I’ve been wanting to read Misery for years but have somehow not got round to it till now (and miraculously have managed to avoid spoilers).
Paul Sheldon is an author who wakes from a car accident to find he has been ‘rescued’ by Annie Wilkes, a self-professed fan. He has horrific injuries to his legs and cannot walk. The good news is she’s a nurse and has taken care of him, up to a point. The bad news is she has told no one he is at her remote farm and she isn’t going to let him go.
Paul needs surgery and hospital treatment. Annie is more concerned with reading his latest paperback. She is devastated when she realises he has killed her favourite character from his historical romance series, Misery Chastain. She insists he has to bring Misery back – and under the circumstances he doesn’t feel he has a choice.
This is a great thriller. The writing is taut – there is none of the verbosity of later Stephen King novels (I’ve always assumed he just got too big to edit). Like a writer’s life, most of the novel takes place in one room but King makes that confinement absolutely gripping.
You can also read this as a book about creativity. It is writing that keeps Paul sane and even leads to an odd alliance with Annie. They discuss deus ex machina and the distinction between realistic and fair plot devices fiction. While writing the next instalment of Misery’s melodrama (the extracts provide some light relief), Paul describes the ‘gotta’ feeling a story can engender and his own inner conflict. Finishing the novel will mean Annie has no further use for him, but still he keeps writing, because he has gotta know how the story ends.
There is also the fraught question of the relationship between author and fan. There is the paradoxical nature of author worship – on the one hand Annie attributes almost magical powers to Paul’s ability to create, on the other she thinks she can coerce him into giving her the story she wants.
King has written about how Annie is a metaphor for his addiction – she is both nurturing and destructive, she takes away his pain, but only on her terms. Paul in turn attributes magical powers to Annie – overawed by her strength, her power over him, her apparent indestructibility.
Misery is unusual for King in that it has no supernatural elements. While Paul’s kidnapping may seem unlikely, there have, shockingly, been comparable crimes which show that such a scenario is possible. The realism means we identify with the full horror of Paul’s situation and wonder how he can possibly get free. Misery is simultaneously a book you can’t put down and a masterclass in how to write a book you can’t put down. The gotta got me.
Enjoyed this? Watch Stephen King tell Stephen Colbert how he had the last laugh on his early critics.