I have to make a confession: this is the first Stephen King book I’ve ever read. He’s someone whose work I’ve always meant to delve into, but just haven’t got round to it. I was an avid reader when I was younger, but was always put off Mr King’s novels after being emotionally scarred by the film adaption of his book It. It sent my already rather developed fear of clowns into overdrive, and to this day I’m unsure if I’ll ever read it.
As I got older, I found I had less time to sit down with a book – between university assignments, work deadlines, and factoring in time to hang out with friends and family, you aren’t left with much spare time. I started reading novellas, longform journalism, and collections of essays instead; things thing I could consume quickly and that wouldn’t distract me from work for too long.
Last summer in particular, when I was doing a lot of writing and editing work, I found that reading was a really good way to take a break. It gave me a timeout from the actual work I was doing, but kept my mind engaged and analytical, so it was easy to transition back into work-mode. Unfortunately, when I got back to uni, assignments and socialising became my prioity, while reading took a backseat.
I am your number one fan.
– Annie Wilkes, Misery
Recently, however, I vowed to make a change. I landed a new editing job a few weeks ago and decided that instead of spending my breaks scrolling through Facebook, I would get back into reading. And I mean proper reading! No longer am I limiting myself to works of 10,000 words or less, but instead trying to finally cross off a few of the books on my ‘must read’ list.
The first one I decided to tackle was Misery. There was no particular reason as to why – I got out a few books I’d been eyeing up for a while at the library (Misery, The Little Friend by Donna Tartt, and Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov) and it just happened to be sitting top of the pile.
I’ll give a brief synopsis, although I’m sure many people are already more than familiar with the plotline; whether through watching the film adaption or word of mouth. Paul Shelton is an author, best known – to his chagrin – for a series of romance novels set in the Victorian era. The Misery series has made him a lot of money and gained him a lot of fans, but none of the critical acclaim he truly wants. Deciding to end the series by killing the title character, thus allowing him to focus on what he believes to be his magnum opus: a work titled Fast Cars.
Unfortunately, after completing the manuscript and deciding to set off on a roadtrip, he is involved in a car crash and rescued by none other than Annie Wilkes, possibly the biggest fan of the Misery series there is. She becomes both his saviour and tormentor, and their complex relationship results in, well, misery.
I wasn’t really sure what to expect, as my last foray into horror fiction was the Goosebumps books by R.L. Stine when I was in primary school. Misery was, as you would probably expect, quite different.
For a start, I vividly remember feeling scared shitless by some of the Goosebumps books. As in, I would bunk in with my younger sisters for the night and still not be able to sleep. Misery didn’t have that effect. I could read it late into the night, sleep alone, and drift off soundly. This isn’t to say I didn’t find it scary, I just found it scary in a different way.
– Annie Wilkes, Misery
The thing that frightened me was the realness of it. As I became more and more acquainted with the character of Annie Wilkes, I found myself being reminded of someone I knew in my childhood; a very volatile, unstable adult who I always felt uneasy around. As Annie tittered one of her trademark phrases, ‘dirty birdy’, to avoid using bad language, I recalled the sickeningly sweet facade this person would sometimes put on to try and hide their horrible core. This is were the terror of King’s Misery lies: people like this really exist, and most of us have probably had a encounter with one of them, whether we know it or not.
The first half or so, although it drew me into the story, was not particularly gruesome. It has all the trappings of a strong psychological thriller, but nothing I would describe as grotesque. That begins around 200 pages in, and I actually found myself recoiling from the book a little when descriptions got particularly lengthy or graphic. However, it didn’t affect me in the same way that Brett Easton Ellis’ work has in the past, where I actually had to put a book down because I felt physically sick. This, of course, isn’t a bad thing; just slightly at odds with my previous experiences of similar writing. I actually really enjoyed being able to continue reading without having stoppage time to settle my stomach.
Something I loved, and have found out that King does a lot, was that Paul was an author. I love when writers write about writers. I think it gives a really fascinating view of the craft: insightful, yet at the same time, detached. There was clearly much of King in the character of Paul (resentful of being pegged as a sort of writing one-trick-pony, as King felt he had been boxed into a writer who was only capable of science fiction), and this brought so much dimension and life to the character. I also liked how Shelton’s Misery stories intertwined with, and sometimes echoed, the plot of King’s Misery.
I think the true beauty of the book lies in its simplicity. Yes, it’s slickly crafted, but the actual story is rather straightforward. The whole plot unfolds as one round after another of ‘Can You?’; a game from Paul’s childhood where a scenario was given and you would be asked if you could find a way out of it. For example, you are stuck in a lion enclosure and need to find a way out. Can you? For Paul, Annie’s home is his enclosure and she is the fiercest lioness of all.
There is a part where Paul finds himself reading a particularly hideous book: scared to turn the page, yet he cannot put it down.
It was like a novel so disgusting you have to finish it.
– Paul Shelton, Misery
This was how I began to feel about Misery. I needed to know what would happen to our protagonist, but more than that, I needed to know what would happen to Annie. The book was gripping; an excellent thriller that I recommend everyone, no matter your taste, reads. It became my own personal version of ‘Can You…?’ C
Can you miss a bus to finish this chapter? Can you stay awake just a little longer to find out what happens? Can you bear to read what she does to him?
I could. Can you?