I think everybody’s read Misery by now or has at least seen the absolutely fantastic movie from the 90s about a writer’s biggest nightmare: an obsessed fan.
Apparently, the book came to be when Stephen King had been asked for an autograph at a diner by a woman who called herself “his no1 fan”. He then started thinking (in his very Stephen King manner), what would happen if there was such a fan, an obsessed individual, who would have no qualms in torturing the author to receive the best ending for a series. Maybe he was thinking about the hoards of Dark Tower fans asking for the next instalment?
“The gotta, as in: “I think I’ll stay up another fifteen-twenty minutes, honey, I gotta see how this chapter comes out.” Even though the guy who says it spent the day at work thinking about getting laid and knows the odds are good his wife is going to be asleep when he finally gets up to the bedroom. The gotta, as in: “I know I should be starting supper now — he’ll be mad if it’s TV dinners again — but I gotta see how this ends.” I gotta know will she live. I gotta know will he catch the shitheel who killed his father. I gotta know if she finds out her best friend’s screwing her husband. The gotta. Nasty as a hand-job in a sleazy bar, fine as a fuck from the world’s most talented call-girl. Oh boy it was bad and oh boy it was good and oh boy in the end it didn’t matter how rude it was or how crude it was because in the end it was just like the Jacksons said on that record — don’t stop til you get enough.”
The book is 50% a story about a writer who is trying to overcome his writer’s block and 50% a terrifying story about unsatisfied fans asking for more. It’s all a process and the horror comes from the knowledge that failing to deliver will mean death.
“He had discovered that there was not just one God but many, and some were more than cruel — they were insane, and that changed all. Cruelty, after all, was understandable. With insanity, however, there was no arguing.”
It is still one of my favourite books and I can say it aged well. If it were to be adapted for the 21st century, the only changes that would probably be made would be the typewriter and the fact that the police would be able to trace the missing author faster based on the built-in GPS trackers most cars come equipped with.
Paul Sheldon is a best selling author who just ended his popular series of romance/adventure novels by killing off the lead character, Misery Chastain. After finishing a new novel at a Colorado resort Paul has a car accident and awakes to find that his legs have been shattered, but that he’s been saved by his self-proclaimed number one fan, Annie Wilkes.
Unfortunately, Annie turns out to be more than just a little crazy, and when she learns that Paul killed Misery in the latest book she demands that he write a new one that brings back her favorite character. Held captive by a madwoman, Paul is almost helpless to resist the physical and psychological tortures she uses to get her way while insisting that it’s really for his own good.
This book seems eerily prophetic of King’s career in some ways. Uncle Stevie hadn’t yet frustrated readers of his Dark Tower series with long delays between books, and yet he absolutely nailed the self-righteous fury of a fan who feels somehow cheated out of what they deserve.
“The confusion had diffused (and thus defused) her rage even more; he saw she now didn’t even know if she had any right to be angry.”
You gotta think that later on King worried that he had some version of Annie out there just waiting to chain him to typewriter to finish DT. He was also years away from suffering his own enormous physical trauma after being hit by a car, but he still makes you feel every agonising moment that Paul suffers from his accident and at Annie’s hands. Like Paul, King would also have the experience of returning to writing being a matter of overcoming physical pain but also finding it to be a way to escape it.
“When you hurt this badly, it was hard to stay cool.”
One of King’s biggest strengths is that he knows the power of a good story, and this plot serves him well by really letting him dig into that. Annie’s obsession with Misery is something that probably almost every reader can relate to, but what’s really interesting is how Paul’s need to tell the story becomes just as compelling as Annie’s threats. The set-up lets Uncle Stevie explore the whole notion of just why we gotta know what happens next as well as the rules that make it a satisfying resolution or a cheat.
“He didn’t need a psychiatrist to point out that writing had its autoerotic side – you beat a typewriter instead of your meat, but both acts depended largely on quick wits, fast hands, and a heartfelt commitment to the art of the farfetched.
I could make a pretty solid argument that this is King’s best book. He was very much at the peak of his powers here, and either the simple two person structure of the story or good editing kept this at a normal novel length. That’d become a rarity in his bloated books after this, and it does feel like King at his most disciplined. In Annie Wilkes he crafted a character worthy of being included in a Villain’s Hall of Fame, and he makes good use of her as a figure who can be terrifying, sometimes tragic, and weirdly humorous at times.
“Annie Wilkes had her own interior set of rules; in her way she was strangely prim. She had made him drink water from a floor-bucket; had withheld his medication until he was in agony; had made him burn the only copy of his new novel; had hand-cuffed him and stuck a rag reeking of furniture polish in his mouth; but she would not take the money from his wallet. She brought it to him, the old scuffed Lord Buxton he’d had since college, and put it in his hands.