Book Reviews, Novels

Stephen King’s Misery (1987)

King draws a love-hate relationship from me, and he tends to evoke both a numbing rage and blissful joy at every plot juncture. Misery‘s fantastic. It doesn’t get drowned out with the ‘King-isms’ that tend to crowd his plots with cockadoodie savant children, classic rock-quoting writers, nonsensical endings full of deus ex machinas and left-field twists, and hallucinated comedic relief — with jokes so unfunny and drawn-out their inclusion is the scariest part.

Misery dips into this, but it’s contained enough and focused enough to keep cool. It’s a story of a man and a woman, set mostly in one room. The lady holds complete power over this man, and the extent of her strength is well-developed and frightening. Really frightening.

Paul’s your textbook King hero, a self-deprecating model of the writer at work. He might be a little too good of an imitation, and the ending left me with a couple memorable observations:

Paul writes as King writes. Misery features synopses and chapters from Paul’s work. Paul’s work-in-progress is treated as a masterpiece of melodrama, and it’s, well, more weird than good. Paul makes frequent allusions to H. Rider Haggard, and one guesses this fiction-within-a-fiction is supposed to riff off of those high adventures in Africa. But the supernatural Queen Bee is more It‘s (1986) alien spider than King Solomon’s Mines‘ (1885) Gagool.

Rob Reiner and William Goldman adapted Misery into an excellent 1990 movie starring Kathy Bates and James Caan. It was a rare instance of the adaptation being just as good as the source material.

Paul’s drug addiction is sometimes as eerie as his relationship to Annie Wilkes. King had a well-known drug problem in the ’80s, giving the descriptions an extra, terrible autobiographical layer to Paul’s characterization. There comes a point where his addiction stops adding plot and starts adding pages — dangerous ground, yeah?

After getting an earful from Paul on the proper denouement, I believe we actually spent half of ours knocked out on drugs by choice. Ain’t a major letdown, but it certainly could have been much, much more interesting if Misery‘s narrative force didn’t lock itself in a bathroom and down a box of Novril before a hasty The End.

Does the real-life context of addiction add to the novel and its discomfort, or detract? I’m conflicted. I can at least say I liked it. King’s good when things’re as simple as a man, a woman, and a room. Real good.


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