“Annie, Misery is dead.” But already, incredibly, he was thinking, I could bring her back. The thought filled him with tired revulsion but no real surprise. After all, a man who could drink from a floor-bucket should be capable of a little directed writing.
“No she’s not,” Annie replied dreamily. “Even when I was . . . when I was so mad at you, I knew she wasn’t really dead. I know you couldn’t really kill her. Because you’re good.”
“Am I?” he said, and looked at the typewriter. It grinned at him. We’re going to find out just how good you are, old buddy, it whispered.
“Annie, I don’t know if I can sit in that wheelchair. Last time—“
“Last time it hurt, you bet it did. And it will hurt next time, too.”
by Stephen King
Viking Penguin, Inc., 310 pp., $16.00
When acclaimed author Paul Sheldon finishes writing Misery’s Child, he is elated—finally, he can publish what he believes might be the next great American novel, a fast, clever manuscript he has titled Fast Cars, quite the drastic move for a writer known for a series of pulpy romance novels. To end the series, Misery Chastain has died and, truth be told, Sheldon’s not shedding tears over the matter. But when Paul awakens days after leaving the Boulderado Hotel where he writes, he finds himself in close quarters with his self-proclaimed “number one fan,” Annie Wilkes, an eccentric nurse with a maniacal obsession of Misery and her ilk. When Annie learns of Misery’s demise, it quickly becomes clear that Annie has no qualms about asserting her will, in ways that are bound to turn your stomach.
It is difficult to hear the name “Annie Wilkes” without the image of a young Kathy Bates swimming to the forefront of one’s mind. Indeed, descriptions of Annie call to mind Bates’ portrayal, if Bates can’t help but be far prettier than King no doubt envisioned Annie. And King’s vision of Annie is nothing if not bizarre:
Most of all she gave him a disturbing sense of solidity, as if she might not have any blood vessels or even internal organs; as if she might be only solid Annie Wilkes from side to side and top to bottom … It seemed to [Sheldon] that if he made the first two fingers of his hands into a V and attempted to poke them up her nostrils, they might go less than an eighth of an inch before encountering a solid (if slightly yielding) obstruction …
Even if you can’t shake images of James Caan and Kathy Bates from your imagination—considering the incredible effectiveness of Rob Reiner’s 1990 film adaptation, no one can blame you—Stephen King’s Misery is frightening in its own right, more petrifying than the film by far in my experience. I read this novel in four days. It’s not long, and it’s nigh impossible to put down. After a long day of revising my thesis or tutoring, I’d crawl into bed with this paper monster in hand, intending to read a few chapters and instead knocking out 80 or 100 pages. Perhaps because I read the book in this immersive fashion—or, simply by merit of King’s ability to weave a terrifying tale—I was thoroughly spooked, sure that Annie’s hulking form was posed just behind the bathroom door, waiting on the stairs’ landing, lurching beside my bed, ax in her hand and catatonic grimace on her face. What Paul experiences is beyond mere misery and, as usual in King’s works, the psychological suffering is tantamount to what he endures physically.
Most horror fans will be expecting the famous scene where this physical suffering at the hands of Annie—a hideous incarnation of Kesey’s Nurse Ratched—reaches its peak, but in case you haven’t caught the film yet, either, I’ll refrain from saying much about that. Still, as opposed to gore or physical spectacle, the brunt of the reader’s terror is likely to be rooted in the psychological horror than unfolds as the book goes on and Paul, much to his misfortune, discovers more and more about who Annie is … and what she is capable of.
Misery, it is said, was Stephen King’s response to his own rabid fame and the addiction that followed. King may not have been Sheldon, confined to staring his fan in the face at uncomfortably close proximity day after day, weaning on and off of powerful painkillers according to Annie’s whims … but he was a mega-famous horror novelist, currently being slammed for following a string of horror novels with The Eyes of the Dragon (1984), a children’s fantasy novel based on European fairy tales. King remarked that, like Sheldon, he felt chained … chained to pumping out horror novel after horror novel. It is also now widely known that, at the time, King was struggling with drug addiction, in part to Valium; the first novel he wrote after finally achieving sobriety was Needful Things (1991).
I wonder if King’s personal link to Sheldon—and his familiarity with the Annie Wilkes brand of fan, the type that is convinced against all logic that s/he is a part of your life, one-half of a personal relationship between artist and admirer—lends Misery some of its power. The novel packs a punch; the misery itself is real, not confined to the page, but seeming to radiant from the print, as though poor Paul Sheldon is still screaming into the Colorado wilderness today. This impression is a testament to Stephen King’s power as a writer, despite his much-discussed flaws. A writer creates a novel; a masterful writer creates an experience. Needless to say, Misery is one you won’t soon forget.
- Drug abuse (opiates, painkillers)
- Mental illness