Stark.

The never-existent Stark is determined to use Thad as an instrument for writing his stories, just as Thad used Stark.

When the Beaumonts’ odd-jobs man is found murdered, Thad’s fingerprints are found on the man’s truck.

Sheriff Alan Pangborn thinks it’s an open-and-shut case, but until he interviews Thad, who has witnesses to the fact he was at home miles away when the murder occurred.

The Dark Half blends the mundane with bizarre facts about twins, adds a touch of Alfred Hitchcock, and winds up with the all-too-real possibility that the Beaumont’s marriage won’t survive.

It also leaves the question: How do novelists create their characters?

The Dark Half by Stephen King
Viking. ©1989. 431 p.
1989 bestseller #2; my grade: B

©2019 Linda G. Aragoni

Name that novelist

Some of the bestselling authors of the first half of the 20th century had wider name recognition among Americans than many of today’s celebrities.

That may seem odd, but the total population was smaller then, and there were fewer media outlets competing for attention.

Having books in a home was a indication of social status or at least social aspirations.

Besides that, books were not ephemeral products; for the most part, they were printed on high quality paper that lasted.

Can you identify the novelists in these descriptions?

Below are descriptions of five novelists who were names were household words in their heyday. See how many you can identify. (Answers below the photos.)

1. He had the same novel on the bestseller list four times in a span of 11 years.

2. This ex-preacher is said to be the first man to have a novel sell a million copies and the first novelist to become a millionaire.

3. Critical acclaim and sales don’t always go together, but this novelist took first-place honors on the bestseller list before her novel netted a Pulitzer and was instrumental in her the Nobel Prize for literature.

4. This outdoorsman and conservationist was a prolific novelist who wrote nonfiction and children’s literature, too. Today, however, he’s primarily remembered for his writing about the occult.

5. Despite his famous English name, prolific novelistic output, and regular appearance on the bestseller list between 1900 and 1915, this American novelist is virtually forgotten today.

photos of four novelists
Does any of these novelists fit one of the descriptions?

 

The names of the bestselling novelists

1. Lloyd C. Douglas made the bestseller list with his biblical epic The Robe in 1942, 1943, 1944, and again in 1953 when the film version of the novel was released.

2. Harold Bell Wright is the ex-preacher who made money and historical footnotes in the publishing business. Wright published his first novel at the insistence of his congregation. When he published his second, they kicked him out. From then on, writing became his full-time occupation.

3. Pearl S. Buck  won popular and critical acclaim for The Good Earth before making a name for herself as a civil rights and women’s rights activist.

4. Late in life, The Silent Places author Stewart Edward White became interested in psychic phenomena. White wrote The Unobstructed Universe (1940), which he based on communications from his late wife.

5. The Winston Churchill whose name is nearly always joined to the phrase “American novelist” was a household name in the early twentieth century. Churchill  hit the bestseller list with Richard Carvel (1900) The Crisis (1901), The Crossing (1904), Coniston (1906), Mr. Crewe’s Career (1908), A Modern Chronicle (1910), The Inside of the Cup (1913 and 1914), A Far County (1915).

Red Pottage a Feast for Readers

Red Pottage is the story of a fashionable, young, 19th century Londoner, Hugh Scarlett, who like Esau in the Bible, threw away an honorable position to satisfy an immediate hunger.

As the novel opens, Hugh has decided to dump his mistress. He has met Rachel West and decided she “would save him from himself” if she became his wife.

Hugh is shocked when Lord Newhaven demands satisfaction for Hugh’s affair with his wife. Dueling being outlawed, Lord Newhaven offers an alternative: They draw straws with the loser to commit suicide within five months.

On that bizarre premise, Mary Cholmondeley grows a rich psychological drama about characters that are more believable than your next door neighbors.

In the small, intermarried British upper class, Hugh and the Newhavens have many mutual acquaintances and some mutual relatives. Cholmondeley enlists them to help her explore complex issues of love and marriage, justice and mercy, sin and repentance, and the art of writing novels.

Cholmondeley’s ability to craft a plausible story on an implausible premise makes James Hilton’s Lost Horizon look like writing by a third grader.

Cholmondeley’s characters are far more credible than Hilton’s as well. She gets even the tiny details right. You’ll want to read some of her sentences aloud to savor their sounds.

When, for example, Hester Gresley having written a critically acclaimed but unprofitable first novel, goes to live in the country with her clergyman brother, Cholmondeley says, “[Hester] now experienced the interesting sensation, as novel to her as it is familiar to most of us, of being nobody, and she disliked it.” Can’t you hear the sniff above the stiff upper lip in that sentence?

Red Pottage is a rich stew.

Enjoy it.

Red Pottage
By Mary Cholmondeley
Harper & Brothers, 1900
1900 bestseller #2
Project Gutenberg #Ebook #14885
My grade: A-

@ 2013 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Youngblood Hawke: Insiders’ peek into the book business

Thomas Wolfe House in Asheville, North Carolina
Thomas Wolfe House in Asheville, North Carolina

Youngblood Hawke is Herman Wouk’s contribution to the shelf of novels by novelists about novelists. The novel has the usual plot complications readers expect as the rube with the typewriter is taken on, taken in, and taken over by shysters.

The story opens with Arthur Youngblood Hawke’s sale of his first novel to Prince House. The novel is promising rather than good.

Art figures he needs to write about seven books before he’ll know his craft. He aims to be first a successful author, then a rich one, living off his investments while he writes great books.

Art invests the income from his books in enterprises from hog futures and commercial real estate to self-publishing. His financial successes and failures are spectacular, but they are never what’s important to him. His world is the pad of lined yellow paper that he fills hour after hour.

Like most other novels about novelists, Youngblood Hawke contrasts the mercenary publishing world with the world of the art. But Wouk’s cast of colorful characters makes clear that the profit motive operates throughout society: even artists have to eat.

And the most tenacious of the followers after fortune may be somebody’s mother.

[Herman Wouk based Youngblood Hawke  on the life of Thomas Wolfe.  The photo above shows the boarding house owned and operated by Wolfe’s mother where Wolfe lived until he went to college.]

Youngblood Hawke: a novel
Herman Wouk
Little, Brown (paper)
© 1962
783 pages
1962 bestseller #4
My grade B+

 

© 2012 Linda Gorton Aragoni