Misery seems to be a title that some Stephen King readers remember, but does not get talked about with the same reverence as other books. More people seem to remember it for the 1990 film starring Kathy Bates, whose performance won a Best Actress Oscar, making it, to date, the only Stephen King film to win an Oscar. It’s not spooky season, but I needed some fresh reading material, and I knew I could count on King for a good time.
After a drunk driving accident that breaks both his legs, romance author Paul Sheldon finds himself under the care of Annie Wilkes, a nurse who claims to be Paul’s number one fan. Paul seems in capable hands until Annie learns that Misery Chastain, the main character of Paul’s bestselling romance series, is killed off in the next book. In a fit of rage, Annie demands that Paul write a new book to bring Misery back from the dead. As Annie’s psychosis deepens, Paul tries to stay ahead of her, but perhaps some games aren’t meant to be won…
I used to think that supernatural horror stories were superior because monsters from under the bed can be scary, especially if you have Stephen King’s gift for description. But the horror of Misery can happen right next door or even directly to you. A character like Annie Wilkes, who goes about her daily life with a twisted worldview, can live down the street from anyone.
I read somewhere that Stephen King came up with the idea for Misery when he considered what would happen if he encountered an obsessive fan. Of course, this is not just a horror story for celebrities whose fans can become obsessive, but for anyone unwittingly caught in an obsessive relationship. No matter what you do to placate them or play their game, their only objective is control, and that’s a terrifying situation to be in, no matter who you are.
Misery really only has two characters: Paul Sheldon and Annie Wilkes. There are extensive scenes dedicated to just their conversations, and it’s like watching two cowboys standing apart before a shootout. Paul’s isolation is made abundantly clear, and Annie’s volatile personality makes every scene wonderfully tense.
Now, maybe it’s the day and age we live in, but I kept thinking about how Paul diagnoses Annie. He concludes that she might be manic depressive or extremely paranoid, and the conversation of how mental illness equals scary in horror sprung up in my mind.
It’s no secret that several horror stories feature villains with severe mental illness, like Norman Bates from Psycho, Kevin from Split, Arthur Fleck from Joker, and so on. These stories show these characters in the most extreme forms of their respective illnesses, not showcasing the spectrum that exists for these conditions, and thus creating an automatic stigma surrounding them.
Thanks to these movie villains, we think that people with these conditions are crazy or violent. You have schizophrenia? You see things and hear voices that aren’t really there. You have bipolar disorder? You’re moody and violent and uncontrollable. There is no spectrum to these conditions in horror media.
To me, the point of horror is to show mankind’s capacity for evil, or to explore why we are afraid of something in a controlled, imagined environment. I’m sure at some point the trend of severe mental illness in horror was because we did not understand it very much, and thus we were scared of it. Now that we have more deeply studied mental illness, we have more room to empathize with people dealing with those conditions. And again, I must bring up the spectrum of mental illness. People with the same conditions as Norman Bates or Arthur Fleck live perfectly functional lives.
All this to say that when Paul diagnosed Annie’s condition, I found myself empathizing with her.
Not that I in any way excuse the horrifying things she does. But I wondered what would have happened if Annie Wilkes had gotten help.
I also heard that Annie was one of Stephen King’s favorite characters to write, and it shows. Her backstory is adeptly revealed to us through Paul looking through a photo album, and her mood swings are so skillfully written that you feel Paul’s terror at her presence. He describes the moments where Annie comes “unplugged” and she seems almost blissful as she chops off Paul’s foot with an axe or saws off his thumb with an electric knife. To Annie, she is at the bedside of one of her patients, soothing them as if she were giving them a shot instead of removing appendices.
She seems to believe that she has the moral obligation to end people’s suffering. If you’re dying or if you’re simply being a crying brat, then the best way to heal you is simply to kill you. That’s a terrifying train of thought to imagine a nurse having, especially a maternity ward nurse who looks after babies, who cry quite a bit.
Anyway, you get the point: Annie Wilkes is terrifying, and she is one of the most highly ranked movie and book villains for a reason.
Another interesting point about this book: Stephen King gets to try his hand at writing romance.
Since Annie demands that Paul write another Misery Chastain book, we get to see the book’s melodramatic nineteenth-century text. It does have some macabre elements, like people being accidentally buried alive, but it still has all the gusto of a dime-store romance book. If anyone knows of any pure romance books with Stephen King’s name on it, please tell me because I’d like to read it. Plus, these excerpts are nice little breaks from the horror going on in the Wikes house.
If you’re claustrophobic, you may want to sit Misery out since it only takes place inside Annie’s house, and Paul has little chance of escaping with his broken legs. It’s a genius way to keep Paul helpless and powerless against Annie’s violence, but it may be a little much sometimes.
In terms of pure horror, Misery has climbed through my Stephen King book ranks fast (it is hard to top Pet Sematary on that front). It definitely won’t replace Carrie as a general favorite, but it sure makes me hope that I don’t ever meet anyone as obsessive as Annie Wilkes.