Jenny’s review this week of Under the Dome, Clare’s review of Misery last week, my own recent reading of Four Past Midnight, and the many lists of scary books I’ve been seeing for the RIP Challenge all conspired this week to put me in a Stephen King mood. Misery has been hanging around on my shelves for several years, so I decided to finally dust it off and give it a read. Now I mostly want to crawl into a corner and whimper for a while.
As many of you know, I’m a Stephen King fan—perhaps not quite the fan Jenny is, but a fan just the same. Well, even as a fan, I was astonished by how intense Misery was. I had seen the movie several years ago, so I knew the basic plot, but King’s writing tore into me. It’s been quite a while since a book elicited such a visceral reaction from me. I shrieked and squirmed and nearly put the book in the freezer. It’s that upsetting. In several comment threads and Twitter discussions about King recently, I’ve seen folks say that Misery scared them away from King. Well, let me tell you, this was probably the scariest and most gruesome King book I’ve read. I think it’s because in this case, the horror does not come from a supernatural event or some other extreme and unlikely scenario; instead, it all comes from a single psychotic woman. It felt all too real.
I suspect most of you know the plot, so I’ll be brief. Paul Sheldon, a writer best known for a popular series of bodice rippers about a woman named Misery, wakes up after a car crash to find himself in the home of Annie Wilkes, his self-proclaimed number one fan. It doesn’t take long for Paul to figure out that being saved by an enthusiastic fan like Annie is no salvation at all. Annie, you see, is completely insane. And now Paul is in her care—and in her clutches. She is the one who brings him food and water and the pain pills he has become addicted to. And when he is a “dirty bird,” she brings his punishment.
One of the things that struck me immediately about this book is how well it shows off King’s virtuosic writing skills. Like Jenny, I consider King a master at dialogue—one of the best dialogue writers I’ve ever encountered, in fact. But I also tend to think of him as a straightforward writer, one who doesn’t play with language and form. That’s not to minimize the extreme skill required in telling a story straightforwardly; it’s harder than some would give writers like King credit for. However, linguistic play and experimentation is not something I look for in a King novel, which makes it all the more stunning when I find it.
The opening passages of Misery take us into Paul Sheldon’s mind as he drifts in and out of consciousness, grasping at childhood memories of watching the tide go in and out, covering a piling that jutted out from the sand:
When he came back to his former state of semiconsciousness, he was able to make the connection between the piling and his current situation—it seemed to float into his hand. The pain wasn’t tidal. That was the lesson of the dream which was really a memory. The pain only appeared to come and go. The pain was like the piling, sometimes covered and sometimes visible, but always there. When the pain wasn’t harrying him through the deep stone grayness of his cloud, he was dumbly grateful, but he was no longer fooled—it was still there, waiting to return. And there was not just one piling but two; the pain was the pilings, and part of him knew for a long time before most of his mind had knowledge of knowing that the shattered pilings were his own shattered legs.
Throughout the book, King plays with images of Annie as a goddess from an H. Rider Haggard novel, of Paul as a captive African bird or as Scheherazade. There are some brilliant passages about the power of story, of “the gotta” that keeps a reader always hungry for another fix, another chapter in the tale. And then there’s the story within the story, the Misery novel that Paul writes for Annie. It feels exactly right. This is King at the height of his powers.
Of course, as I’ve suggested above, this book is not for the squeamish. If you’ve seen the movie, you still haven’t seen how far King will go. However, I will say one thing you can generally (but not always) rely on when it comes to a Stephen King novel. It’s the thing that always makes me push through to the end (and it’s ever so slightly spoilery, so be warned). Paul Sheldon thinks of his new Misery novel as an elaborate game of “Can you?” in which someone sets up a story with an impossible situation and another player has to figure out a way to resolve it. King’s novels are frequently big games of “Can you?” and he almost always can—not always cleanly, sometimes through cheating, and often with dreadful losses along the way—but there is a way out, if you can bear the journey. Do you dare try it?
A related note: I’ve been craving a reread of what I consider King’s greatest achievement, the seven Dark Tower books, and Jenny and I have been toying with the idea of a readalong at the start of 2011. There is some talk of a movie/TV series directed by Ron Howard, with filming to begin in 2011. If you’ve been thinking of reading the series, this may be a good time, before the movie images are indelibly fixed in your mind.
(And for what it’s worth, I’m not thrilled about this movie idea. I think the series is unfilmable, but a series of films with a related TV series might be the way to do it. Maybe. You can color me skeptical for now.)