Why ‘Misery’ is a Stephen King Classic You Need to Read Again

One of my top three favorite Stephen King novels is ‘Misery,’ and here are a few reasons why!

Brian Rowe
Jul 23 · 7 min read

The Story

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.

The Themes

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,

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:

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,

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: “

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:

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:

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,

And later, the moments of gore are detailed in ways only King can do:

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 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.

Read. Watch. Write. Repeat.

A Total Immersion in Storytelling

Brian Rowe

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Author / Teacher / MFA in Fiction. I write MG & YA suspense novels!

Read. Watch. Write. Repeat.

A Total Immersion in Storytelling

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