Monday, October 8, 2012

Misery by Stephen King

Of all the books I had to read for class, Misery is the one I felt the most apprehension about.

A story about a psycho running at me with a knife doesn't really rattle my cage. It's a situation that (thankfully) seems so far-fetched to me that I don't get a lot of anxiety over it. Having a conversation with a crazy person who is responsible for your safety is much more frightening.

Reading Misery was an intense experience.

Most of the people who read this blog know me in real life. I have a fairly over-the-top vibe and a big flapping mouth, but I don't actually deal with conflict well. Blame the screaming matches my parents got into as a kid or whatever cheap pop-psychology explanation fits best, but the long and short is that I prefer things to be peaceful. I want to be liked. I try to please. Sometimes that means rolling over and showing my belly.

The reason that I found Misery so stressful was because, if it were me in Paul Sheldon's chair, I would have done everything I could to make Annie Wilkes happy. I would have told her that Misery's death was simply a lead-up to a sequel where she comes back triumphant. I would have shmoozed her, gushed at her enthusiasm, and answered every one of her fan-girl questions with the answers that she wants to hear. Yes, Misery eventually chooses handsome Edward but keeps a special place in her heart for brooding, passionate Jacob. Yes, I will be writing these stories forever (although, come on, what kinda dude's dude writes Regency romances? The way Sheldon comes off, he should have been writing stories with .45s and tits) and I'm sorry that you found the swearing in my new novel so offensive. I'm trying to capture the streets my character comes from. In my next draft I will tone it down and add a modern Misery. Agony Velasquez, maybe.

As I was reading the book, I kept roleplaying what I would have said and how I would have placated her, but the simple answer is that she's unpredictable and crazy and sooner or later I'd have to stop placating her and start being assertive. The threat of death, mixed in with the threat of disappointing a domineering mother figure, rattled me in ways that I'm kind of embarrassed about.

King is a good writer.

It's trendy to trash King for his weird period in the 90s when his books were at the same time too personal and too bloated. It's trendy to talk down about him because the Uneducated Masses really dig him. When I first got to New York City and was struggling to get by, I knew that I could go to any Salvation Army, slap down a dollar, and have entertainment for hours. His stuff is ubiquitous and that means it's taken for granted. He writes about podunk towns and podunk people (snotty snort, eats some cheese), but the man knows how to capture humanity and human weakness. His images stick in the mind.

Having said that, his pulpy Tales From The Crypt roots sometimes work against him.

I gotta lay out the one petty issue I had with the book. It's the same problem I had with Apt Pupil, where the villain went from a small, believable sort of banal evil to an obnoxiously grandiose cackling lunatic. Todd in Apt Pupil starts off as just a teenager taking lessons in sociopathy from an old kook, then goes off and starts hacking up homeless people? No. Annie Wilkes is a mass murderer living in isolation? No.

There's a scene where trapped novelist Paul Sheldon finds Annie Wilkes' scrapbook locked up somewhere. He flips through it and it turns out that she killed enough people to fill a city. It stretches credibility and takes the character to a farcical territory. Given that the horror is so close and intimate, it would have worked better if she was just a lonely woman out in the woods whose identity was so wrapped up in her fictional avatar that she goes nuts.

I understand that people feel Annie Wilkes is a mean-spirited stereotype of the crazy woman or romance readers or obsessive fans of anything in general. Yeah, maybe. But people get weird about the fictitious characters they empathize with.


I gotta close this one out by discussing the circumstances I read this book in.

I'd been hearing about Misery for a long time. Everyone knows about the movie, which I tried to watch but just couldn't finish, and everyone says it's one of King's best tales. It's supposed to be of special significance to writers, too. A hundred years ago, I read an interview with Gothy horror writer Poppy Z. Brite and she said that Misery was one of the best how-to-write manuals she'd ever encountered. I was really looking forward to that aspect of the book. I HATE books on writing but making the mechanics of storytelling a part of the story weaves how writing actually works and impacts a human life. It's a Scheherazade piece and there's something weird about how thrilling the idea of keeping yourself alive by telling stories is. 

Telling stories keeps you going. I read Misery right after I lost someone I loved. I didn't want to write. I didn't want to love or fuck or dance or drink or do any of the things that defined my life. I wanted to lash out. I sometimes do, and I sometimes go dancing. Reading Paul Sheldon's story helps me work through my own.  

I doubt I'll read this again anytime soon. It was easily the most hairy book I read this semester. I like a good psycho story but I think I'll stick to nice, safe stalk-stalk-knife-knife-misogyny-religion-daddy issues stories. But it was the right thing for me to read at the right time. 


Dwight A. Jolivette said...

Nicely done. Oh, and you don't have a big flapping mouth. Misery was a popular book at the time for several reasons. I believe there were a lot of news reports of nurses killing patients in the hospital around the time the book came out. The movie makes some changes like instead of cutting Paul's foot off Annie hobbles him. Annie is wound pretty tight. She's in self exile. When she snaps there's no pulling it back. I always found the fight scene hard to believe in either the book or the movie. Still, what a story!

Christopher Shearer said...

She does become cartoonish at the end, but it's a great ride there (and then derails, which King does, but not as much as Koontz).

R. D. DeMoss said...

You've never rolled over and shown me your belly. I'm jealous.

I relate to your comments about this being a good how-to manual for writing and that writing stories keeps us going. Reading and writing are cathartic, and without them, and making jokes out of some of the sour points in my life, I'd go crazy.

Anonymous said...

I think the books says that Annie murdered around 35 people. There was a woman Amy Archer-Gilligan. She was convicted of 5 murders, but it's thought that she could be connected to 48 other deaths in the nursing home she worked at for years. It may seem far fetched, but also knowing that both myself and my mom recently almost did just from nurses giving use the wrong medicine by accident while in the hospital, I am not surprised a nurse could get away with killing that many people if she really wanted to.

Rhonda JJ said...

So funny! But true. I think agreeing with her and placating her might have worked for a hot minute. But as you mention, at some point the crazy was going to get loose and no matter what you would have said or done, you would have been in danger.

I find Paul's reliance on her psycho tinged maternal instincts disturbing, too, in the same way I find the mothering habits of some women just...wrong. When someone has to depend on you for their life and you are unstable, they might not have much of a life after all.

Fabulous post.