Author: Stephen King
Publication Date: 1987
Lexile Level: 860
This harrowing thriller has been one of King’s most popular works for years. Its movie adaptation is one of the best of any of his works, winning Kathy Bates the 1990 Academy Award for Best Actress. Even people who have never seen the film know clips from it, in particular the infamous “hobbling” scene. Even though I’ve never seen the film, I could hear Bates’s voice clearly as I read the book.
Overall, I’ve never been much of a fan of King’s novels. The only one I’ve truly enjoyed before Misery was Carrie. I prefer King’s short stories, as I find he is at his best win he’s forced to cut down. Many of his novels could, in my opinion, be greatly improved with a good edit. Misery is one of his shorter novels, clocking in at 310 pages. The average page length (over the 59 novels that he’s written to date) is 470 pages.
Not to say that Misery couldn’t use a little bit of editing. My biggest complaint about the book are the parts of the story that Paul is writing–the bits from the new Misery novel he is writing for Annie. While a short passage is interesting by adding a little extra context to this thing that Annie loves so much, it generally adds nothing to the story. We never even see Misery in the context of the book–she appears briefly, but does not speak or act. The passages could easily be cut and nothing would be lost.
My second complaint is the ending. Personally, I feel the book should have ended with Paul’s rescue. Annie coming back like Jason Vorhees or Freddy Krueger to finish him off was cartoonish, only made worse by the cliched “it was all a dream” moment that follows. While it’s interesting to see the aftermath of his ordeal, overall it felt beneath King’s talent. If the story really couldn’t end at the farmhouse, then a short passage showing Paul, having replaced one addiction for another, jumping at shadows, and suffering from PTSD would have been sufficient. Or, make him go full bananas. The novel deals a lot with the themes of madness, and we do see Paul circling the drain. Seeing him in a mental institution, or a recluse who refuses to come out of his house, would have worked too. Maybe he embraces the strict routines that he had grown accustomed to, picking up Annie’s habits. At one point he marvels at his output while in the farmhouse, and how he’s lost his cravings for some of his vices. If the story had ended with Paul carrying on some form of Annie’s madness, it would have given the novel a more circular feel.
The book excels at dealing with a human’s ability to endure. Paul is not a perfect hero–he breaks several times over the course of the novel. He does not suck up his pain with a manly grimace and outlast his capture. He appeases, begs, and grovels, to get what he needs. He becomes addicted to the pain meds she gives him, making his situation even harder to escape. He is prone to the falicies of his body, and at many points, simply wants to die. But he always has just enough will to live that he makes it through.
It is a very realistic portrayal of torture and what a body can take. The imagery King uses to describe things like Paul’s Norvin high, his varying states of consciousness is simple but effective. We feel Paul’s every struggle to push forward. His agony never feels over the top.
King has a habit of writing women in less than flattering ways, so I was a little worried about what we were going to get with Annie. Granted, she is the antagonist, and batshit crazy to boot. But I was afraid she would come across as even more grotesque than necessary. One point for King’s favor is how realistic he made her. We’ve all heard stories about medical professionals killing people, sometimes for years, using their abilities to cover the deaths as accidents. A large part of the horror Annie portrays is the very real, chilling horror of real life. She’s not a monster or supernatural being; she’s just a person who has done terrible things.
Since the story is mostly limited to the farmhouse and our two characters, I wasn’t as annoyed by Annie as I’ve been by other King characters. There was nothing else to compare her to. She also has the excuse of mentally unwell, and not just lazy or abusive.
Much like Carrie, Misery pulses with an underlying tension that amplifies as the novel builds. Like Paul, we’re never quite sure what to expect. If you like King, definitely give it a read. If you’ve been on the fence about him, read it anyway. And if you feel like most of his novels are too long, try this or Carrie. I don’t think you’ll be disappointed.
Rating: 4 out of 5