Misery is the twentieth novel of the best-selling writer of horror fiction Stephen King and it seems to reflect many of his concerns connected to being a celebrity. His feelings of unease because of being in the public eye, the fear of the ultimate price he will have to pay for being such a well-known figure all come to the surface here.
However, Misery is not simply an autobiographical book, reflecting King’s views on authorship, his connection with the reading public (sometimes viewed as monstrous), but a mainstream novel lacking all the supernatural trappings for which he is renowned. Yet it could be argued it is a Gothic fiction as well, since we have the same oppressive, claustrophobic setting (almost the entire novel takes place in the same room), and a villainous figure holding a fragile victim in captivity. The twist here is the gender reversal: the victim is male and the victimizer, the Gothic villain, is female. Before pointing out other directions where our interpretation might take us, let me give you a summary of the work.
Misery is the story of Paul Sheldon, world famous author of the Misery books, a series of historical romances revolving around the brave and beautiful heroine called Misery Chastain. Though he prospers financially thanks to the success of these books, Sheldon looks down on these works and hopes to gain the critics’ admiration with what he comes to think of as his “serious fiction”. After finishing his non-Misery novel, Fast Cars, he embarks on a journey, taking a bottle of champagne to celebrate the completion of the novel. He is surprised by a snowstorm, and since he is quite drunk by this time, he drives his car off the road. He is rescued by Annie Wilkes, a former nurse, who takes him home to her isolated farmhouse and nurses him back to life – but does not tell anyone he is there. She subjects Paul to various physical and psychological tortures and turns him into her pet writer (she is revealed to be his number one fan). He is forced to write a novel just for her, resurrecting Misery from the dead (in Paul’s last Misery book she died in childbirth – to Paul’s immense relief). Paul survives the captivity, killing Annie in a deadly battle, and we see him trying to get on with his life after this horrible experience at the end of the book.
I have to refer to one possible source if not for anything else, because King himself alludes to it: it is John Fowles’ The Collector (at one point in the novel, Paul grimly wonders if Annie has that book or not). There we had a more conventional setup of characters: Caliban kidnapping the beautiful art-student, Miranda. The villain is male, the victim is female, and she perishes thanks to his madness. Paul triumphs over Annie’s madness even though in the beginning he is clearly assigned the victim’s role. He is a writer, so he is also an artist-figure, just like Miranda. They are creators in a sense with great imaginative power (Annie talks about him in the following way: “A man who could think of Misery Chastain, first think of her and then breathe life into her” , she stresses his role as a creator) and they are superior to their captors both intellectually and morally. There is a huge gap between them and ironically, the villains somehow respect them and feel awe towards their victims. When Annie sees Paul working, she does not even enter the room: “Yet something in her attitude as she stood in the doorway fascinated him. It was as if she was a little frightened to come any closer – as if she thought something in him might burn her.” But I wish to highlight other aspects of King’s work and not present a comparative analysis with Fowles’ novel.
First let me approach the work from an autobiographical aspect and see what it reveals of King’s feelings towards his readers. The book has been called both a “love letter” and hate-mail to his fans, and I would rather agree with the latter designation. Paul is a stand-in for King. He is typecast as a horror writer, much in the same way as Paul is considered just a popular writer of romances, but he would like to be taken seriously and wishes for recognition among literary critics as well. Of course we have to keep in mind that this book was penned in 1987, twenty years ago, and recognition is not something which King lacks, but the old axiom about popular and rich equaling bad writing still holds true for many critics.
If Paul is King, then Annie is the embodiment of his reading public, the voracious, ever-hungry public always clamoring for more. Unfortunately, King is an author who has had his share of unpleasant encounters with over-eager fans, and though he tries to keep a low profile, his status as a celebrity impinges on his life (once a deranged fan broke into his home claiming to have a bomb, while a woman sued King for plagiarism, claiming that King “broke into her home … to steal her work” and “flew over her home in an airplane and eavesdropped with listening devices” ). Let me mention another example just to illustrate what ominous resonances the “number one fan” epithet might hold for King. Once he was approached by a man who identified himself as his number one fan and asked for an autograph and a photo with King. He complied with the request, and some time later on this fan turned out to be Mark Chapman, the man who shot John Lennon. In the words of King’s wife, novelist Tabitha King: “Chapman, by his own admission, was out to kill someone famous; it did not matter to him whether it was John Lennon, or Paul Simon, or Steve [King] - all to whom he made personal approaches. Murder is the ultimate fan possession of the idol.” She adds that in America there is a “media-enforced insistence that a public person is public property ”. It is small wonder then that King created a fictional character to give vent to his negative feelings towards his readers.
