Misery: Stephen King Reread
What better horror story for a group of writers than that of Paul Sheldon’s, a romance writer held captive by his number one fan?
Misery came to me as my first Stephen King novel right at the beginning of high school. It’s one of his leaner novels, at a mere 320 pages instead of the bloating monstrosities of IT (a whopping 1,138 pages) and other future King novels. Newcomers to the horror genre may be more comfortable here, as opposed to another one of King’s behemoths. Having read nearly all of King’s works, from his non-fiction, his horror, and the occasional epic fantasy, Misery is one I made a conscious effort to return to.
King has the uncanny ability to turn life experience into horror, and wrote Misery in response to an angry fanbase upset over The Eyes of the Dragon, an epic fantasy story. His attempt to publish in another genre, and the consequent backlash, inspired this novel.
Paul Sheldon is a romance writer who recently killed off his main character Misery, the heroine of a series of romance novels set in the 19th century in the series’ final book, and is awaiting its release. Gleeful that he has killed off a character he has come to hate, Paul becomes intoxicated and drives to Los Angeles during a blizzard in Colorado, and crashes (a foreboding foreshadowing to King’s car accident in 1999).
Paul awakes to find a mysterious woman has pulled him out of the crash and put him the guest room of her home, located in a remote farmhouse, and suffering from broken legs and other injuries. She introduces herself as Annie Wilkes, his number one fan and a former nurse who can’t wait for the next Misery book to arrive at her local bookstore. Drugged and in pain, Paul blearily wonders why he is not in the hospital, but realizes that he cannot move or do anything without Annie.
Annie asks Paul if she can read his new manuscript Fast Cars, which Paul had with him in the car and his only copy. Without a way to call for help or move Paul allows her to read it. Although upset and the violence and profanity in Paul’s new book, she understands that it’s not like Paul’s Misery books. Anyway, she’s excited for the next Misery book, and goes off to grab it.
All goes well until she discovers Misery has died in childbirth at the novel’s end.
Furious at Misery’s death, Annie forces Paul to burn his manuscript, buys him a type-writer with a missing “n” key, and demands a new book to bring Misery back to life. In drug-fueled desperation Paul begins to write. Annie changes from a sweet-natured retried nurse to an abusive captor. Struggling with his addiction to Novril, his broken legs and his isolation, he searches for a way to escape and to understand why Annie is keeping him captive.
Halfway through the novel King includes Paul’s typewritten pages, with handwritten “n’s” to indicate the missing keys on the typewriter. Multiple drafts are included, which could be skipped, but the passages (a story within a story) highlight Paul’s desperation and the increasingly bizarre new Misery story. As the typewriter keys fall off (along with a couple limbs Annie decides to lop off) Paul turns to a hand-written manuscript.
After threatening to burn the completed manuscript Paul kills Annie with the typewriter before State Troopers rescue him.
King at His Prime
Many elements of King’s writing strengths shine through. The sense of cloying decay, of sticky sweets smeared across dirty dishes, of unfamiliar fingers pushing un\wanted pills into your mouth, and growing doom. Misery is simplistic in its setting, mainly taking place in a guest bedroom, allowing for three hundred pages of growing tension between the two.
The novel’s strength pulls from the interaction between Paul and Annie, which becomes parasitic. Annie hooks Paul on Novril and with his broken legs Paul cannot even move until Annie gives him a wheelchair. Of the many, many stories that star a writer, this novel captures the absolute horror of a parasitic relationship a writer has with his audience. For without an audience a writer cannot make a living, and the reader can become emotionally attached . Their motivations fuse together, and as the story progresses both wish to see the novel complete. Although its completion won’t release him, he’s bound by the very thing he loves to do: write.
At times the narrative delves into the gross factor, such as Annie forcing Paul to drink mop water. Multiple amputations never made it to the final cut of the 1991 movie adaptation. And there is, of course, the infamous hobbling scene, the terrifying moment when the reader realizes that Paul will not escape this unscathed.
Many of King’s later works overshadow this gem, and while Pauls’ typewriter is now out-of-date the story remains just as terrifying as it was after its publication. Kathy Bates, who played Annie in the movie adaptation, won an Oscar for her depiction. A stage adaptation was performed for Broadway from 2015 to 2016 starring Bruce Willis and Laurie Metcalf.
As a young writer this book haunted me, and ultimately influenced the way I approach nuanced villains and their relationship with the protagonist. While there is no doubt that Annie is a terrible person her motivation is relatable. For she is first and foremost a reader who wants nothing more than to have her beloved character brought back to life. And that is a feeling I have felt so many times as a reader, and that level of empathy makes her actions so much more horrific.
Let’s just hope Annie never gets a hold of George R.R Martin!
Like Stephen King? Check out this review of IT.
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