Novel November


by Stephen King

Reading Review by Michael Channing

Misery by Stephen King

The original cover illustration for Misery—the title smeared in blood, the shadow of a woman clearly wielding an axe thrown across a helpless and hopeless man in a wheelchair—promises torture and gore, but the heart of the novel is really a psychological battle between two characters. Of course, it does get physical, as you probably already know, but before and after the brutal act involving the axe, the two mentally spar back and forth in an effort to control a third character who doesn't actually appear in the book. I'm talking about Misery Chastain, the title character of Paul Sheldon's romance series.

Brief aside: I know the character's name works great as a double entendre, but what the hell kind of name is Misery? Literary characters and real people have always been named after virtues, but was Misery ever a popular name for girls? Aside over.

The set up is simple. Paul Sheldon, bestselling romance novelist, crashes his car and is rescued by Annie Wilkes, who claims to be his biggest fan. Annie is a nurse, so she's able to splint Paul's broken legs, and she has access to hospital-grade pain killers. She takes Paul to her house but doesn't call the hospital or the cops. Just keeps him there. The roads are icy and treacherous, and Paul is, after all, her favorite author, and she has just so much she'd like to talk to him about. When the new Misery novel hits the shelves, Annie grabs it and reads it immediately. She's going to be able to discuss it directly with the writer himself. Joy and fun! Oh, but mean old Paul, hoping to move beyond the Romance genre and begin writing what he thinks of as more high-literary novels, has killed off his famous creation. Annie's favorite character is dead. This will not do.

We all know King wrote Misery as a metaphor for his own inability to escape the pigeon hole of horror fiction. His previous book, Eyes of the Dragon, had been a fantasy novel suitable for kids (he wrote it for his young daughter) with none of the blood-letting or murderous clowns his fans had come to expect and demand. In fact, many of his fans out-right rejected his fantasy work. Keep in mind The Gunslinger, the first in a fan-favorite series that blurs the genres of fantasy and westerns, had at that point only been published in a limited edition and was unknown to many of King's readers. Stick to monsters and ghosts, they said. Give us what we want. King was also struggling with his own personal demons at the time: drug and alcohol addiction. Annie feeds Paul pain pills and uses his reliance on them to force him to write a new Misery novel. Several times she leaves him for hours or days at a time, and Paul goes into painful withdrawals, something King was able to chronicle firsthand. So there's no wonder that Annie Wilkes looms as one of King's most memorable and frightening villains. She's everything he was afraid of, everything that was threatening his career and his home life. In fact, she was originally supposed to defeat Paul in just a few pages. As King first envisioned the story, once Paul gave Annie her very own one-of-a-kind Misery Chastain novel, she was supposed to kill him, flay him, and use his skin to bind her new book. But Paul proved to be far more resourceful than the author had anticipated.

This is one of the things about writing that fascinates me. Most folks believe a story's author is in full control of the characters and events, but sometimes the characters dodge and weave and something happens the writer hadn't planned. Maybe it's your subconscious sending you waking dreams, but it really feels like the story coming to life on the paper (or screen) and moving on its own. That's when the writing is most satisfying. King has written about this himself, about listening to what the story wants rather than telling it what to do. As Paul types out the new novel for Annie, he begins to hear it talking to him, and he starts to enjoy the act of writing. He knows the book is the only thing keeping him in Annie's good graces. When it's done, she might dispose of him. He needs not only to survive, he needs to see the how the book ends. And he wants to know what Annie thinks of it. He needs his captor's approval. Maybe King did resent his readers forcing him to stick to the dark rivers and lakes he was used to, but he also needed their approval. That's what a writer wants, after all. The euphoric, addictive approval of others.

As Paul tries to find some way to enjoy the genre he had hoped to leave behind, he also struggles to kick the pill dependence. He secretly hides every other pill beneath his pillow to wean himself off. But now he's got this stockpile of pills. What could he do with it? This might be one of those turning points where the characters blindsided King with ideas of their own. The two main characters gain and lose ground to each other, till Annie eventually decides she has to take serious measures with Paul to end his naughty behavior. That's where the axe comes into play. And a blowtorch. It's a gut-wrenching scene. King doesn't pull any punches.

In junior high, my friends and I traded Stephen King books back and forth. Whoever had last read Misery always asked, “Have you gotten to the axe part yet?” It was a hard scene to get through. I can imagine King finishing it, sitting back from his typewriter, and laughing at the fans who begged for more gore. “Oh, you want more blood, do you? Then here, have all of it at once.” Be careful what you wish for. Especially when you're asking for it from Stephen King.

old timey typewriter

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