Saturday, November 10, 2012

Stephen King: Misery (1987)

Paul Sheldon says he writes two kinds of novels: "good ones and best-sellers".

The moneymakers are a series of 19th-century historical romances featuring heroine Misery Chastain. However, Sheldon believes he is not taken seriously as a writer because of this genre fiction, and, trapped by fame and the demands of his fans, he feels shackled to a character he has grown to despise.

In a show of creative independence, Sheldon has killed off Chastain in what he believes will be his last romance novel, and is celebrating a completed first draft of a literary work, Fast Cars. As is his habit, Sheldon completes the manuscript at a Colorado resort, and heads out for a celebratory drive. Drunk on champagne and caught in a fierce snowstorm, he slides off the road and flips his car near the rural town of Sidewinder. Sheldon awakes two weeks later, in a bed in the farmhouse of a former nurse named Annie Wilkes.

Annie found Paul's overturned car (King uses first names throughout most of the book), but she did not call the police or take Paul to a hospital. Once she discovered his identity, she brought him back to her home, taped crude splints to his broken legs, hooked him up to an IV, and fed him a lot of painkillers. Shortly after regaining consciousness, Paul realizes that he is in serious pain, and serious trouble. Wilkes may be a nurse, but she is also a sociopath. (He later learns that she is also a serial killer.)

Annie asks to read the Fast Cars manuscript she found in the car. Bored by the subject matter and offended by the numerous "effwords", she forces Paul to destroy it, withholding his much-needed pain medication until he lights it - the only copy - on fire. She then buys him a used typewriter and some paper and tells him he is going to write another Misery Chastain novel - one especially for her.

"You owe me your life, Paul. I hope you'll remember that."


Natalie Schroeder calls Misery
a psychological horror story without the supernatural - a frightening tale of the reality of everyday life, of repressed fears, of pain, frustration, loneliness, insecurity, insanity, dependence, and disintegration.
Misery is King's most self-referential work, clearing laying out his attitudes on writing, the constant struggle for creative autonomy, and how to deal with (or distance yourself from) the legions of overly zealous fans when you have become, as King once described himself, "a brand name".

Misery has been described as a "particularly personal book", a "thinly veiled self-examination of [King's] fans, his writing, and his genre work" that "embodies a writer's fears about himself as a writer and about the continuation of his creativity", while also "offer[ing] a very negative view of the connection King has forged with his audience". (It has also been called "a novel about the destructive, potentially castrating nature of women".)

Kathleen Margaret Lant calls Misery
probably King's most thorough and complex exploration of the powers of his own mind, of the powers of the artists, of the pressures of the audience, and of the workings of creativity. King had clearly reached a crisis in his relationship with his audience ... [H]e published a vituperative and belittling piece on his devoted audience - "'Ever et Raw Meat?' And Other Weird Questions" - during the same year that Misery appeared ... In this novel, King expresses his most intense feelings of anger at the demands his readers make by creating Annie Wilkes, a demented fan ... [and] the embodiment of King's worst fantasies about fans out of control or readers run amok.
Amazingly, the dust jacket copy calls Misery "a love letter" from King to his millions of fans. In reality, it is about as far away from a love letter as possible; it's more like a gigantic Fuck You.

Edward F. Casebeer agrees, stating that in Misery, "the reader is the writer's enemy".
King personifies his tyrannical audience in the archetypal figure of Annie, who literally limits the aspiring literary artist, Paul Sheldon, to genre fiction by drugs, bondage, and torture. Despite such a negative response to whether readers are the motivation for writing, King gives the issue a serious and detailed treatment ... [H]is exploration of the psychological processes of writers and their relationship with those of readers is a fascinating and original effort.
And by making Paul dependent upon Annie's steady supply of painkillers, King also writes about his own serious drug addictions, and how they impact his daily life and his writing.

