In 1987, the gods of creativity were looking favorably upon Stephen King, who blessed Constant Readers with three books in a ten-month period — a new record for the already highly prolific author. Among the three novels published that year was Misery, an instant bestseller that would become hailed as one of King’s classics. At the time of its release, however, it might not have seemed very King-like at all. Misery was originally slated to be a book by Richard Bachman, King’s alter-ego pseudonym, until he was “outed” in 1984. In the early 1980s there was still a clear distinction between the Bachman books and novels by Stephen King. While King’s novels were usually steeped in horror, the supernatural, or even fantasy, the Bachman books (with the exception of Thinner) dealt with either dystopian futures or real-life horrors. Misery is a real-life horror to be sure. Readers of Misery’s predecessors like ‘Salem’s Lot, The Shining, and Pet Sematary might have been scared half out of their wits by such tales, but they could if they were so inclined take a big breath and let out the inevitable sigh of relief that, “It’s just a story. Only a story. These things aren’t real.”
There was no such escaping Misery’s hold on the reader’s nerves. The story of the beloved bestselling author Paul Sheldon’s car crash, how he is rescued by his “Number One Fan” Annie Wilkes only to be held hostage in her home, to be forced to write a new novel to her liking, and to find she isn’t afraid of using an axe to get the job done was the kind of thing one might find on the nightly news. Heck, today there are networks devoted to such true-life crime stories! (See: ID TV.) Misery held off on the supernatural, and in its wake, King served up a suspense novel with an extra helping of fear and a side of claustrophobia, the majority of the novel taking place in a single room.
One of the things that makes King so great is the constant what if question that we as readers are provoked by his prose to ask ourselves: What if this happened to my favorite author? Or wait, worse still — what if this were to happen to me? What if I were the prisoner?
With Misery, we might tell ourselves over and over, “It’s just a story. Only a story,” but there is that other irrepressible voice that whispers, “Oh, but it could happen. It could happen to you. What if it happened it you?”
It is the what if that I find myself returning to when I think of Misery. Not to the thought of what might happen if I am kidnapped by one who thinks I’m a real cockadoodie, but to the threads that are woven consistently throughout King’s story — themes of control, addiction, enslavement, and idolatry.
Let’s start at the open. In the first pages of the novel, Paul describes Annie as an idol. King writes:
The prescient part of his mind saw her before he knew he was seeing her, and must surely have understood her before he knew he was understanding her — why else did he associate such dour, ominous images with her? Whenever she came into the room he thought of the graven images worshiped by superstitious African tribes in the novels of H. Rider Haggard, and stones and doom.
The image of Annie Wilkes as an African idol out of She or King Solomon’s Mines was both ludicrous and queerly apt. She was a big woman, who other than the large but unwelcoming swell of her bosom under the gray cardigan sweater she always wore, seemed to have no feminine curves at all — there was no defined roundness of hip or buttock or even calf below the endless succession of wool skirts she wore in the house (she retired to her unseen bedroom to put on jeans before doing her outside chores). Her body was big but not generous. There was a feeling about her of clots and roadblocks rather than welcoming orifices or even open spaces, areas of hiatus.
Most of all she gave him a disturbing sense of solidity, as if she might not have any blood vessels or even internal organs; as if she might be only solid Annie Wilkes from side to side and top to bottom. He felt more and more convinced that her eyes, which appeared to move, were actually just painted on, and they moved no more than the eyes of portraits which appear to follow you wherever you move in the room where they hang. It seemed to him that if he made the first two fingers of his hand into a V and attempted to poke them up her nostrils, they might go less than an eighth of an inch before encountering a solid (if slightly unyielding) obstruction; that even her gray cardigan and frumpy house skirts and faded outside-work jeans were part of that solid fibrous unchanneled body. So his feeling that she was like an idol in a perfervid novel was not really surprising at all. Like an idol, she gave only one thing: a feeling of unease deepening steadily toward terror. Like an idol, she took everything else.
