Misery by Stephen King
I consider Misery to be my first real Stephen King, although I’ve read both The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon and On Writing. However, I read the former when I was too little to actually analyze and appreciate literature and the latter is a memoir crossed with advice on writing. While I’m pathetically squeamish, Misery attracted me because it deals with a fan’s love for a work that becomes twisted and obsessive. As my time with my local library came to a close (aw, isn’t that sad?), I sucked it up and picked up Misery.
Misery starts with a car crash. Paul Sheldon, a writer beloved for the Misery historical romances he writes to fund his “real” writing, gets into an accident while driving to deliver the manuscript of his latest book. His legs shattered, he is rescued by Annie Wilkes, a former nurse who describes herself as his number one fan. Although she nurses him back to health, she turns on him when she learns of Misery’s death in Paul’s recently published Misery’s Child. Annie forces Paul to burn his latest manuscript and write a new Misery novel, just for her, in which Misery is restored to life. As Annie grows more and more unhinged and Paul learns of her murderous past, Paul is forced to play Scheherazade in order to survive. But he can’t keep it up forever…
King’s reputation as a great writer is, obviously, an earned one, and it clearly shows in Misery. Although I’m not a fan of the stream of consciousness portions that bookend the novel, his writing is great–there are moments of great wonder (Paul fondly looks back on the prelude to starting a novel as a sort of intellectual pregnancy) and moments of great horror (my right ankle itched for an hour after a particularly horrifying scene). King uses short chapters and long periods of Annie’s absence to masterfully crank up the paranoia and oppressive atmosphere. As Paul spends most of the novel trapped in Annie’s guest room, it deals mostly with psychological horror–deprived of his usual vices and addicted to Novril, one of Annie’s ill-gotten painkillers, Paul is stripped down to the bare essence of himself, pondering his co-dependent relationship with Annie as well as the writing process. Having read King’s On Writing, there appears to be a lot of King in Paul. While I do find Paul’s characterization of writing as selfish as a little cynical, it’s certainly true at some level. I was quite impressed during the few excerpts of Misery’s Return, which were exactly as advertised–frivolous but addicting. Making another style work (although, admittedly, Misery’s Return is explicitly more Gothic than Paul’s other work) as well as your own can be difficult, and King succeeds wonderfully.
As Paul has a lot of King in him and he’s the point of view character, he’s wonderfully developed. I especially enjoyed his vivid imagination (which, naturally, helps the tension and paranoia along nicely) and how his captivity and torture helps him look at himself as a writer. While he’s always aspired to be a writer of mainstream literary fiction, he reflects on the difference between a “popular” writer and a “literary” writer and even starts to look at Misery, a character he despises, differently. Annie’s development comes at a slower pace, but watching her unravel is scary–and watching Paul, who knows a little about psychopaths due to novel research, predict her unraveling is even scarier. Her rationalizations for her behavior, and her insistence on how much she loves Paul even as she tortures him, are interesting and almost understandable–I say almost, because Annie is, at the heart of things, a monster. But she’s not a wholly intentional monster; at one point, Paul wonders what her life would have been like if she’d been brought up a different way or if her hormones were like that of a regular person. While she is, of course, our villain, she’s also a well-developed character, which makes the book work.
I have to admit, I’m squeamish when it comes to horror and gore. But Misery is worlds away from anything like Saw–the point is not the shock of the twisted gore we see; it’s the shock of the twisted motivations and twisted people we see. At one point, Paul recalls one of his other “number one” fans, a woman who obsessively recreated Misery’s study from the books, and thinks that both her harmless obsession and Annie’s murderous one come from the same place. Annie, in other words, could easily be someone like you. That’s more chilling than any imaginative piece of gore. I was, I have to admit, looking forward to a bit more discussion of the relationship between authors and their fans, but I think that’s simply because of the time period–fandom, obviously, was nowhere near as active in 1987 as it is now, and it usually gathers around speculative works, not historical fiction. In fact, I think it would be interesting to see something like Misery set today, considering the evolution of fan communities. But that’s a thought for another time.
Bottom line: Misery is a masterful piece of work by Stephen King–the tension makes you sweat, there’s beauty and paranoia in the writing, and our hero and our villain are equally well-developed. And on top of it all, King reveals he can write frivolously addicting historical fiction just as well as his usual fare. A great introduction to King.
I rented this book from the public library.