(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 8)

Stephen King’s talent for horror and suspense has made him one of the most popular authors of all time, and his books regularly top the best-seller lists. Much of his work is tinged with elements of the supernatural, although his novels never fall within the realm of science fiction. His most fanciful tales instead bear all the hallmarks of that time-honored tradition, the ghost story.

Yet King is also a writer drawn to strong characters, and the majority of his books contain memorable portraits of people who find themselves caught in terrifying situations. The suspense in Carrie (1974) hinges on the reader’s sympathy for its unhappy central figure, a lonely, socially backward girl with destructive psychic powers, while The Shining (1977) offers a chilling picture of a man whose sanity is disintegrating as he falls prey to the evil forces that surround him. With Misery, King has taken the human factor in his work a step further, creating a story which is actually an extended, two-character drama.

The task which King has set himself with this format is not an easy one, relying as it does on the interplay between the characters to create an atmosphere of tension; indeed, for much of its story, the book is less frightening than many of King’s earlier efforts. Only in its final quarter, during the novel’s tautly paced climax, does Misery generate the sustained terror which has characterized his work. In its first three-quarters, which revolve completely around Paul Sheldon’s long imprisonment on Annie Wilkes’ farm, the book might be better characterized as disturbing or horrifying as Paul is alternately nursed and tormented by his captor.

What King does accomplish in this segment is a fully realized portrait of both Annie and Paul. The story is clearly a writer’s nightmare, and it is not difficult to imagine King arriving at the premise for this book by exploring the worst-case scenario of his own fears. Like King himself, Paul Sheldon is a best-selling writer, although his field is that of historical romance. Prior to the car accident on a deserted mountain highway which leaves his legs and pelvis shattered, Paul has written a book in which he kills off his popular heroine, Misery Chastain, and embarked on a new phase of his career, as a writer of serious fiction. When he finds himself at the mercy of Annie, who sees his car by the side of the road and recognizes its driver as her favorite author, however, he discovers just how seriously his “Misery” books have already been taken by at least one unbalanced fan.

As the story unfolds, tracing Paul’s slow recovery and his frequent, agonizing abuse at Annie’s hands, King skillfully delineates both Paul and Annie through the twisted relationship which develops between them. The book is told in the third person, from Paul’s point of view, and the reader comes to know him through his thoughts and emotions during the course of his long ordeal. Annie, however, is revealed only through her behavior and what Paul is able to learn through a surreptitious examination of her belongings.

Paul Sheldon emerges as an intelligent, resourceful man who possesses a biting, ironic wit. Twice divorced and fond of drinking and night life, his world alters dramatically as his single focus becomes staying alive in the face of Annie’s irrational rages. Crippled by his accident, addicted to painkillers during the course of his recovery, and later horribly maimed by Annie, his sole resource against his captor is his mind. Realizing early that his only hope for survival lies in his ability to outwit Annie, he observes her closely and attempts to understand her erratic mood swings, gradually learning to manipulate her in small ways. His talents as a writer also become a crucial part of his survival as he finds himself cast in the role of a modern-day Scheherazade, spinning the story of his latest “Misery” novel chapter by chapter, always with the knowledge that if he fails to entertain her, Annie will kill him before the book is finished.

Paul’s storytelling ability becomes the key to his own emotional survival as well, as he is pushed closer and closer to the brink of collapse by the strain of constant terror and pain. His novel—large portions of which are included in the text of Misery—becomes his one escape as he loses himself in the fantasy world he is...

(The entire section is 1808 words.)