Paul will continue to think of Annie as an idol, frequently referring to her as the Goddess throughout Misery, namely because he sees her as being in control of his destiny. At one point in the novel, he even goes so far as to claim: “Annie was great, Annie was good, let us thank her for our food.”
But if Annie is playing the role of Goddess to Paul, it is Paul who plays the role of God to Misery Chastain — and this is something of which Annie Wilkes is completely aware and compliant. In understanding that Paul Sheldon is the creative force which gave Misery Chastain life, she also believes that only he can bring her back. So much so that Paul is fascinated by Annie’s complete lack of interest or involvement in his creative process. She does not even, to his surprise, don the hat of an editor. She’ll simply fill in the n’s — and, of course, make sure he doesn’t cheat his way through it like some old dirty birdie.
Annie fancies herself Paul’s very own heart monitor, and Paul as Misery’s — both of them able to pull the plug on their respective subjects at will. This is the lens through which Annie views the world. She sees things in terms of creation and destruction. Her neighbors the Roidmans, the photographer with whom she had her romantic dalliance, the cops who call upon her — all forces out to destroy her. To Annie, you are either the Lord that giveth, or the Lord that taketh away.
Of course, it is not only Paul that Annie is God or Goddess to. She’s served this role before. When Paul stumbles upon her “Memory Lane” book, he discovers the newspaper clippings she has saved from the countless times she’s played God over the years, taking the lives of others into her own hands. From her own father to her college roommates, from the elderly of age to newborn babies, Annie was the Lord that taketh them all.
Paul witnesses one such offing, as the Goddess holds the life of a rat in her bare hands:
She looked down at the rat and a tear fell onto its matted fur. “Poor, poor things.” She closed one of her strong hands around the rat and pulled back the spring with the other. It lashed in her hand, head twisting, as it tried to bite her. Its squeals were thin and terrible. Paul pressed the heel of a palm against his wincing mouth. “How its heart beats! How it struggles to get away! As we do, Paul. As we do. We think we know so much, but we really don’t know any more than a rat in a trap — a rat with a broken back that thinks it still wants to live.” The hand holding the rat became a fist.
Her eyes never lost that blank distant cast. Paul wanted to look away and could not. Tendons began to stand out on her inner arm. Blood ran from the rat’s mouth in an abrupt thin stream. Paul heard its bones break and then the thick pads of her fingers punched into its body, disappearing up to the first knuckle. Blood pattered on the floor. The creature’s dulling eyes bulged. She tossed the body into the corner and wiped her hand indifferently on the sheet, leaving long red smears. “Now it’s at peace.” She shrugged, then laughed.
Annie Wilkes is not King’s only character from 1987 with a hard-on for playing God. In The Drawing of the Three, Jack Morton gets off on changing the course of destinies. In this, one of the novel’s most disturbing sequences, Jack drops a brick onto the head of a little girl from the window of a tall New York City building:
He could still hear the woman — the mother of the little girl, he supposed — screaming, but that sound was coming from the front of the building; it was faint and unimportant. All of the things which happened after — the cries, the confusion, the wails of the wounded (if the wounded were still capable of wailing), were not things which mattered to Jack. What mattered was the thing which pushed change into the ordinary course of things and sculpted new lines in the flow of lives… and perhaps, the destinies not only of those struck but of a widening circle around them, like ripples from a stone tossed into a still pond. Who was to say that he had not sculpted the cosmos today, or might not at some time in the future? God, no wonder he creamed his jeans!
For being two starkly contrasting stories, The Drawing of the Three holds quite a few unexpected parallels to Misery. Did you ever notice that for a brief paragraph or two, Jack Morton refers to “Do Bees” and “Don’t Bees,” a term Annie is also so fond of using? And how about that first tarot card Roland pulls? The card is that of The Prisoner, and the depiction is that of a man with a monkey on his back holding a long black whip.