From On Writing:
By 1985 I had added drug addiction to my alcohol problems, yet I continued to function, as a good many substance abusers do, on a marginally competent level. I was terrified not to; by then I had no idea of how to live any other life. ... I couldn't ask for help. That's not the way you did things in my family. In my family what you did was ... keep yourself to yourself. Yet the part of me that writes the stories, the deep part that knew I was an alcoholic as early as 1975, when I wrote The Shining, wouldn't accept that. Silence isn't what that part is about. It began to scream for help in the only way it knew how, through my fiction and through my monsters. In late 1985 and early 1986 I wrote Misery (the title aptly described my state of mind), in which a writer is held prisoner and tortured by a psychotic nurse.
Tom Shone, Intelligent Life, Summer 2009: "One of the things that made The Shining such a great novel about falling off the wagon was that King didn't know that was what it was about — it was written from inside the belly of an obsession."

In On Writing, King said he "had written The Shining without even realizing that I was writing about myself". Earlier, when referring to the book, he wrote, "That's the one which just happens to be about an alcoholic writer and ex-schoolteacher."

As Paul regains his health and strength, he realizes he is addicted to Norvil, the painkiller Annie has been giving him. He plans to not swallow half of his daily pills, in an effort to wean himself off the drug, but says he won't start until the next day. "We never clean up our act today." It is his pain and addiction that finally forces him to capitulate and burn his Fast Cars manuscript, when he decides that the benefits of real pills win out over the lives of fictional people. And so he burned his book, "which he had created and then uncreated".

King, Playboy (1983):
Writing is necessary for my sanity. As a writer, I can externalize my fears and insecurities and night terrors on paper, which is what people pay shrinks a small fortune to do. In my case, they pay me for psychoanalyzing myself in print. And in the process, I'm able to "write myself sane," as that fine poet Anne Sexton put it.
In a 1982 interview, King said:
I don't feel tired in the sense of writing. I feel tired in the sense of having to be a writer. The commitments to things other than writing just keep growing ... and it's a while before you see it as something less than benign. ... But there is a real sense here of having to be careful that you're not eaten alive, because I sense more and more ... that celebrity is a little bit like being a turkey that's being fattened up in the pen for something you'd rather not contemplate.
In another interview, he voices similar sentiments:
The occupational hazard of the successful writer in America is that once you begin to be successful, then you have to avoid being gobbled up. America has developed this sort of cannibalistic cult of celebrity, where first you set the guy up, and then you eat him.

King does not paint a pretty picture of the writer's obsessive fan. Annie Wilkes is unattractive and overweight, with bad breath - a "borderline psychotic [with a] puffed and infected ego ... positive that [she] was starring in a great drama". She is also apparently manic-depressive, at times "untethered from the landmarks of life". (Annie's level of obsessiveness and mental illness does not come out of nowhere, however.)

Annie often has tender feelings towards Paul, but it's a "terrible bogus maternity", a facade that can quickly collapse into "a narrow watchfulness", a deep blackness.
The image of Annie Wilkes as an African idol out of She or King Solomon's Mines was both ludicrous and queerly apt. She was a big woman who, other than the large but unwelcoming swell of her bosom under the gray cardigan sweater she always wore, seemed to have no feminine curves at all - there was no defined roundness of hip or buttock or even calf ... Her body was big but not generous. There was a feeling about her of clots and roadblocks ...

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. ... Like an idol, she gave only one thing: a feeling of unease deepening steadily toward terror.

Paul recalls that when his more literary books had been published, his office was flooded with mail from bewildered and angry fans, readers who loved Misery Chastain and seemed "antagonistic to the very idea of change". The lovers of the Misery books hated his more serious work and the mainstream press scoffed at the romance novels.
So what was the truth? The truth, should you insist, was that the increasing dismissal of his work in the critical press as that of a "popular writer" (which was, as he understood it, one step - a small one - above that of a "hack") had hurt him quite badly. It didn't jibe with his self-image as a Serious Writer who was only churning out these shitty romances in order to subsidize his (flourish of trumpets, please!) REAL WORK!
At one point, Paul thinks that being a writer of popular fiction is "not something to apologize for, goddammit!"
[T]here are lots of guys out there who write a better prose line than I do and who have a better understanding of what people are really like and what humanity is supposed to mean. But if you want me to take you away, to scare you or involve you or make you cry or grin, yea, I can. I can bring it to you and keep bringing it until you holler uncle. I am able. I CAN.
[This gets into an interesting and thorny area of how we define various kinds of books and how we want to see ourselves as readers. On the opposite side of the room are those "guilty pleasures" (sometimes called "beach reading"), books we enjoy but feel embarrassed about admitting that we like. Why? Because it typecasts us as someone who we would like to believe we are not. We don't want other people to think of us as someone who likes those kinds of books (or who likes that song or that movie). It's something I hope to write about at some point in this project.]


