Misery (Stephen King): Book Review

Horror ♠♠♠♠

Author: Stephen King

This book was published in 1988. It holds a rating of 4.06 on Goodreads.

Paul Sheldon. He’s a bestselling novelist who has finally met his biggest fan. Her name is Annie Wilkes and she is more than a rabid reader – she is Paul’s nurse, tending his shattered body after an automobile accident. But she is also his captor, keeping him prisoner in her isolated house.

This is a straight-forward horror piece that sets out to do one thing: thrill. In that, it’s very successful. This was the first King book I read cover to cover, and on that note I should probably preface this by pointing out that while I admit King is an amazing storyteller, I’m of the seemingly popular opinion that his actual writing is not very impressive in terms of style. Actually, I tend to find it a bit bland, and I normally give up on his books quite quickly.  I know that’s a contradiction and that it’s not entirely fair.

King is meant to be read for thrills, not for prose. He writes in a very clear and concise manner – and as a tech writer, I appreciate that to some extent; but, what can I say, I’m a sucker for prose. And yet, Misery sucked me in, and left me satisfied.

A genre piece through and through, the story at once seemed unrealistic and entirely realistic. Hmm… I guess I’m full of contradictions when it comes to King.

While the story did not outwardly discuss any social issues, I still think it raised a few things worth discussing.

The Creative Industry

Paul Sheldon has made a name for himself as the bestselling author of the Misery book series. The books are period pieces that follow the romances and dramas of the (presumably) young and beautiful, Misery. The character has had many adventures but Paul has decided to call it quit on the series. He’s tired of panning to the masses and their love of Misery, and wants to try something a little more creatively ambitious. He wants to write something serious and meaningful.

This aspect of the book is very interesting because even as a successful well-known author, he doesn’t feel like a real artist. It begs the question of how we as a society define art, and has us question whether art and pop culture can co-exist, and what makes them different. It also makes us think about the pop culture machine – note that Sheldon’s agent is not impressed with his new career path. What if his new approach simply doesn’t sell? It’s all about the masses.

Gender Role Reversal

It seems worth noting that when Paul falls victim to Annie Wilkes (an obsessed fan who holds Paul hostage until he “brings Misery back to life”), there is an inherent gender role reversal taking place. Historically, females have been thought of as the more vulnerable sex, making them easy targets for men, who have been thought of as the more violent and dangerous sex. Historically, this scenario has also played out in reality many times, and continues to, across all societies. Subsequently, archetypes like the damsel in distress or the attacked woman have populated our books and screens. But not this time.

Annie is large, strong, and independent. She has the ability to physically overpower Paul, even if he wasn’t recovering from a terrible car accident. When men are victimized to the extreme level Paul is in this book, it adds a level of discomfort. The role reversal is itself scary because it says no one is safe, not even a big, tough, man. At the same time, the idea of a woman being so powerful is also jarring. Even if only subconsciously, this type of reversal is its own brand of horror. That this book is so obviously playing with that is really entertaining.

But for all its clever reversal, there is one generic element that remains intact: like in all good horror narratives, the (male) authority figures turn out to be utterly useless. These are the moments the readers/horror fans gets to roll their eyes and smirk.

Violence

The violence in this book is a slow build; and it works. Annie is clearly a little strange when she is first introduced, and slowly but surely her craziness begins to seep through. She’s unstable. She’s unpredictable. And then, after a long while of seeing it coming, she’s violent.

That first act of violence against Paul is intense. The reader has by this point suspected for some time that Annie is not to be trusted, and it seems that she is capable of doing him harm. But when she finally does, all of the anticipation is satisfied, explosively. The story’s pace increases from that point on, and the reader remains just as on edge as poor, helpless, Paul.

Final Thoughts

It’s fair to say that the suspense and thrill was delivered very effectively in this novel. It was a lot of fun to read, and it leaves a chill not to be soon forgotten.

As for the characters, it was exciting to watch Annie’s ups and downs and Paul’s plight was captivating. The book offered lots of suspense and thrills, and I loved that it mixed up the typical gender roles. Lastly, there were some noteworthy points raised about the creative industry, even if they weren’t explored in-depth.

I give this book a solid 4 spades* ♠♠♠♠

*My rating is based on a five-spade system. The rating is decided based upon how well/uniquely the book: 1) develops story and plot; 2) develops characters; 3) accomplishes or deconstructs the conceits of its genre; 4) raises thought-provoking issues; 5) discusses important issues. This system has been developed according to my own definition of what makes a book "good." It is therefore subjective.
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