Safe. Sane. Consensual.
Seriously, the moral of this story is: if you want to get kinky, make sure that you follow these rules. This whole book may not have happened if the characters in the story had had a safe word and if Gerald had respected his wife’s wishes and boundaries. And if they’d made sure Jessie had an in-case-of-emergency way out. Of course, then we’d have nothing to read.
Stephen King is not known for good sex scenes. He’s really not — even the ones between loving, happy partners come off as embarrassing, awkward, and a little — or a lot — gross. They’re not hot. That actually works in his favor in this book, though. Since all of the sexual scenes depicted in this book are really assaultive, it makes perfect sense that they read as awkward and gross.
Gerald’s Game gets kind of a bad rap, I think because it starts off with a pretty upsetting bondage scene, then describes an incident of child molestation in painful detail. Then throws in a corpse-eating dog and a space cowboy, for the heck of it. I get it, but I actually think it’s a pretty good story. It’s also the first of what you can think of as a domestic violence trilogy — Gerald’s Game, Dolores Claiborne, and Rose Madder — and it’s directly connected to Dolores Claiborne. As in, connected by a psychic link. Dolores Claiborne is, as I recall, a better book — not to mention a movie starring the excellent Kathy Bates — so it’s no wonder that it’s remembered more vividly and fondly than Gerald’s Game. But I don’t think that makes Gerald’s Game bad.
I do kind of wonder if King knows that bondage kinks can play out in a healthy, mutually pleasurable way. He should know, but the way he writes about it makes me wonder. But if he’s just trying to make the point that in this case, things aren’t playing out that way, well that’s fair enough. Because this was clearly not healthy or mutually pleasurable even before things progressed to the level of attempted rape.
I also sort of wonder about the “voices” in Jessie’s head. King could just be trying to describe Jessie’s internal monologue. It’s an apt enough description of that — I don’t think it’s usual to name the different voices (though what do I know about how anyone else thinks? Maybe it is?) but I do think it’s relatively normal to hear our own conflicting thoughts in various tones that we could think of as conflicting voices. But there also used to be a thing about split personality disorder — I think it’s called dissociative identity disorder or DID now — where the alter personalities had distinct voices and names of their own, and that it was most often caused by sexual abuse in childhood — that’s where the personality splintering started. That more or less tracks with Jessie’s experience, except that her “alters” only talk to her, and don’t take over her body or do things that she doesn’t allow them to do. I don’t know that this is still considered a correct interpretation of this kind of disorder, either, but it would have been out in the ether during the time when King wrote this book, so I sort of wonder if he was trying to give her an internal monologue or a mild case of multiple personality disorder?
Anyhow, this is especially interesting to me as a story because it’s so single-focused. King books often have large casts of characters, but for the most part, in this one, it’s just Jessie, the voices in her head, and her memories. And, you know, the space cowboy. But he doesn’t really talk. I wasn’t sorry to see Gerald go early on — if I were Jessie, I feel like I would have been done with this guy and his sex game as soon as he came home with the cuffs and told her they would be OK even though they were men’s cuffs because she was big-boned. Who says something like that when they want to get laid? But once Gerald dies, we have very little in the way of characters who aren’t just memories or sketches.
As for the space cowboy — I mean, your mileage may vary. It could have been a scary enough story without him, or with him turning out to actually be pure imagination. He did add some urgency to Jessie’s escape, but not much — she would have had to hurry up anyway before she became too weak to even try. But it’s King. Why not have a real space cowboy? I don’t believe he hurts the story in any way. I think it’s creepier this way.
This book also really shows that King has come a long way in writing women. I think he’ll continue to do better after this, as well. But contrast Jessie Burlingame with Susan from ‘Salem’s Lot, and you’ll see what I mean.
Gerald’s Game was made into a movie — surprise, surprise, I haven’t seen it. I’ll probably get to it eventually, but I’m not super excited based on what I’ve heard about it. I think it might be one of those books that’s tough to translate to the screen.
As I mentioned, the book is also linked to other books in the King canon — directly to Dolores Claiborne, and, I think, at least spiritually to Rose Madder. I like all three of these, so I’m excited to be started down that path.