The relationship of Paul and Annie develops during the course of the story, one might argue that they learn from each other, they exchange roles, slipping into the other person’s shoes for a while. Annie, the obsessive reader, becomes a writer, an author of Paul’s life: she decides on whether he will live or die, he is totally at her mercy, in the same way as fictional characters depend upon their creators. When she recounts the details of the accident to Paul, she says: “I decided I would make you live.” In a very real sense of the word, he owes her his life: if she had left him in the snow, he would have frozen to death. There are several examples in the novel where Annie draws up possible scripts or plot-lines for the future or gives Paul ideas regarding the new Misery novel. Hers is the suggestion regarding a crucial plot device necessary to bring back Misery from the dead. Paul incorporates it into the novel, this way they become partners or co-authors.
But as Lauri Berkenkamp has pointed out, Paul, the writer, has to become a reader in order to survive. Paul learns about Annie’s killing sprees in the hospitals where she worked, and given her psychosis, he must become attuned to her moods. He needs to develop the ability to read her mind, to predict her actions and reactions. Annie is also a literal author: she has a scrapbook entitled Memory Lane. Though she did not actually write the newspaper articles which fill the pages, she is the agent behind them, since they all detail her killings. She killed several patients under her care in the hospital, people whose lives she judged pointless (people with terminal diseases), as if she was some kind of Angel of Mercy. To Paul’s horror, the last entry of the scrapbook is none other but himself, an article reporting him missing. Paul is shocked at finding himself becoming a part of Annie’s book, almost as if he was a fictional character.
The ultimate reader in the novel is Annie, of course, the loyal fan of the Misery series, so committed to those books that she is not afraid to inflict pain on her favorite author to make him change his mind about continuing with the series. Paul at first refuses to do it, not just because of the absurdity of the request, but because he is enraged that a reader might demand something from an author. Of course such an active audience participation in the writing process was not an uncommon thing in the past, especially in the case of serial publication, and King himself alludes to famous examples, like when the entire Victorian England was in an uproar because Conan Doyle decided to kill off Sherlock Holmes . Audiences today still have a huge power over the writer: purchasing power. They might refuse to buy a certain author’s books and render him penniless.
Annie, apart from demanding the return of her favorite character, also becomes “Merciless Editor” , who, in a very gruesome way, makes her dislikes known to Paul by chopping off various parts of his body. Paul loses his left foot and left thumb during the months spent as Annie’s special guest, but paradoxically, all these amputations only render him the stronger and make him vow vengeance against her.
I have already placed their weird relationship within the context of reader-writer, victim-victimizer, consumer-consumed, but another possibility is to see it along the lines of a mother-child relationship. King often attributes “a maternal look ” to Annie, and though she is without children of her own, she does seem to adopt the role of mom, both as a loving, caring, nurturing mother figure (spoon-feeding Paul, bathing him, changing him), and as a strict mother trying to make a naughty child behave in the correct way. When she makes Paul burn the only existing manuscript of Fast Cars, which she found obscene and poorly written (again, she plays the role of the editor), she alludes to the mother-child relationship in the following way: “The mother feels badly when her child says she’s mean or if he cries for what’s been taken away, as you are crying now. But she knows she’s right, and so she does her duty. As I am doing mine.” From the point of view of Paul, he is totally dependent on Annie for medication, food, water, just like a small child. When he first attempts to escape, he is terrified of being caught just like a child doing something he is not supposed to do. In fact, he recalls a scene from his childhood, when his mother unexpectedly returned home only to find him smoking. If Annie returned, he knows “It would be more than a spanking this time.” Very often in the novel he remembers his childhood, like the times when his mom took him to the zoo and he started to cry upon seeing a beautiful, exotic bird from Africa in a cage. Being a child, he immediately sympathized with the caged animal’s plight, while his mom only called him “a bawl-baby and a sissy ”.
