Misery by Stephen King
Published in 1987
Genre: Psychological horror, thriller
yerrrnnn umber whunnnn
These sounds: even in the haze.”
In the wake of finishing the manuscript to his latest novel and celebrating the killing off of one of the characters that he hated the most, author Paul Sheldon decides to drive to the West coast from his hotel in Colorado after drinking a bottle of champagne (as one does). Adding to his precariously blurred situation, a snowstorm blows in and causes him to wreck his car. Legs shattered to pieces, Paul wakes in a groggy stupor to find himself in the care of Annie Wilkes; his umber whunnn fayunnnn…erm, his number one fan. Such a savior would be welcome if she weren’t a psychotic ex-nurse whose favorite character he had just killed off in his final book of the Misery series. Taking place in the confines of Annie’s isolated homestead, Misery follows Paul’s suffering and torture at the hands of his number one fan as he fights to placate her in order to make it out of the cabin alive.
Misery is a psychological horror and while there is some graphic violence and disgusting description, the most tense moments are often void of direct action. While Paul is recovering, Annie reads the latest book of his popular series, Misery’s Child, in which the main character (Named Misery. Bet ya couldn’t guess, huh?) dies. Unable to accept this, Annie forces Paul to write another book, Misery’s Return, in which he will bring her back to life. During his initial attempt, however, Paul doesn’t try very hard and when Annie is dissatisfied, he must find a way to placate his psychotic hostess. Much of the time in the early stages of Paul’s work on the book is spent in hurried tension as he tries to get a read (pun intended?) on Annie and what she could possibly want. His first try wasn’t “fair,” according to her, so he has to bring someone back to life believably. Easy peasy, right?
Much of the emotional power of the book comes through the gradual building of suspense that ends with a switch of power or unexpected response on the account of Annie. At times in the novel, Paul believes he has the upper hand or has outsmarted his captor, only to have Annie reveal that she was cognizant to his subterfuge all along and was waiting to see if he would come clean on his own. Often the expected result or climax to a scene does not come and what does charge through the door to Paul’s room is far worse that any conclusion the reader could have imagined.
Possibly the most disturbing characteristic of Misery is the split between Annie’s words and the violence she perpetrates against Paul. Eschewing swear words, Annie favors such gems as “cockadoodie” and “dirty birdy.” It is difficult to take her seriously when she uses this language, until she is forcing soapy washing water down Paul’s throat to wash down his pain medication or **Spoiler alert** chopping his foot off with an ax in an effort to hobble him. His hobbling is due to one an earlier excursion in the house while Annie was away and he discovered a meticulously catalogued scrapbook detailing her history of homicidal behavior. Whenever she gets upset, she explains that it is Paul’s fault and that if he hadn’t made her mad, she wouldn’t have to do such terrible things.
Annie’s psychotic behavior only serves to worsen Paul’s neurotic tendencies. As a writer, his imagination is vivid and in the dark hours of the night or times when Annie is away the images he conjures are nearly as bad as the physical pain she causes him. Due to his broken legs, Paul is given a codeine based drug called Novril, which he soon becomes addicted to. This is a fact that Annie takes advantage of and she goes so far as to withhold his pain medication in order to exercise her power.
The book also explores Paul’s (read: Stephen King’s) process as he attempts to write Misery’s Return. He is in a unique situation in that he has direct contact to his audience. Add to the fact that his editor is also his captor and sole caretaker and his position becomes quite precarious indeed. Some of the chapters in Misery show the actual transcript of Misery’s Return, which even include the written in letter n’s missing from the deteriorating second-hand typewriter (keep in mind, it was 1987 people) Anne had given him. There is an interesting glimpse into what could be presumed to be King’s very own process and opinions of writing; though, it is important to note the difference between author, narrator, and character.
Misery is an in depth look into the possibilities of sycophantic fans who have a penchant for murder that is just close enough to reality to cause genuine chills. The violence is intentionally interspersed and therefore more effective when present and the pacing gradually builds toward a climax of doubt and suspicion. Even though it did not frighten me in the same way that ‘Salem’s Lot did (I have a thing for/against vampires) or enthrall me as the Dark Tower series did (thankee sai), Misery finds its place among King’s best works through the sheer craft and attention to fear found in unlikely places; don’t read this one alone at night.
Verdict: 4 capsules of Novril out of 5
Recommended for: Fans of psychological thrillers, suspense addicts, those who enjoy gruesome torture, masterfully built tension, and you!
Not recommended for: Those who don’t like metaphorical stories told within the main story, haters of obliquely breaking the fourth wall, Paul Sheldon, or Annie Wilkes.