Each summer, when I was in my teens and early twenties, my friend Cindy and I would pack a case and go up to stay with her Dad in North Yorkshire for a week or two. His wife was a huge horror fan and although I struggle to watch horror films I was quite happy to scare myself silly by reading them. In one of their houses there was a mischievous spirit who would knock on the front door when you least expected it, but every time you answered there was no one there. Sometimes it would even knock when you were stood with the door wide open looking for it! I remember staying up late one night to watch a film and there was a sudden loud knocking sound causing us to levitate off the couch. I often borrowed books to read while on holiday with them, everything from Dean Koontz and James Herbert, but my favourite had to be Stephen King. Misery was a fairly new book and I remember borrowing it from a boy I’d met who worked the bar at the local pub. Sadly for him he never got it back and 27 years later it still sits on my bookshelves, and still has the power to scare the hell out of me.
Writer, Paul Sheldon ventures out in his truck despite a huge snowfall to post the manuscript of his latest book to his publisher. Sadly he doesn’t make it as the icy conditions cause a massive accident. Isolated and severely injured it seems very likely that Paul will die. When he wakes he finds himself in a bed, with his legs splinted. Who has saved him and how? Paul can see he isn’t in a hospital, so who would have the skill to do this? Then the thought drops into his head. Why haven’t they taken him to hospital and what does this person want with him?
He soon gets his answer when Annie Wilkes comes into the room. A strange mix of motherly and medic, she feeds and treats Paul with very strong painkillers, trying to heal his shattered legs. At first Paul is just a bundle of basic needs – sleep, food, pain relief. However, when Paul improves he starts to ask those questions that have been muffled by painkillers and sleep. Annie seeks to reassure Paul, she has set his legs as best she can and she will continue to nurse him. She’s been a nurse, so she knows what she’s doing. Besides which, she’s got to look after him. She’s his number one fan. Annie asks Paul if she can read his manuscript, the latest in his series about Misery Chastain. This series has paid the bills for a long time, but Paul has often wanted to branch out and write something different. This latest manuscript will be his last Misery novel because he has killed off his popular heroine. However, Annie doesn’t know this. What will she do when she reads the manuscript and finds out there will be no more misery.
This novel is truly horrific. There is nothing supernatural to the story, this is about the worst things one human being can do to another. The horror comes from Paul’s powerlessness, the visceral detail of his injuries and Annie’s punishments, but also just how unhinged Annie Wilkes is. We don’t need ghosts and witches when characters as crazy as Annie Wilkes exist. She truly is one of King’s best creations. She always gives off a smell of food or is wearing it down her clothing. She is overweight, almost shuffling in and out. Paul feels real disgust when she’s close to him. She is manipulative, quick to anger and even Paul doesn’t realise the extent of her temper until she retaliates against him with fierce strength and savagery. As Paul starts to recover and become bolder with his plans to escape Annie, the tension escalates. Every time Paul creeps out of the room to gather information on his captor, my heart is in my throat. I swear my heart is beating faster as I realise Annie is coming home and he may not get back into the room in time. When she detects he’s sweating, I’m sure she’s going to guess he’s been moving around. Then there’s the scene – readers will know the one I’m talking about – that will stay with me forever. Even the film version isn’t as bad as reading this scene in the book. The visceral way King writes about the destruction of the human body is sickening and made me physically shiver when I first read it in the 1990s. Now I sort of glance over it. It still sickens me twenty years later. There’s also a lawnmower incident that’s fairly grim and still makes me wince. After multiple reads that’s a powerful reaction!
For me, this is one of King’s best novels. The characterisation is excellent. The constant rollercoaster of tension and relief is deftly handled. There is no supernatural element to the horror, simply the horror of a man trapped by his injuries and an unhinged captor. The claustrophobic feelings this conjures up in the reader are incredible. Weirdly, approximately ten years after the publication of Misery, King was walking by the side of the road in Maine when he was hit by a minivan and flung four metres from the pavement. The van was reportedly driving erratically with one witness worrying the van might hit the pedestrian she’d seen. King suffered cuts to his scalp, a collapsed lung, multiple leg fractures and a broken hip. His right leg was so badly damaged it was feared it would have to be amputated, but doctors managed to save it. It left King in a very similar condition to Paul Sheldon, though he didn’t have to recuperate with Annie Wilkes! He spent his recovery on his non-fiction book On Writing, where we talks about the accident, his writing process and other parts of his life. At first he could only sit and type for forty minutes at a time, something that inspired me with my own writing experiences and disability. The fact that this happened after he visited a similar fate to one of his characters is perhaps the spookiest part.