The African bird, which elicited his sympathy, is one of the leitmotifs of the book, since during his ordeal Paul comes to identify himself with that bird. He is an exotic specimen for Annie, a “rara avis” kept as a prisoner, and it might not be a coincidence that the setting of the second half of his new Misery novel is Africa.
Another condensed image in the book is that of the typewriter, the old Royal which Annie gives him so he can start work afresh. Paul views it as an enemy, thinking it challenges his creative ability. It is an old, used typewriter, which keeps on losing its keys, in the same way as Paul keeps on losing his body parts. But it has a crucial role in Paul’s survival, both in the psychological and in the physical sense. When he gets a little bit better, he starts to do strengthening exercises with the Royal, lifting it up and down. The writing helps him in a different way: he escapes from Annie and her distorted reality to the fictional reality of Misery. The typewriter also figures in the dénouement of the novel: it becomes a weapon, Paul’s means of striking back at his “editor”, who chopped off body parts not just portions of a book. He hits Annie with it, gaining momentary power over her, then, when she is about to attack him, she trips over the typewriter, hitting her head on the mantelpiece, so, ironically, “she had been killed by the very typewriter Paul had hated so much.”
But of course the typewriter also represents his creative force and the power of his words. He does not let Annie control his imagination: physically he is under her control, but otherwise he resists her domination. Maybe it is significant that she dies of a fractured skull, because that was the part of her which was all wrong. The typewriter triumphs over the diseased mind.
As Douglas Keesey has pointed it out, even though Paul was victimized for almost 300 pages, in the end he emerges triumphant, reasserting male dominance and authority. Annie is clearly not a feminine character, in fact, she confuses Paul with her almost androgynous qualities (“She was a big woman who […] seemed to have no feminine curves at all” and she wears a gun on her hip as a man would do), but not even an unfeminine woman is allowed to subjugate a man permanently. Paul undergoes all those trials only to claim his authority more fiercely.
In their final battle there is an interesting parallel with the beginning of the novel. It is concerned with rape and it gives a framework to the story. Misery began with Annie getting Paul out of the wreck of his car and taking him home to care for him. At one point his breathing stopped and she had to resuscitate him. King describes the scene in terms recalling rape. “Then there was a mouth clamped over his, a mouth which was unmistakably a woman’s mouth […] and the wind from this woman’s mouth blew into his mouth and down his throat […] and he smelled her on the outrush of the breath she has forced into him the way a man might force a part of himself into an unwilling woman” . Though Paul is disgusted by her breath, the result is positive: “The first real memory: stopping, and being raped back into life by the woman’s stinking breath.” At the end of the novel the rape image returns with a vengeance: now it is Paul who wants to rape Annie (after all, this is the way it is supposed to happen, isn’t it?) with parts of his new book. They are fighting and Paul crams the manuscript down her throat, shutting the editor up. “I’m gonna rape you, all right, Annie. I’m gonna rape you because all I can do is the worst I can do. So suck my book. Suck my book. Suck on it until you fucking CHOKE.” I find it really interesting how King challenged the traditional view on rape in the first chapter, but later he backs off and lets the male hero dominate the female and commit his special version of rape on her.
So this is the story of a male Scheherezade (again a gender reversal), who has to tell a tale because his life depends on it. And the audience will not accept a cheat, if it is a lie, he is going to die. The parallel with a real writer’s miseries, driven by the expectations of the reading public is obvious (just think of poor J.K.Rowling and her Harry Potter series: how much freedom has she got to decide about the lives of her characters in the last book?). King sends a message of resistance to his fans, stating he will not let them influence him, asking them to stay back and let the writer create on his own and leave his freedom intact.
Beahm, George. Stephen King (Kansas City: Andrews McMeel Publishing, 1998)
Berkenkamp,Lauri.”Reading, Writing and Interpreting: Stephen King’s Misery” The Dark Descent. Edited by Tony Magistrale. (Westport: Greenwood Press, 1992)
King, Stephen. Misery. (Great Britain: New English Library, 1987)
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