“She tossed the open bottle of Betadine over her shoulder, her face blank and empty and yet so inarguably solid; she slid her right hand down the handle of the axe almost to the steel head. She gripped the handle farther up in her left hand and spread her legs like a logger.
‘ ANNIE OH PLEASE PLEASE DON’T HURT ME! ‘
Her eyes were mild and drifting. ‘ Don’t worry, ‘ she said. ‘ I’m a trained nurse. ‘ ” – Stephen King, Misery
*Content warning: This post discusses themes of abuse and trauma
Stephen King has written his share of groundbreaking horror novels, and I have read my share of them. Some stories of his are so extraordinarily terrifying and expertly-crafted that they transcend horror as we know it; Misery is one of them. In this tense horror novel, best-selling author Paul Sheldon is found nearly dead on the side of the road after a winter storm and rescued. The woman who rescues him is none other than his “number one fan,” former registered nurse Annie Wilkes. Annie brings Paul to her isolated house and cares for him, tending to his injuries and supplying him with painkillers she picked up during past shifts as a nurse. Something is off about his savior from the very beginning, but Paul chooses to focus on his recovery instead of that feeling. When Annie reads Paul’s latest novel and finds that her beloved Misery Chastain (the protagonist of Paul’s romance series) is dead, Paul faces a wrath for which he could never prepare. Shortly after, Annie brings Paul a gift: a less-than-perfect typewriter and reams of paper. As repayment and penance to Annie, Paul must now write a new book just for her, for as long as it takes…and bring Misery back to life.
I read Misery for the first time as a teenager, so it has been a while. I decided to revisit this story that had such an impact on me as both an adult and a more experienced reader. Many characteristics of this story completely escaped me when I was younger. Now, I find the novel even more terrifying. Below are some notes I developed after returning to the nightmare that is Paul Sheldon’s most horrifying writing excursion and his reader who watches every move:
- Paul’s fear of Annie is announced and apparent from the very beginning. This may seem like a weak observation, but how often are protagonists in horror stories this aware of their situation? I mean…think about it.
- Annie presents behaviors typical of domestic abusers. While we definitely see Annie’s violent side in the film (Misery dir. Rob Reiner, 1990), the book shows Annie’s emotionally manipulative tactics in action more thoroughly. When Annie becomes violent, when she drives out to her “laughing place” and leaves Paul alone and helpless for days at a time, when other people get hurt, she tells Paul directly that it is his fault for upsetting her. Anyone who has encountered this type of emotional abuse (especially while dependent on the abuser) knows how damaging these messages are. It is pretty clear why Annie is feared within and outside of the book, but King’s inclusion of Annie’s gaslighting, misplaced blame, and emotional projection in the text sink Paul’s circumstances into an even deeper level of trauma.
- We experience the story from Paul’s perspective. In addition to watching the events unfold through Paul’s eyes, we follow his mental state as it gradually deteriorates. As the traumatic experiences of his imprisonment increase, Paul’s narrative becomes more distracted and far from the present as a way to cope with his situation. Something that King incorporated that I thought was brilliant was the use of trigger words that bring Paul back to the madness of Annie Wilkes when they appear in his thoughts. As someone with obsessive-compulsive disorder who has experienced this, I will say that the simple format of these parts display exactly what that phenomenon feels like. Paul also becomes more connected to Misery’s Return (the book he is forced to write while captive) and wants to finish it for himself as he nears the end. He uses the writing of the novel to escape his circumstances, both figuratively and (hopefully) literally.
- We never leave the house. Unlike the film version, we (the reader and Paul, from whom we get the story) do not experience the story outside of the home of Annie Wilkes until Paul is rescued by police who show up with a warrant. The furthest we get away is in Paul’s memories and imagination, which all become more random and fleeting as the narrative progresses. Isolation is the big player in this flavor of horror, and King does not soften the experience for the reader. As months slide by and Paul loses his grip on who he was before the accident, the text itself becomes more desperate and erratic until the relief of the ending.
- Goddess. This word is used by Paul from beginning to end when thinking of Annie. Even as a lifelong fan of various mythologies, I did not notice this in my first reading. The way Paul describes Annie is consistently as something both subhuman and beyond human. As the story progresses, the word “goddess” appears in the text more frequently. Annie is the entity of his shrunken world following the accident: she provides, she withholds, she punishes, and she controls everything that happens. Paul is not entirely convinced he had killed Annie by the end of the novel, continuing his vision of her as a supernatural being and not as a human.
- The narrative runs like a ticking clock. I thought the film did a good job at building tension and following the importance of Paul writing Misery’s Return, but the book provides a much more immersive experience. As the reader turning each page, I could practically hear a clock loudly ticking as Paul gets closer and closer to finishing the book. We know there will be some kind of resolution of this experience once the manuscript is finished for Annie to read; the question is of what will happen to Paul afterward.
I enjoyed re-reading this novel even more than I did reading it the first time. Despite knowing the story well and watching the movie multiple times over clenched fists, so many passages made me shiver. Once again, Stephen King shows that the most terrifying things are not the supernatural or the unknown. They are most likely what is near us, or within us, already.
Until next time,