Misery is fascinating to me on at least two levels — as a story, yes, but also as insight into the way both writing and reading for pleasure works.
King will, of course, take his lumps for having so many writer protagonists in his pantheon. He really does do that a lot. Write what you know? Well, King knows being a writer. To be fair to him, though, I think that a lot of writers do this. I don’t have statistics… but I’ve read a lot of books, and it seems clear to me that writers of fiction invent fictional writers an awful lot. Write what you know strikes again. At least when King does it, you get some really vivid insight into the process of writing and the way a writer’s mind works while it’s happening — as well as some insight into a writer’s readers which probably comes not only from the King fan base but from King himself, since he’s known to be an avid reader himself.
His descriptions of writers and readers ring very true to me. I take that to either mean that they’re accurate, or at least that they’re accurate enough to apply to me, so they’re at least truthful to some writers’ experiences, if not all.
And sure, I’m not a novelist… I don’t even play with fiction much these days; this blog where I record my thoughts about another writer’s work is the closest I’m getting to writing anything fun these days. But I do get paid to write for a living. I do know what it’s like to look for that hole in the paper. I think in terms of word count, not page count as Misery’s Paul does, but it’s the same concept. I know what it’s like to get on a roll and surprise yourself with your output — even when your output is less-fun subjects like gutter cleaning services and erectile dysfunction drugs ordered over the internet. Shockingly, you can still get into the zone when you’re writing about those things. I also know what it’s like to hit a wall or be blocked for an idea. I play Paul’s game of Can You? Except mine might be more like Can You interest the reader in Texas real estate? But I get it as applied to fiction, of course. So much of this book is focused on Paul’s process, and I find that at least as interesting as his plight.
I’m also interested in King’s depiction of readers, which I think is much less commonly explored. I don’t mean crazy number-one fans that hold their favorite author captive. I mean how so many of us can be invested in fictional book characters that we can’t help but grieve when they die. I mean feeling empty and lost after finishing a good book — which is sort of like being forcibly ejected from the world you were in. I also mean the people who want to know the end before they read the story. King, and a lot of other authors, seem to hate this particular trait in a reader. But I just want to say that if you are an anxious person (I am) checking ahead to find out a major part of the end — does the character die/escape/get convicted/etc. — can calm you down and allow you to finish the story in peace. I can only speak for myself, but I have never stopped reading anything because I found out the end in advance. I don’t care if I happen to run into spoilers before I get to the end even if I wasn’t looking for them — I’m very much an “it’s the journey, not the destination” person, so a few words that let me know where the story’s going doesn’t take anything away from the trip through the book to get there, at least for me — but I have, when I felt anxious, looked up an ending or outcome so that I could stop worrying and enjoy that journey.
It wouldn’t surprise me much if Annie Wilkes sometimes had the kind of anxiety about stories that could be soothed by finding out the end before finishing the story, too.
Speaking of Annie Wilkes, I kind of love her. I am positive that the portrayal of her mental illness is not super accurate and probably problematic. He was trying to use mental illness to create a human monster, and while that can happen, I suppose, most people with mental illnesses are more likely to be victims of violence than perpetrators, and it doesn’t help any of the real ones to make fictional victims of mental illness evil, violent, and practically superhuman. This is (one of the reasons) why people get shot when the police go out to do a wellness check on a person suffering from mental illness, when they should be getting help.
And yet… Annie Wilkes reminds me of someone I actually knew who did actually have bipolar disorder (which would have been called manic depression back when this was written. It’s outdated now, but not his fault the language changed.) Not the violence. That doesn’t remind me of this person at all. And not the things she said or did, really. But her presence. Her solidity. And those strange blank episodes. I want to emphasize that the person I’m thinking of was a lovely person, not an Annie Wilkesian monster. I’m just saying that King got something right — something familiar — about this woman. Which is maybe why, as far as villains go, I can’t help but like her.
Another reason why is probably Kathy Bates’ portrayal of her in the movie adaptation. I have seen Misery, though not in years — and of course, I didn’t rewatch it for this, put it on the list of movies I’ll watch if I finish going over all the books — but Kathy Bates as Annie Wilkes is unforgettable. And I can’t help but find her compelling. Kathy Bates is a powerhouse of an actress, and I highly recommend watching her in Misery. Or anything.
Misery takes place in Sidewinder, CO, which is the same place that The Shining took place is, and the burning of The Overlook — and the caretaker — is specifically mentioned. It’s more of a reference than a connection — it lets us know that these stories take place on the same level of the tower, and that’s about it. It’s interesting to me that The Shining is one of King’s relatively few books with a sequel — possibly the only sequel to an actual horror novel of his, and so much later — when The Shining connections in the King canon are mostly just shoutouts like. Big and very famous novels like The Stand and It have meatier connections to other works, but no sequels. Go figure.
Speaking of It, Paul also throws out a memory of his mother going to Boston with Mrs. Kaspbrak across the street. Did Paul grow up in Derry, then? Or did Eddie and his mother move to wherever Paul lived when they left Derry? Or did King just reuse a name? I like to think that Paul grew up in Derry, although I think perhaps the second explanation — Paul happened to live wherever Eddie and his mother moved to when all of the families (except for Mike) were leaving Derry — probably creates fewer plot holes.
My last thought is about the novel within a novel. I personally don’t read a ton of the kind of fiction that appears to be. I don’t want to be snobby about it though — when I worked night shifts, I read a lot of that kind of romance/adventure book because they were easy to follow when your brain was tired and entertaining enough to keep you awake. Also, different books for different people with different tastes — you do you. But if I’m not killing time in the middle of the night, I’m probably not picking up the Misery books. I did think, this time, about how Misery really sounds like a name that V.C. Andrews’ ghostwriter would give a character, though that would be a different type of book than Paul Sheldon’s Misery. I got kind of distracted for awhile, imagining the V.C. Andrews-brand Misery story.