I call myself a Stephen King fan (not his number one fan), but I had somehow never read Misery. Oops. I have seen the movie several times, though, if that counts. I found a copy of the book at a used bookstore and started reading it immediately. It did not disappoint.
Most of you know this story, right? A bestselling author, Paul Sheldon, gets drunk and crashes his car in the remote mountains of Colorado. He wakes up in the home of Annie Wilkes, his “Number one fan.” In exchange for saving his life, Annie wants Paul to write a book especially for her. If he doesn’t do it correctly, she has a fondness for amputating limbs . . .
“I am in trouble here. This woman is not right.” – Misery
Annie Wilkes is one of the most iconic horror villains (and most intense bookworms) of all time. There’s a good reason for her infamy: She’s completely terrifying! From the outside, she doesn’t seem threatening. She’s a frumpy middle-aged woman who’s scared to say a curse word. But once Paul and the reader get to know Annie, her unpredictability becomes unsettling. Any tiny thing can get her angry. She’s freakishly strong and not as simple-minded as she acts. The suspense in this story builds slowly, but there’s always a sense of anticipation. Annie is so violently insane that the reader never knows what she will do next. Each of Paul’s missteps causes him to lose a body part.
This book is surprisingly self-reflexive. I wasn’t expecting that when I started. It’s a book about books and the writing process. Paul is a 1980s Scheherazade who must please Annie with his stories to save his own life. Misery is basically a 300-page love letter to the writing process. Well, it’s a love letter interspersed with gory amputations and murder-by-lawnmower, but it’s still a love letter.
Annie takes everything from Paul. She strips away his smoking and drinking habits and prevents him from leaving her house. She destroys his body and gets him addicted to painkillers. The only thing she can’t take from him is his desire to create. Writing gives him a reason to live and allows him to mentally escape from his horrible situation. Even though Paul is in constant danger, he writes the best book of his career because he needs to write to stay sane. Writing is safe. It’s the only thing he can control. The reader can really feel his passion.
“In a book, all would have gone according to plan . . . but life was so fucking untidy — what could you say for an existence where some of the most crucial conversations of your life took place when you needed to take a shit, or something? An existence where there weren't even any chapters?” – Misery
Misery is fiction, but it provides insight into the mind of an author. If you don’t care how books are made, you might find parts of Misery slow. There is a lot of writing-talk. Luckily, I like that kind of insider knowledge, so I have no problem with it. It feels very honest.
In addition to being about writing, this book is about obsession. I’ve never really thought about how obsession can be both a positive and negative thing. Paul’s obsession with writing heals him while Annie’s obsession with Paul destroys him. They use their obsessions as weapons against each other. It’s an interesting battle-of-wills. The one who wins is the one whose obsession is strongest.
Like most Stephen King books, this one is hard to put down. Annie and Paul are well-developed characters who are eerily realistic. Their relationship is ferocious. The plot took a little while to get going, but once I was hooked, I read most of the book in one sitting. It’s compulsively readable.
The scariest horror stories are the lifelike ones. What I love most about Misery is that it’s easy to imagine something like this happening in real life.
Misery isn’t my favorite Stephen King book, but it’s pretty high up on my list. I’m glad I finally had a chance to read it.