When I moved to Stephen King’s home state of Maine, I thought it would be fun (if a bit cliché) to finally read his books in earnest, and discover how I really feel about his work. For this installment, I ignored all the other cockadoodie books on my shelf and got hopelessly addicted to Misery.
Drugs get too much credit for great works of art. Sgt. Pepper’s is widely considered to be The Beatles’ “LSD album,” despite the fact they quit touring right before they recorded it, allowing them to focus 100% on studio innovations. Salvador Dali’s surrealist visions led people to assume that drugs must be the cause, but all signs point to him being clean: “I don’t do drugs,” he claimed. “I am drugs.” It’s not as romantic, or inclusive, of a narrative, but imaginative art doesn’t come from substances. It comes from people who are really, really imaginative.
Which leads us to our old friend Stephen King. It’s now pretty much common knowledge that at his popular peak, from the late ’70s to the late ’80s, the author was churning out novel after novel under the influence of cocaine. In his memoir/manual On Writing, he admits to barely remembering writing 1981’s rabid dog thriller Cujo. From 1982-1987, he published twelve novels. The easy takeaway would be to say that coke adversely affected his art, goosing his already healthy ego to make it impossible to separate the wheat from the chaff. But coke didn’t prevent Pet Sematary from being a patiently plotted masterpiece of parental paranoia. And sobriety didn’t prevent him from thinking that a bloated misfire like Bag of Bones was worth putting his name on in the ’90s.
I’m laying out all of this context because the book we’re talking about today is very much about drug addiction. It was written at the tail end of King’s strung-out decade, and features all sorts of compelling meta parallels between bingeable content and bingeable substances. Aptly titled Misery, it’s a battle royale between an artist and his addictions – and an achievement in dramatic tension that left me trembling, even though Rob Reiner’s movie adaptation spoiled the ending for me 29 years ago. Cocaine is undoubtedly an influence on this story’s monster. But it’s the author who’s dealing.
Misery begins inside the head of its protagonist, as a scene takes shape amidst the haze of his thoughts – a tide receding to reveal old, rotting pylons. He’s thinking in metaphors because he’s a famous drugstore novelist named Paul Sheldon. He’s thinking about pylons because there’s something very wrong with his legs. He’s in a mental fog because he’s been drugged. “He wished he was dead, but through the pain-soaked haze that filled his mind like a summer storm-cloud, he did not know he wished it,” King explains on page one.
So, before we know anything else about Sheldon, we know he’s an addict in a bind. And, as King was sure to know first hand, this ebb and flow of pain and bliss would make it excruciatingly difficult for his character to think critically. It would take forever for him to fully understand how he had leapt from the frying pan into the hellfire. Every time the drugs start to wear off, it’s a race between Paul’s wits and his nerve endings. He’s an addled bomb squad captain, running out of time.
The bomb Paul needs to defuse is Annie Wilkes – the author’s “number one fan” – who just happened to stumble across the wreck of his car after he lost control while leadfooting it to California. After dragging his unconscious form to her remote Colorado farmhouse, Annie locked Paul in her guest room, and began administering doses of Novril, a powerful opiate that not just anyone would have lying around.
The genius of the tide-like narrative flow is that we, along with Paul, get to slowly realize what a terrifying psychopath Annie Wilkes truly is. One of King’s great villains, Annie is part church lady, part Spanish Inquisitor, refusing to swear while she wields instruments of torture. She says things like “cockadoodie,” collects Hummel-like figurines, gossips about her neighbors, and loves Sheldon’s schlocky Victorian romance novels with a passion. But when she breaks, her eyes get glassy and she engages in acts of self-harm that were harder for me to read than the book’s goriest moments. Annie is a way more interesting and nuanced character than selfish old Paul. If she wasn’t an “angel of death”-style serial killer, I’d absolutely root for her.
The more Paul gets his wits together, the more intense Misery becomes. Despite his shattered legs and debilitating addiction, he figures out how to pick the lock on his bedroom door while Annie is running errands. We’re right there with him as he wheels through the house, weighing the odds of escape. The more we rack our brains, the more we realize that the only way out is to discover if the pen is indeed mightier than the sword. The book then reaches a new level of poignancy as King lets his meta flag fly. Paul decides to bring his beloved main character, Misery Chastain, back to life in a brand new novel. Because as long as he’s writing, Annie can’t kill him. She needs to find out what happens. She, too, is addicted. Here she is, talking about how much she loved cliffhanger-heavy film serials when she was a kid:
“‘What I really looked forward to was the next installment of the chapter-play. I’d find myself thinking about it at odd moments all week long. If a class was boring, or if I had to babysit Mrs. Kremnitz’s four brats downstairs. I used to hate those little brats.’ Annie lapsed into a moody silence, staring into the corner. She had become unplugged.'”
As King details the warring emotions of Paul Sheldon, who begins to care as much about his corny, mildly racist new Misery novel as Annie does, we get an unfiltered view of the author at his most vulnerable. In 1987, Stephen King was one of the most famous writers on earth, with the giant ego necessary to achieve such a feat. But he was not taken seriously by the literary establishment. And taken too seriously by his fanatical following, a prospect that’s as frightening as it is flattering. He reacted to all of it by doing the only thing he knew. Writing, to find out what happens next.
The closer Paul gets to finishing Misery’s Return, the more antsy (and stabby) Annie gets, to the point where she starts kindly asking for spoilers. He eventually has to admit something he had denied forever – writing hacky melodramas is his calling. And he needed the help of Annie Wilkes to reach this moment of clarity. In her basement, alone with his thoughts, Paul and Stephen blur into one:
“Had he hated Misery? Had he really? … Perhaps all he had hated was the fact that her face on the dust jackets had overshadowed his in his author photographs, not allowing the critics to see that they were dealing with a young Mailer or Cheever here – they were dealing with a heavyweight here.”
By the time we get to the final, heart-stopping showdown between Paul and Annie, involving molasses-slow police and a heavy, broken typewriter, Misery has become so much more than a top-notch bottle-episode thriller. King uncovers the potential horror undergirding any symbiotic relationship – writer and reader, patient and caretaker, farmer and livestock. And he does it without overwhelming the basics of the plot. That raw, trapped feeling is ever-present, making us feel like the other Misery in this story – Annie’s pig, squealing into the darkness, entirely, horrifyingly dependent.
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