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Stephen King’s horror story Misery is, at its heart, a deeply psychological study of a tormented, psychopathic person, in this case Annie Wilkes. The basic plot of Misery, of course, involves a successful author of romance novels about a woman named Misery Chastain who is ‘rescued’ following a car accident in a remote area by Annie. As this former nurse cares for the author, Paul Sheldon, she reveals that she is a serious fan of his novels, especially the Misery novels. While King provides sufficient detail to suggest that Annie is dangerously psychotic, it is when she discovers that Sheldon has decided to ‘kill off’ his most famous character that events take a particularly horrific turn for the worse. And it is this development that shifts King’s novel into a decidedly more arcane analytic framework. Throughout the story, King’s protagonist, Paul, attempts to gain some measure of control over his dismal situation by employing what is known as “the Scheherazade effect.” Named for a woman in the ancient Persian story One Thousand and One Nights, Scheherazade survives by manipulating the king who has systematically murdered every other woman he has bedded by cleverly prolonging the story she tells him each night. In a major gender twist, however, it is the male who plays the role of the fictional Scheherazade to Annie’s ‘king.’ As King (the author) writes in Chapter 27:
“He had dreamed that Annie Wilkes was Scheherazade, her solid body clad in diaphanous robes, her big feet stuffed into pink sequined slippers with curly toes as she rode on her magic carpet and chanted the incantatory phrases which open the doors of the best stories. But of course it wasn't Annie that was Scheherazade. He was.”
Paul, imprisoned and mutilated as he is in Annie’s very remote home, recognizes that his survival hinges on his ability to write another novel that resurrects the Misery character, thereby returning him to Annie’s good graces. What makes Paul’s situation even more precarious, however, is the depth of Annie’s psychosis. In Chapter 29, King has Paul’s attempts at applying the ‘Scheherazade effect’ stymied by the antagonist’s almost demonic obsession:
'No, Paul.' She moved to the door and then turned, looking at him with that stony face. Only her eyes, those tarnished dimes, were fully alive under the shelf of her brow. 'There is one thought I would like to leave you with. You may think you can fool me, or trick me; I know I look slow and stupid. But I am not stupid, Paul, and I am not slow.' Suddenly her face broke apart. The stony obduracy shattered and what shone through was the countenance of an insanely angry child. For a moment Paul thought the extremity of his terror might kill him. Had he thought he had gained the upper hand? Had he? Could one possibly play Scheherazade when one's captor was insane?
In her own way, Annie knows she stands outside of conventional society, and Paul’s discovery of Annie’s records of previous homicides further cements this notion, as does Annie’s acknowledgement, in reminding Paul of the hopelessness of his predicament, that “[n]o one stops here because they all know Annie Wilkes is crazy, they all know what she did, even if they did find me innocent.” It is this very recognition of her own psychosis that makes Annie even more threatening. Her status as a societal outcast has made Paul’s situation more dire precisely because his captor exists beyond the margins of society. Any analysis of Misery, then, would do well to emphasize the psychological confrontation at the novel’s core.
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