It’s been a while since my last outing into the Stephen King universe. This October, I read Misery alongside a friend to entrench myself in spooky season. King didn’t disappoint, laying out a personal and harrowing tale of a writer trapped by his number one fan. Misery isn’t a beast of a novel—my copy clocked in at 350 pages—but it still packs a wallop.
Author Paul Sheldon awakens in a daze after crashing his car in the Colorado mountain roads. When he regains consciousness, he discovers he is in the care of Annie Wilkes, a nurse who lives in a secluded cabin and just so happens to be Paul’s number one fan. Paul’s legs are broken in every which way, and he’s confined to Annie’s guest bedroom. She forces him to revive Misery, the title character from her favorite Paul Sheldon series. Slowly, Paul learns exactly how ravenous his number one fan can be. Cut off from the world outside, he writes the book to stay alive, but even that may not be enough to stave off Annie’s vicious temper.
Bits and pieces of Misery have lain dormant in my mind thanks to cultural osmosis. My dad would say “You fooler!” when I did something silly as a kind, echoing Annie Wilkes’ rare jovial spurts. Legendary UK drag queen Baga Chipz annihilated Snatch Game with a spot-on impression of Kathy Bates as Annie Wilkes from the Misery film. Reading the book connected all the dots, unlocking Misery references I didn’t know I had internalized. It’s an iconic story for many, and I now add it to my list of finished Stephen King novels. It’s not my favorite—that honor goes to The Shining—but Misery is still excellent.
The most striking thing about Misery is its narrative scope. King weaves a tale in which two characters enjoy 90% of the “screen” time. We experience the story from Paul’s point of view, and we see Annie through the filter of his train of thought. A few side characters worm their way into the story: the distant Roydmans, who Annie dislikes, a few cops, and folks nestled in Paul or Annie’s memories. Despite the small cast, Misery feels vast. The depths of Paul’s deteriorating psyche carve out a universe of space for the novel to stretch. His home—Annie’s modest house—has a few areas for him to explore during the stretches when she goes to town or to her mysterious alone place up the mountain. In other words, Misery is geographically small but mentally expansive, and King milks that for all its worth.
Misery’s focus on Paul and Annie allows for some deep dives into each character. Paul ruminates on the nature of his craft in a drug-addled stupor. When he writes, he says a hole opens up in the page and gets wider as he starts to grasp the full story emerging from his mind. He’s writing Misery’s Return, tasked with reviving a character he killed in the previous installment, much to Annie’s dismay. This opens up a lot of room for exploration of writing and story. Paul navigates the weirdest form of writer’s block in that is has been inflicted by an external source. But when he gets into it, entering that flow state writers know and love, he unearths a story that he believes might be one of his best.
All the while, we learn of Annie Wilkes through minuscule details King drops into the story. She’s crazy. That’s about all I can say without massive spoilers, but you’ll discover that tidbit early on. King plants clues to her past within the book, and Paul unravels them in his fleeting moments of freedom. The more we learn of Annie, the bigger the heaping pile of Misery’s suspense grows.
Interlaced throughout the novel are bits of Paul’s latest work, Misery’s Return. Written under duress and with a faulty typewriter, it contains typos and missing letters which he must fill in after the fact. We don’t see the full picture—rather, King treats us to small sections that show us how in tune Paul is with his story. Trapped in a psycho’s house, Paul uses the novel, however coerced he was into writing it, to escape. As a reader, I kept wondering (as I’m sure Paul did, too): what happens when the story ends?
Misery feels like classic Stephen King. The horror of the human psyche often proves more monstrous than anything supernatural in his stories, and this book proves exactly that. Paul Sheldon and Annie Wilkes may be the primary focus of this narrow tale, but it feels wide and revelatory nonetheless. I thoroughly enjoyed Misery. While it’s not at the top of my Stephen King list, it’s damn close.
Rating: Misery – 8.5/10