Cannonball Read III, Book 3: Misery by Stephen King

Is there anything more intimate then the relationship between a reader and a book they love? Obviously, yes. But when you pick up those pages and get into the story, nothing else matters anymore. The world stops and you don't realize time has passed until the sky and moon have switched places and you've missed a meal or two. Stephen King is well aware of this phenomenon. Like him or hate him, the man has become an institution in the American literary scene. People eagerly await what the man is going to write next (whether to enjoy or rip apart is anyone's guess). His work has been so influential, memorable, and compelling, he has voluntarily let one of his books (Rage) go out of print because it may have incited violence in schools. The man has seen the highest heights and lowest lows of a popular contemporary author.

Time and again, he's allowed a certain insecurity to pop up in his work. Call it his paranoia thread. King is a man who, in his deepest thoughts, imagines what people who read his books might do to him. Are they going to accuse him of plagiarism? Of stealing their life? Or are they going to become so attached that he cannot escape their grasp should he bump into them one day?

Misery is the paranoid fantasy that popped into King's head after he was run over by a car. He imagined what would happen if he, a famous author, were to be stuck at the mercy of a deranged fan. King transformed into Paul Sheldon, a famous romance author. His signature character, Misery Chastain, was killed off in his latest book so he could finally work on the novels he wants to. Unfortunately for Paul, he gets into an accident driving home in a snow storm. Former nurse Annie Wilkes finds him, hauls his body from the car, and props him up in her humble little home crawling with hospital equipment and painkillers. Annie isn't just his savior; she's his biggest fan. No one loves Paul and Misery more than Annie. No one.

Paul begins to suspect that Annie's claims of contacting the hospital for advice are false. Before he can act on his suspicions, Annie finds out Paul killed Misery. That will not do. Paul must find a way to literally write her out of the grave or else face the wrath and punishment of Annie.

Excluding the Bachman books (early Bachman, too, not the "oh and this one too" later entries), Misery is only topped by King's debut novel Carrie on my hierarchy of King-dom. It is smart, suspenseful, and brutal in the best ways possible. You thought the hobbling scene in the film version was bad? That's Sesame Street compared to the real procedure. You thought Kathy Bates was disturbing? She's a Teletubbie compared to the Annie Wilkes of King's pages. If you've seen the film, you've only learned the basic plot, but not the full extent, of the story.

To Annie Wilkes, what happens in Misery is a love story. She is Paul's biggest fan and they are meant to be together, no matter what. She alone can save him from his wicked ways and bring him back to the world of good, life, and Misery Chastain. With the power of a Liberace record, her wealth of medical knowledge, and the best damn splint she can make out of a broomstick and some duct tape, she will save his life--body, mind, and soul. Anything less than perfection requires quick retaliation and an even quicker apology to make sure Paul knows the punishment was his own fault.

To Paul Sheldon, everything that happens in Misery is a drug-fueled haze. You need only read the excerpts from the novel--about Misery being attacked by a particular breed of bee that she's allergic to and the trip into the jungle to save her life--to know what Paul is thinking. I believe the novel within a novel segments are the most beautiful, heart-wrenching, disturbing, horrifying, and accomplished lines King has ever penned. I doubt he will ever top the delusion drug-fueled paranoia of Paul's desperate resurrection of Misery. It's just so pathetic, compelling, and possibly even meta-commentary on his own lesser-work that seemed to go to any length to justify a horrible conceit. It's a self-aware King that I wish we could see more often outside of literary and cinematic criticism. It's the Stephen King that chimes in to regale his audience with amusing anecdotes and self-effacing humor in prefaces and author's notes in book club editions and short story collections.

I know that I've been hard on King many times. It's true. I would never deny it. This novel is a major reason why I've been compelled to lash out at his lesser works. A man skilled enough to produce a Misery shouldn't even come close to writing something as hackneyed Blaze. It just doesn't seem possible. I know you can fail spectacularly when you set your ambitions too high, but King doesn't even seem to try some of the time. If the man worked this hard on plot, character, and theme on a regular basis, he'd probably be my favorite living author.

If nothing else, I'll always be able to turn to Misery for a glimpse at the greatest fears of a man who has a potential to do something truly great. Everything I've learned about King improves my response to this novel. But even if you know nothing about him, the book is beautiful and terrifying.

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