Aug 272013

As Stephen King tells the story in some videos on YouTube, Stanley Kubrick approached him about filming The Shining by calling him up and immediately saying, “Don’t you agree the existence of ghosts is inherently optimistic?”

(That is, because it proves the existence of an afterlife.)

To which King replied, “Stanley, haven’t you ever heard of Hell?”

Of course Kubrick did wind up directing The Shining, though he made story changes King (and I) did not agree with. Years later King produced his own version for television, but it stinks.

I remembered this recently when I read King’s Bag of Bones, the best novel I’ve read of his for over 2 decades. It’s right up there with The Shining. Perhaps some like it better because it’s more subtle and sophisticated.

It’s been called King’s only ghost story, though I don’t know what else you’d call The Shining.

In Bag of Bones, a fairly successful bestselling novelist goes back to a lakeside vacation home four years after the sudden death of his wife.

I normally don’t like writers writing about writers. Just I normally don’t like songs about life on the road or movies about making movies. Bag of Bones is an exception because the writer says his years of writing have trained his mind to misbehave. That is, to hear and see things other people don’t. Which are probably not real, but which may be.

Along the way he meets and falls in love with a young widow and her daughter. And discovers his wife frequently came to the house, without his knowledge. Why?

Gradually, he realizes something Very Bad happened near his hour several generations ago, and the secret kept on killing children, and may be targeting his new friend’s daughter.

Luckily for him, the ghost of his dead wife is on his side.

In some ways, in the slow peeling back of layers of lies to discover the truth about the past, and the musical background of early blues of the period, Bag of Bones reminded me of Peter Straub. Except Stephen King kept the story much more interesting than Straub has since Koko.

Despit the slow, careful, detailed buildup, he includes some quite scary scenes. Including one night quite hallucinogenic or feverish.

And the scene where the old man in a wheelchair and the old lady nearly kill the writer in a lake — great stuff.

Bag of Bones is, in a sense, a tribute to persistence. After reading a long string of politically correct, boring novels by him in the early 90s, and others more recent that just didn’t seem to have the old spark (including Desperation, which did have the spark until the end, but somehow left out a big piece of past story — what happened in Vietnam to make the writer figuratively “die?”), it’s encouraging to see King back at the top of his game.

That may be old news to many people, I guess, but I’m trying to catch up with the many books I haven’t read, and each one by King disappointed.

Except, a few months ago, The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon. That is nearly perfect. However, it’s sort of a small-scale book. I don’t mean just short, but about that little girl and her family. Not taking on wider issues and problems, as Bag of Bones does.

Recently I watched the movie The Conjuring. That, however, turned out to be a major disappointment. I’d heard it brought back the old era of movies about haunted houses, but despite good production (and recreation of 1971 styles), it’s shallow and meaningless.

Again, past secrets haunt the present, but in no meaningful way. Early in the movie, the ghost hunters say the spirits target the most vulnerable person. Shades of The Shining. But it’s the family’s mother who goes berserk at the end, puts on Exorcist makeup, and wants to kill her kids.

Why is she most vulnerable? We’re never told. We’re never told anything about the family, except they’re having a hard time financially and the kids seem nice.

How did the ghost of a witch get tied into the demon using the ghost hunter’s doll from a separate case as a conduit? We’re not told. But it helps the witch to threaten the ghost hunters’ daughter.

So it’s the ghost hunting equivalent of ‘this time it’s personal,’ now so common in mysteries and thrillers.

They make a vague attempt to tie in religion. The haunted family is not religious. The children are not baptized. Is that why they’re vulnerable? We’re not told. It’s just a complicating issue raised by a Catholic priest when the ghost hunters request an exorcist.

In the beginning, we’re told the exorcism must done by a priest authorized by the Catholic church. And must have the church’s permission. Yet at the end, the ghost hunter does it successfully himself. So what’s the point?

What are the Church’s actual rules regarding exorcism? According to The Exorcist, they’re pretty extensive — and ignored for a long time. Did they have any authorized exorcists in 1971. Did they really refuse to exorcize demons possessing nonCatholics? Didn’t it take a long to get permission? In the film it happens too quickly to believe.

So the religious implications of the story are raised, but never resolved or even halfway explained.

I recall, after watching The Omen, that if all those things started happening to me, I’d become ultrareligious real fast. I’d go to the nearest Catholic church and throw myself upon the altar.

So, unfortunately, for all The Conjuring’s good intentions, it has little heart. Yes, the part where they get the mother to take off her Exorcist makeup tugs at the heart, as it’s designed to do, but you feel used and manipulated about it.

The “Coming Next” posters at my local mall are promising to bring “Pee Maak” (many ghosts, in Thai) soon. Hopefully it will be much scarier and more effective. Because it’s Thai, I doubt the Roman Catholic church will be much involved. Buddhist monks? We’ll see.