Thoughts on Stephen King's Misery

When they aired the movie "Misery" on CBS the other night, I got to thinking about the book again. It's a book with which I have an intense relationship, and I turn over its details in my mind from time to time. I've always been especially impressed with its structure -- the parallel tales of Paul Sheldon and Annie Wilkes, and Misery Chastain and the adventures in Africa (which structure is completely ignored in the movie, of course).

Part of what intrigued me, when Misery came out, was the way it seemed to fit in with how my reading of Stephen King had developed over the years. I'd spent so many years listening and re-listening to what Edward Bryant calls King's "flawed and sloppy" storytelling, I'd developed my own mental filters for his problems, and I could tune out all the repetitions and silliness. I was (and am still) able to tolerate a lot of crap from Stephen King, if he'll just set me up with a clever set of images. And I'll be especially tolerant, if the overall structure of the novel is well-executed.

You see, I think of him as like a pointillist painter, like Seurat: if you stand too close to the little dots, the picture falls apart, and it looks meaningless. That's why Mr. King often writes such BIG books -- to take you on up to that macro-level where you'll still notice the flaws, but will like the book in spite of them. The Stand -- which is the King fandom's favorite book (according to long-ago polls in Castle Rock) is a well-known example of this "you're ugly, but we love you anyway" phenomenon.

But you know, I think even Stephen King gets barfed out sometimes by his own excesses, and he tries his hand at writing something tighter -- which was what I felt had happened, when Misery came out. I wonder if after wrestling with It for so long, he really wanted to go back to something simpler and more controlled. I can imagine him wanting to do another The Shining -- something tight and highly resonant, like the way The Shining's Overlook Hotel becomes an echo chamber and an evil womb. Misery has many thematic and symbolic links to The Shining: I think of it as an "emotional sequel" to the earlier novel, using exactly the same scenario of a writer with a crippling past (in more ways than one) who is trapped in an evil, haunted house, in the winter, in Colorado. Both novels bristle with claustrophobia; both make excellent metaphorical use of stinging insects.

The real problem that the writer faces, in each of these books, is not the monster itself -- the hotel, Annie -- but the problem of his own creativity: Will he choose a false solution (the hotel's empty promises) or will he choose a true one (telling his own story)? I think this is an interesting question to anyone -- not just writers. And it's posed so much more clearly, with fewer traditional horror-novel trappings, in Misery, than it was in The Shining -- yet with complex interpenetrating levels.

You see, I think Misery's frame-within-a-frame works beautifully. It's not John Fowles, I admit it, but it's more honest and forthright than Fowles is. Stephen King is not subtle -- you can't look for his imagery at that level. But he can be intellectually provocative, all the same.

This is how I think it through: What is the most horrible image in the main novel of Misery? Annie the Evil Nurse, who will cut off the writer's penis if he doesn't produce a book for her. What is the most horrible image in the novel-within-a-novel? The great bee goddess -- the "goddess africa" of the alternate title King gives us. We can see Annie as the classical poetic "muse" -- the "white goddess" of Robert Graves.

In Paul Sheldon's own analogy, he is a trapped parrot, a gaily colored bird that is trapped away from Africa, and must therefore return to Africa in order to be free. So where does Paul go, in what we hope will be the very last Misery Chastain novel? He goes to Africa. He goes to the mysterious continent which evokes, for him, the frightening implacable solidity of the woman's body. And Africa is the place where the parrot originated, just as Sheldon himself originated inside the body of a woman.

The inner story is indeed a reflection of the outer story, for in both "novels" Paul Sheldon is wrestling with his Muse. He hates her, he fears her, he wants to kill her; but all the same he is drawn to her power. Annie is probably not the first woman who has seemed hostile and scary to this character -- nor the first who (as in the opening pages) breathes life into him -- like the ancient pneumos, the breath of fire, that the Goddess is supposed to breathe into Human. Sheldon is obsessed with her: he reads her scrapbook, he continually recreates in his imagination the scenes of her domination of him. He is a feverish, inspired worshipper of his goddess, and like "the monk" in M. G. Lewis's 18th century gothic (which we know King has read, because it shows up in Danse Macabre), he has a memorable encounter with some bees.

I think he gets the reader obsessed, too. How'd you like that scene where she chops his foot off? The kicker, for me, was not the scene itself, but that Paul couldn't stop replaying it in his mind. That ominous phrase: "Go all the way through it." I couldn't stop thinking about that horrible scene -- the odor of burning ankle skin, the blood on the sheets of his bed. How nice to have this in my mind, I found myself thinking -- how did the author do this to me, what was happening (wasn't I going down a mountain road, high on champagne?) before we were so rudely drawn into this spook house of a novel -- thanks so much, Mr. King, for your pleasant hypnotic suggestion that we should remember the foot-castration. "Go all the way through it. Start with Misery." It's like a virus, like an annoying song you can't get out of your head. When I first read Misery, I felt as though I were going mad with the "memory" of that scene.

Is this what hell is like, for Stephen King? A never-ending tape loop of a scene out of E. C. Comics? Or is this the only way he ever deals with anything, by obsessing (and then writing) about it? "Go all the way through it."

And that intense consciousness that Paul Sheldon sustains... during the writing of the Misery Chastain novel, during all the things that happen to him, we are forced to share that mindset. It is as if Stephen King were trapping the reader in his experience of being a horror novelist -- what it's like for him to be driven to write more "misery" (horror) novels by his own personal "Bourka the Bee-Goddess."

Who, I wonder, is this mysterious female figure who brings him a typewriter and forces him to write? Is it his Constant Reader? According to an article I read, a Stephen King fan is, more often than not, female -- no longer young, maybe even overweight, a bit of a loner, in a middle-class profession of some sort -- demographically, in other words, like Annie Wilkes. Doesn't he intend this as a "love letter to his fans"? Surely it's not too fanciful to suspect he's trying to tell something to that archetypal female fan of his?

Is it a funhouse-mirror portrait of Tabitha King? I have this image of what would happen if Stephen broke his leg -- how his wife (or secretary?) would bring him his meals in his office, going out to buy paper for his computer's printer, giving him feedback on his current project. Isn't the book dedicated to his secretary, Stephanie Leonard? (What is this book really about? Of course, we'll never know.)

The answers to the questions don't matter so much, as the fact that the book keeps popping them out at you. It won't resolve itself into a tidy story. The inner frame breaks through the outer frame, which then breaks through again, into the frame of what we know of Stephen King's real life -- so that there are three stories in all. It may not be great literature, but it's a startling achievement.

It is unfortunate, after all of that, that the novel falls apart rather lamely at the end -- like a burning log shattering into coals. What really undermines the achievement of Misery, though, for this reader, is that it's too serious, too intense. Sure, there are some silly bits, but the overall feeling is as relentless as Annie herself -- which makes the novel oddly unlikeable, for all its bee-goddess beauty. Give me that patented Stephen King pop-culture, brand-name, goofy stuff any day. His sense of humor is what puts the sting into this reader.

Someone once wrote that their ideal King novel would have the most input from the man who wrote "The Body," and the least input from the man who wrote the ending of Pet Sematary. I'll tell you my infinite-possibility fantasy: I want a novel that glitters with wickedness like Misery and The Shining, is as well-written as "The Reach," has the heart and humor of "The Body," and is as long as the uncut The Stand. Ha!

(Now if I can just get that damn foot-removal out of my head...)

Copyright © Fiona Webster 1995

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