“Maybe you spelled relief R-O-L-A-I-D-S, but you spelled Novril C-O-D-E-I-N-E,” Paul Sheldon thinks to himself in Misery. “The fact is, you’re healing up, Paul. Below the knees your legs look like a four-year old’s stick drawing, but you are healing up. You could get by on aspirin or Empirin now. It’s not you that needs the Novril; you’re feeding it to the monkey.”
He concludes this moment with: “You had better start thinking about all the dope you’re taking, Paul. You had better start thinking about it very seriously.”
In 1987, Stephen King was starting to think very seriously about his own addictions. In The Drawing of the Three, the “Prisoner” in the tarot card turns out to be a man named Eddie Dean, who is imprisoned by his own addiction to cocaine. In a 2014 interview with Rolling Stone magazine, King claimed, “Misery is a book about cocaine. Annie Wilkes is cocaine. She was my number-one fan.”
To be the creator, or the creative force, behind any subject is to be in control of it. To be under the influence of such a force is to become the victim to its every whim, its slings, its arrows and axes. The very definition of addiction implies this victimization, this complete and utter loss of control.
Addiction — perhaps its own violent form of idol worship — is when you stop walking the dog and it starts walking you. Paul is as much a prisoner to Annie as an addict is to their vice.
The what if that haunts me throughout Misery is the question, “What if I were the prisoner?” and the resounding answer that comes back like a heavy brick dropped from a very tall building is: You are.
I mean we’re all slaves to something, right? For some, it might be a physical addiction like sex, drugs, food, or alcohol. For others, we might be addicted to approval, recognition, or control. The soul might yearn for freedom, but the body and the ego will grasp and claw just to hold onto such vices by torn and bloodied fingernails.
We all have our own Annie Wilkes, and slung over her shoulder is an axe with a patient blade ever at the ready. Ready to chop off piece after piece, until there is nothing left for said axe to grind.
Thankfully, King gives us an out. An exit strategy. King’s weapon of choice to battle the Burka Bee Goddess is naturally his typewriter, both literally as Paul uses it to hit Annie on the head, and metaphorically as he becomes a force of creation to outwit a force of destruction.
In Paul’s early stages of starting Misery’s Return, King writes:
In spite of the reputed fragility of the creative act, it had always been the single toughest thing, the most abiding thing, in his life — nothing had ever been able to pollute that crazy well of dreams: no drink, no drug, no pain. He fled to that well now, like a thirsty animal finding a waterhole at dusk, and he drank from it; which is to say that he found the hole in the paper and fell thankfully through it. By the time Annie got back home at quarter of six, he had done almost five pages.
And later, after having hand-scrawled THE END at the bottom of his completed Misery’s Return manuscript, Paul thinks:
Still it was good to be done — always good to be done. Good to have produced, to have caused a thing to be. In a numb sort of way he understood and appreciated the bravery of the act, of making little lives that weren’t, creating the appearance of motion and the illusion of warmth. He understood — now, finally — that he was a bit of a dullard at doing this trick, but it was the only one he knew, and if he always ended up doing it ineptly, he at least never failed to do it with love. He touched the pile of manuscript and smiled a little bit.
As the single most powerful influence on Paul’s life, he must play Annie’s game to beat her at it. He must summon that spark of the Divine that is the creative force inside of him. It is only once his book is written (now my tale is told) that the tables can be turned. At last, Paul becomes the one with the power as he sets flame to Misery’s Return, reducing Annie to her knees. She, who repels at the sound of the Lord’s name taken in vain, at last says it herself: “Oh my God, oh Paul, what are you doooooing?”
In Misery, King tells us, in the guise of a man without working legs, that you cannot outrun your demons. You must out-create them.
“What I Learned from Stephen King” is a Cemetery Dance Online exclusive series of articles about the wisdom, spirituality and life lessons found within the works of Stephen King. Jason Sechrest began his career at 15 years old as a full-time staff writer for Femme Fatales magazine. Most recently, he writes his own horror fiction, and pens articles on Stephen King, horror, and sci-fi, which can be found at his official web site, JasonSechrest.com. He tweets as @JasonSechrest and posts often on Facebook.