Misery tells of a famous writer who crashes his car in a snowstorm and gets rescued by, of all people, his mentally deranged number one fan. The book is told in third person limited, past tense, from the protagonist Paul’s perspective.
Paul Sheldon is a best-selling novelist of a series of historical fiction books about heroine Misery Chastain, and after years of writing in Misery’s world, he has finally chosen to kill her off and write a more literary book called Fast Cars. But after Paul suffers his accident and gets taken in by the mentally unstable nurse, Annie Wilkes, he discovers that killing off his most popular character may have not been in the best decision.
Annie goes berserk when she reads the newest, reportedly final Misery novel, and not only does she take her anger out on the bed-ridden Paul, but she forces him to burn his Fast Cars manuscript and start writing a new novel, Misery’s Return, as a thanks for Annie nursing him back to health. At first Paul has no intention of taking on such a dramatic request, but after she screams at him and even punches him hard in the knee, he discovers Annie might kill him if he doesn’t do what she asks.
Misery deals with three prevalent themes. The first one is Writer’s Life, since this book focuses on a famous novelist for a protagonist. King could have let Paul Sheldon’s feelings about writing take a backseat to the propulsive horror narrative, but he instead takes the time to explore Sheldon’s writing obsessions, both the good and the bad. He writes,
There were all sorts of reasons for him not to write about Misery, but one loomed above the rest, ironclad and unshakeable. Misery — thank God for large favors — was finally dead.
Through Paul’s backstory, King touches on the struggles authors go through when trying to break away from a genre and/or book series they have been successful in. This point is made all the more fascinating because King himself has likely felt pigeonholed into writing horror books for much of his career.
But not to say that it’s torturous for writers to continue in the genre they’re good at. Annie forces Paul to write Misery’s Return, and despite his initial trepidation, he actually finds solace in returning to a world he knows so well:
She got him into bed and he was asleep in three minutes. He slept the whole night through for the first time since coming out of the gray cloud, and his sleep was the first time utterly without dreams. He had been dreaming away.
The idea that writing, even under the most trying of circumstances, creates a dream-like spell comes through beautifully here in a way I haven’t seen reflected in other novels about writers, including King’s own The Shining.
And more than maybe any other King novel, Misery features at its heart the theme, the Power of Writing. Paul has to write to literally stay alive in the book, Annie’s love for Paul’s storytelling keeping her from cutting off his second foot, or his head. And in the end, the power his writing holds over Annie actually saves his life. King writes,
Above this sopping pile of paper Paul’s swollen right hand hovered, and held between the thumb and first finger was a single burning match. […] ‘[Misery’s Return is] done, and it’s good, Annie. You were right. The best of the Misery books, and maybe the best thing I ever wrote, mongrel or not. Now I’m going to do a little trick with it. It’s a good trick. I learned it from you’
He doesn’t put a stop to Annie by shooting her or calling for the cops; he uses his pages of writing and typewriter to finally put her down.
The third theme is Mental Instability, which points to Paul at times when he’s floating in and out of consciousness, but mostly points to Annie as her state of mind fluctuates. She’s sweet to Paul, then violently attacks him. More frightening, she is obsessed with his Misery books and says this when she finishes his latest installment: “
‘She can’t be dead!’ Annie Wilkes shrieked at him. Her hands snapped open and hooked closer in a faster and faster rhythm. ‘Misery Chastain cannot be dead!’
To Annie, Misery Chastain is a member of her own family, and so she takes her death personally, almost like an attack from Paul. And by the novel’s end, she is injuring himself, like in this example:
‘This is what they want,’ she said, and raised one hooked hand to her forehead. She pulled down suddenly, sharply, opening four bloody furrows. Blood ran into her eyebrows, down her cheeks, along either side of her nose.
The reader never has a clue what Annie is about to do next, and this aspect makes her character both unpredictable and terrifying.
Why I Love This Novel
One of my favorite novels by my all-time favorite author is Misery, and it was a thrill to read it again. Almost everything works about this wild ride of a book, especially the weird, memorable, three-dimensional antagonist Annie Wilkes. First, King captures her well with his description:
She was a big woman who, other than the large but unwelcoming swell of her bosom under the gray cardigan sweater she always wore, seemed to have no feminine curves at all — there was no defined roundness of hip or buttock or even calf below the endless succession of wool skirts she wore in the house.
He also captures her personality in her unusual dialogue, the way she’s never caught dead saying a swear word even when she’s physically hurting him.
But what I admire most is the way King explores her backstory, what she’s thought about and gone through up to the moment she kidnaps Paul, that makes her so believable. She’s unstable to be sure, but she’s not stupid, and she’s been through a lot of trauma and darkness to get to the place she is today.
In addition, King offers startling, fresh prose from beginning to end. He writes,
Her nostrils flared regularly, like the nostrils of an animal scenting fire. Her hands had begun to spring limberly open and then snatch closed again, catching air and squashing it.
And later, the moments of gore are detailed in ways only King can do:
The axe came whistling down and buried itself in Paul Sheldon’s left leg just above the ankle. Pain exploded up his body in a gigantic bolt. Dark-red blood splattered across her face like Indian war-paint. It splattered the wall. He heard the blade squeal against bone as she wrenched it free.
He must have been a kid in a candy store writing this book, clearly close to the mindset of his protagonist and delighting in the various ways Annie emotionally and physically tortures him.
The tension is superb throughout the novel, never waning at any point, and I admired King’s use of interiority that makes us care deeply about Paul. The book is darkly funny at times, like when Annie runs over a cop with her lawnmower, and the chapter cliffhangers are superb, always ensuring the reader not stop flipping through the pages.
Lastly, I admired the way King’s prose often is informed by Paul’s state of mind. For example, look at this description of setting:
The sky was a perfect early-morning blue, innocent of clouds. A carpet of green forest climbed the flank of the nearest mountain. There were perhaps seventy acres of open ground between the house and the edge of the forest — the snow-cover over it was a perfect and blazing white.
The setting is written as majestic for a specific purpose: Paul has spent days in bed, and this moment marks his first glimpse out the bedroom window. Therefore, he would see the countryside as stunning.
King holds the reader spellbound all the way through Misery, and I will continue to study his storytelling for many, many years to come.
Brian Rowe is an author, teacher, book devotee, and film fanatic. He received his MFA in Creative Writing and MA in English from the University of Nevada, Reno, and his BA in Film Production from Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles. He writes young adult and middle grade suspense novels, and is represented by Kortney Price of the Corvisiero Agency. You can read more of his work at his website, brianrowebooks.com.