Misery tells the suspenseful and often gruesome story of novelist Paul Sheldon, held captive by a psychotic fan. It also offers insight into the public role of a writer and the experience of writing itself.
Misery establishes characters and conflict immediately, opening with Annie Wilkes’s artificial respiration to revive injured author Paul Sheldon. Within five very brief chapters, readers learn that Sheldon has crashed his car in a snowstorm; that Wilkes, a fan of Sheldon’s popular romance novels starring Misery Chastain, has rescued him; and that she is crazy and is imprisoning him in her isolated house rather than taking him to a hospital for proper care. Sheldon’s legs are shattered, and Wilkes treats the pain with Novril, a painkiller stolen from hospitals in which she had worked as a nurse. An addiction to Novril furthers Sheldon’s dependence on his admirer and captor.
The first proof of Annie’s power over Paul, and her insane willingness to use it, concerns Fast Cars, the novel Sheldon had just finished before the fateful drive from Boulder. Though Sheldon is known for, and wealthy from, his Misery books, he yearns for recognition of his more literary works and sees the new manuscript as his best work. Annie sees it as a travesty, full of low-life characters and obscenities, and she forces Sheldon to burn his only copy.
Moreover, Annie has been reading Misery’s Child—having waited for the paperback—and Sheldon fears her reaction: At the end, Misery dies in childbirth. Though Paul is delighted to have ended the series, Annie is outraged and insists that he write a new novel that brings Misery back. After one try that Annie rejects as unfair because it contradicts the events in Misery’s Child, Paul takes on the challenge and produces, he finally acknowledges, the best Misery book, Misery’s Return.
Sheldon literally writes for his life in two ways. He knows that Wilkes, unable to explain away his captivity, can never let him go, but will not kill him until Misery’s story ends. He is also “Scheherazade to [him]self,” renewed by the act of writing and himself eager to see how he will wrap up the novel. In a comic and ironic motif, the old manual typewriter Annie buys for Paul keeps losing letters, which Paul or Annie writes in by hand on the manuscript.
Sheldon tries to escape, but he pays terribly for any attempts to cross Annie, including two amputations, which are depicted in scenes as horrible as those describing any supernatural menace about which King has written. On one forbidden trip out of his room in his wheelchair, Sheldon discovers a scrapbook—innocently titled “Memory Lane”—that chronicles at least thirty murders by Annie, including those in a neonatal ward that resulted in a trial that ended her career as a nurse, although she was acquitted. While Sheldon recuperates, Wilkes, a manic depressive, deteriorates mentally, which only increases her dangerousness.
As winter becomes spring, Sheldon’s car is finally found, and a single officer from the Colorado State Police arrives at Annie’s place to ask questions. When Paul attracts his attention, Annie kills the officer. After that, both the writer and the nurse know the end is near, although both hope Sheldon will finish the book before then. Soon, two officers visit, but Paul is locked in the cellar, and the officers come and go uneventfully. However, in the cellar, Sheldon sees the portable barbecue in which he was forced to burn Fast Cars, and he decides to free himself.
In a satisfying yet highly disturbing climax, Sheldon shocks Annie by appearing to burn the finished manuscript (including the ending she has not yet read), attacks her with the heavy manual typewriter, and finally chokes her with charred pages of the novel, explicitly comparing the act to oral rape. The two police officers return, find Annie dead in the barn, and rescue Paul. An epilogue -like final section depicts Sheldon back in New York City; traumatized, he is at first...
(The entire section is 1,771 words.)