Wednesday, 17 June 2015

Misery, by Stephen King

I think everybody knows the story of Misery- either via book or by film as it has entered the collective unconscious in that way that some stories do. Though things might be revealed in a slightly different order, summarily;

Paul Sheldon, scriber of popular but unfulfilling historical romance book series Misery is chuffed with his latest manuscript, a gritty crime affair entitled Fast Cars. A serious novel, an important novel, full of literary techniques and impressive narrative devices. Elated, he quaffs several bottles of champagne and sets off to drive to LA on a whim, rather than flying to New York as planned. Underestimating his drunkenness, he crashes into a snow bank somewhere in snowy and mountainous Colorado and wrecks his car.

An unfathomable amount of time pater Paul wakes from a hazy, drug induced delirium to realise that rather than being safe on a hospital ward he is in fact in somebody's spare room, legs shattered, injected full of painkillers and god knows what else. Pulled from the wreckage by a stout and matronly Annie Wilkes, she nurses Paul back to health in a strictly unofficial capacity using sinister skills from an obviously now dissolved nursing career, an illicit stash of experimental sample medication and stockpiled food.

It doesn't take long for Paul to conclude that he is the helpless captive of an incredibly disturbed and almost certainly insane woman- a highly volatile and explosive character tethered to reality by the most frayed of threads. Annie declares herself to be Paul's 'Number One Fan', and is eagerly anticipating reading the newest Misery book, unaware that Paul has killed off his long-suffering but beloved heroine. Wild with a psychotically real grief, Annie commands Paul to bring Misery back from the dead- procuring an archaic typewriter and descending further and further into madness while she waits for her book.

Theirs is a complicated relationship, a battle of wills between an intellectually dim but formidable cat and a wily mouse with little to lose. Yes he may lose his life- but his pain, frustration and impotence are so intense that he doesn't really care either way. It was fascinating to watch the power-plays that each character launched, the hands played and the cards kept concealed. Paul's counter attacks are small in comparison to Annie's rage-induced rampages, but they keep him sane; the comfort of fighting back is greater than the satisfaction of inflicting pain for Paul. At least for a while. Paul's mental deterioration was gripping too; the second voice that emerges, critical, mocking, daring Paul to do thing to incur Annie's wrath or avoid it. His daydreams, feverish spells of creative productivity, nightmares and memories round him out as a character- filling in the period that led to his current predicament.

It's amazing how a book about a psychotic hostage situation ends up being about so may things; the intensity of addiction, the frustration of the creative process, the value of art and literature, the nature of dependence, the integrity of art and literature, the inherent instinct of survival. How much mental and physical pain a person is able to withstand and manage not to die.

I was amazed at how tense a novel could be that contained only two characters and was set almost entirely in one room. I've said it before and I'll say it again- I have no idea why I avoided Stephen King for so long. His prose is spellbinding. It's complicated, funny, it's unpredictable and so, so ridiculously tense. He is simply the master of suspense.

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