For years, I have only wholly loved one Stephen King work: Carrie. I’ve read some of his other books, but I’ve always though that there was something wrong with them that kept me from truly loving it. Even my next favorite, The Stand, has a goofy ending after hundreds of pages of tense drama. But now I have a second King book that I can recommend to people without having to include a caveat about something: Misery. I was up until 1:00 AM finishing it even though I had work the next day.
I think that, because of the 1990 movie, most people have a fairly good idea of what the story is. Paul Sheldon is an author who hates that he is more famous for a series of pastiche Victorian romances than for his more “serious” books. He gets into a terrible accident on a Colorado highway and is rescued by Annie Wilkes. Wilkes is not a benevolent rescuer. She takes advantage of Paul’s terribly broken legs and growing addiction to pain medication to coerce him into writing a new book in the Misery series (the one he hates), bringing back the main character. It doesn’t take long for Paul (and us) to learn that there is something very, very wrong with Annie. Within a few chapters, I was as freaked out by her as he was.
What resonated most for me was the way that King captured fans who take fiction too seriously. I linked to a New York Times article by Penelope Green in April, in which Green wrote about fans who had injured author Cassandra Clare physically and emotionally for things they didn’t like about Clare’s books. Paul describes Annie as:
the perfect audience, a woman who loved stories without having the slightest interest in the mechanics of making them. She was the embodiment of that Victorian archetype, Constant Reader. She did not want to hear about his concordance and indices because to her Misery and the characters surrounding her were perfectly real. (62*)
When Paul mentions craft or the business of writing, Annie shuts him down. All she wants is more story. I can understand wanting more story. I am impatiently waiting for new volumes in a few series. But I am also aware that, like George R.R. Martin, authors are not, as Neil Gaiman once wrote, “my bitch.” Authors are not machines. Authors should not be expected to bow to audience wishes. Annie is clearly mentally disturbed, but some of the things she says are no different than things book fans have posted on tumblr or Twitter.
Perhaps because Misery was based so closely on some of King’s own experiences with fans and addiction, this book has a lot more soul than his other books. Paul thinks about his approach to writing and his goals. We get to see him create a new plot for his Misery character, starting as though it’s a game to think his way out of an impossible situation, before he gets sucked into the joy of writing. (There are excerpts from Paul’s new Misery book and it is objectively dreadful. There’s even racist faux dialect for an African character.) Because we get to see inside the sausage factory that produces a novel in between scenes of terror and gore, I felt like King wrote something that had some truth in it rather than writing something to freak us all out.
The scenes about writing and the scenes in which Paul tried to keep Annie on an even keel kept me up far past my bedtime. It’s a little alarming to realize that I had a little bit of Paul’s tormenter in me because I had to know what happened next before I went to sleep. I’m not about to mutilate an author, but I was perfectly willing to sacrifice some much needed sleep to find out how the book ended.
* Quote is from the 2016 kindle edition from Scribner.