Annie rejects Paul's first attempt at writing Misery's Return, saying that it's "a cheat".

As Dominick Grace writes:
Annie insists, for instance, that fiction requires a sort of provisional reality. Though she has already noted that the fiction writer is God to his creations and therefore presumably capable to doing literally whatever he wants, she nevertheless expects fiction to conform to reality in at least acceptably plausible ways. In a key passage in the book, she rejects Paul's first attempt at the new novel out of hand because he has simply ignored the ending of the previous book and resurrected Misery without explanation or logic. ... Furthermore, [Paul] recognizes that she has caught him trying to use a simple narrative trick to resolve his problem, and she's having none of it. Misery was dead and buried at the end of the previous novel, and that's where he has to start: Annie "would not allow him to kill Misery ... but neither would she allow him to cheat Misery back to life"). ... Consequently, the process of how an author goes about finding his way out of an apparently impossible narrative predicament becomes a major element in the next movement of the novel. The irony is that the novelist is also in an apparently inescapable predicament himself, and his hope for escaping his own death depends on him finding a way to resurrect Misery.

He does so, of course, but, tellingly, the germ of the idea of how he does so comes from Annie, not his own subconscious (which is imaged repeatedly in the novel as "the guys in the sweatshops," whose work is sending up flares, which represent ideas). ... She thereby becomes a sort of collaborator with Paul ...
He had thought she was putting on an editor's hat - maybe even trying on a collaborator's chapeau, preparing to tell him what to write and how to write it. But that was not so. ... She saw the story's creative course as something outside of her hands, in spite of her obvious control of him. But some things simply could not be done. Creativity or the lack of it had no bearing on these things; to do them was as foolish as issuing a proclamation revoking the law of gravity or trying to play table-tennis with a brick. ... Constant Reader did not mean Constant Sap. ...

He understood how she could like what he had written and still know it was not right - know it and say it not with an editor's sometimes untrustworthy literary sophistication but with Constant Reader's flat and uncontradictable certainty. He understood, and was amazed to find he was ashamed of himself. She was right. He had written a cheat.
King's use of the phrase "Constant Reader" in this novel is very interesting. It first appears in the book a few pages earlier:
Annie Wilkes was the perfect audience, a woman who loved stories without having the slightest interest in the mechanics of making them. She was the embodiment of that Victorian archetype, Constant Reader. She did not want to hear about his concordance and indicies because to her Misery and the characters surrounding her were perfectly real.
I am shocked that King uses it to describe Annie because he had used it in the past - and, in fact, still uses it to this day - to refer to his loyal fans. It is a term used by the fans themselves. And King has sometimes referred to himself as Constant Writer.


At times during the novel, roles are reversed and Annie is the "author/creator" and Paul is positioned as a "reader". When she tells Paul about how she rescued him, she says: "I decided I would make you live." Listening to her, Paul feels "as if he was a character in a story or a play, a character whose history is not recounted as history but created as fiction". Annie's words connect to what she tells Paul after learning that Misery dies during childbirth in Misery's Child.
God takes us when He thinks it's time and a writer is God to the people in a story, he made them up just like God made US up and no one can get hold of God to make him explain, all right, okay, but as far as Misery goes ... I'll tell you that God just happens to have a couple of broken legs and God just happens to be in MY house eating MY food ... and ...
The act of writing is compared to giving birth - Paul recalls starting Fast Cars, walking around his apartment, "big with book ... and here were the labor pains".

In addition to rejecting Paul's first effort at Misery's Return, acting as an editor, Annie also suggests a possible plot device that Paul ends up using. And Annie is the author of Paul's days, allowing him to do only what she wants him to do, treating him like a character in the play of her life.

