Stephen King’s Misery was published when I was 11. And yes, I read it that year. It was my introduction to King, and after that I began eyeballing my mother’s hardcovers of Carrie, Salem’s Lot and The Shining with the intent of devouring them all. My mother is a writer herself, but I think my first exposure to Stephen King’s work truly planted the idea somewhere in my young brain that I wanted to do this, too. Few writers have been able to describe scenes so vividly that I can clearly see them playing out in my head as I’m reading (the handcuff-escape scene from Gerald’s Game still makes me queasy, and Salem’s Lot remains the only vampire novel that has ever terrified me). Misery presents us with a very real protagonist, and a very real villain. When writer Paul Sheldon remembers his resuscitation as being “raped back into life,” he already knows–and we do as well–that something is very wrong with his biggest fan. The horror of this book lies in the fact that there are people out there every bit as dangerously obsessed with the object of their affection as Annie Wilkes is.
Though published nearly 25 years ago, Misery seemed to anticipate the unhealthy relationship our society now shares with its celebrities. After the rise of the paparazzi and constant reality TV, we seem to feel that celebrities owe us their success, their careers–indeed, their very lives. The paparazzi get a lot of flak for their tactics, but if we were honest with ourselves we would admit that they are only doing our bidding. More and more people, the same people who would decry this level of intrusion into their own lives, demand access to every detail of a celebrity’s daily life, and fail to note the hypocrisy. To some extent media coverage does, of course, come with the territory of being famous. But when does a society recognize that it has crossed the line?
We build celebrities up and are even more eager to tear them down, to let them know who is really in charge. Annie frequently reminds Paul that he owes her his life after his near-fatal car crash; thus he also owes her a new Misery book. Never mind that he killed Misery off in the last book so that he could focus on writing a novel based on something more than an easy paycheck, and never mind that Annie is holding him hostage in her guest bedroom. Annie is the nightmare on the flip-side of celebrity–she is the “number-one fan,” the obsessive psycho who has fashioned a world, who has actually brought it into being through kidnapping, in which she gets to dictate to her favorite author exactly what she wants from him. She does not care about the artistic motivations behind Fast Cars, she wants her Misery back in all its overwrought glory. And if he fails to comply, well, there’s always the axe. When a celebrity deviates from what we have determined to be an acceptable career path, we frequently denounce them for it via critical reviews and poor sales; in effect, we are cutting off pieces of them, albeit figuratively, in order to force compliance. As a result we have a culturally bankrupt society in which overproduced pop music (I was a DJ for many years, so don’t get me started on the American music industry) and unimaginative sequels/remakes reign supreme.
King weaves in parallels to Scheherazade, but Paul knows that there will be no happy ending to his tale unless he finds a way to escape. His new Misery novel keeps them both alive only so long as Annie remains relatively stable, and that is something over which he is powerless. One of the most chilling moments in the book is when Annie describes her “Laughing Place” to him. If Annie’s sanity had been in question up to that point, her lack of it fully crystallized in that scene. It is almost enough to make one question whether they truly want to be thrust into the public eye, where people like Annie Wilkes do lurk in the shadows.
The novels that Stephen King wrote in the 70s and 80s remain some of my all-time favorites. At 11 I could not comprehend much of what Misery had to say. At 35, and a writer, this book horrifies me because of the realities that any celebrity faces. When you’re famous there are pieces of your normal life that disappear forever; Paul Sheldon’s missing foot and thumb signify this loss but, as he notes toward the end of the book, the limp from his shattered legs would be even worse with his natural foot than with the prosthetic. You adapt to a new way of living, as painful as it may be at first, and you carry on.
And you hope there isn’t another Annie Wilkes waiting for you in that crowd of adoring fans.