Although he spends his days writing, Paul also learns how to "read [Annie's] moods, her cycles", to make sure he does not upset her and have her withhold his painkillers (or inflict worse punishment on him). When Annie leaves the house for an extended period of time, Paul picks the bedroom door's lock and pushes himself around the house in a wheelchair. He finds and reads Annie's "Memory Lane" scrapbook, a series of news reports she has clipped and saved detailing the various murders she has committed through the years. Paul can't stop reading it. "In a weird way it was just too good to put down. It was like a novel so disgusting you just have to finish it." (Annie has achieved what Paul calls the "gotta" moment - the intoxicating hold a writer can have on a reader, bringing the reader to that point where he has gotta keep reading to find out what happens.)


King mentions John Fowles's debut novel The Collector twice in the novel, once when Paul wonders if Annie has the book on her shelf. (He decides not to ask her.) Another, more obvious, inspiration for King's story is One Thousand and One Nights, which includes the story of Scheherazade, who prolongs her life by leaving off the story she is telling to a murderous King at a suspenseful point each evening, to be continued the following night.

Paul is writing Misery's Return to please Annie and prevent her from torturing him (and also to keep himself from going insane), but he knows that once he finishes the novel, she will kill him. At some point in the process, Paul's writing becomes less about keeping Annie happy than as a way to escape thoughts of captivity and looming death. Paul becomes Scheherazade to himself. He relishes his spartan work schedule (however much it has been imposed upon him), his ability to disappear through "the hole in the page" every day, escape and lose himself in the creative act.


And, as a final note, I can report that for first time in the King Project, I was truly disturbed and repulsed by something in one of his books, squirming and not really wanting to look at the words, but driven to keep reading. If you've read Misery, you undoubtedly know what I am talking about. (It's the "hobbling" scene.)

Next: The Tommyknockers.


JFett said...

Another very good post! I'm very interested in your thoughts on "beach reading" and the people who read “these types of books” (and don't want others to know they do). As the owner of a book store at the beach, it is interesting to watch people buy books. The big one this summer was 50 Shades of Grey. There were some who came into the store, asked for it, bought it, and walked straight to the beach to read it. Others quietly asked for it and asked for a bag too. Some downloaded it on a Kindle or other eReader and some said they did so in an effort to hide it from others. Then there was the group who “looked down their nose” at anyone even thinking of buying that book.
For me, I was happy for all those who bought the book, especially those who hadn't purchased a book in years. I hope they develop a love of reading - regardless of the genre or subject matter.
Anyway, I look forward to future posts. Thanks!

Zenslinger said...

It's funny that when this came out, I felt the opposite of those who look down their noses at "beach readers" -- I felt like this was too based in reality and wanted more genre elements. I read this rather grudgingly, but enjoyed it a lot.

laura k said...

The plot alone of this book scares me to pieces. I was unable to see the movie, I was too frightened.

A love letter?!?!

It also pisses me off that people see this book as misogynist. The character is a romance-novel writer. Of course his fans - psycho and normal - are going to be women. Anytime there's an character that's female, some people cry misogyny. (Ask Margaret Atwood.) I HATE THAT.

laura k said...

^^ evil

Anytime there's an ^evil^ character who's female.

laura k said...

That celebrity is a little bit like being a turkey that's being fattened up in the pen for something you'd rather not contemplate

Excellent phrase.

Good riffs on "beach reading" vs "real reading", guilty pleasures, high vs low culture, including what JFett says above.

I've made a huge conscious effort to be nonjudgemental about all reading, to see reading itself as having intrisic value, and all reading choices as being equally valid. It's paid off - life is more enjoyable and I've helped others read more and find more stuff to read.

allan said...

I was unable to see the movie, I was too frightened.

I thought I would give it try, but I did not see it on Netflix. (I also read that the horrifying scene is not in the movie; it has been altered a bit.)

Zenslinger said...

The film is more in the suspense genre. It does create some suspense! I remember when she takes a hammer to his broken ankle, the entire theater went nuts (Reiner shot that bit very cleverly.)

allan said...

I believe she re-breaks both of his legs in the movie, which is a far sight less gruesome that what happens in the book.