Misery (review)

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By the Book

My biggest fear, as a writer, is that I’ll lose something I’ve written — that a computer crash will wipe out work I’ve neglected to back up, say. My second biggest fear is writer’s block — that someday I’ll just run out of things to say; the fear hits as a niggling suspicion every time I’m stuck on a project that this is finally it, the jig is up. My third biggest fear is procrastination — that I’ll never get around to finish writing this review or that novel or the other screenplay because I simply haven’t played enough games of Solitaire yet. (Or maybe procrastination is my biggest fear… ah, I’ll decide tomorrow.)

I bet Stephen King has these fears, too (though maybe not the procrastination one, since he seems to knock out a 1000-page tome a month), because he deals with them all in perhaps the only horror story directed at writers: Misery. His novel was adapted by William Goldman and directed on film by Rob Reiner, but you can’t ever get rid of the King trademarks: the ordinary world turned terrifying, and seemingly ordinary people turned maniacal.
Annie Wilkes is King’s best psycho and one of the most banally malevolent visions of evil ever depicted onscreen — as played by the extraordinary Kathy Bates (Primary Colors, Titanic), she is a terror of frighteningly everyday proportions. A lonely, abandoned woman living in the Colorado mountains, her greatest solace comes from the romance novels of author Paul Sheldon (James Caan: Mickey Blue Eyes, This Is My Father), all of which feature an heroine with the unlikely name of Misery. As Paul’s “number-one fan,” Annie knows that Paul, a creature of habit, always writes his novels in a room at a nearby resort. And so she’s on hand when, at the completion of his latest novel, he drives off into a snowstorm, heading back to his home base of New York, and drives off the road.

Paul awakens, days later, in the guest room of Annie’s remote house, his legs a mangled mess. The roads are closed by the storm, and the phone lines are down — getting to or calling a hospital is impossible — so Paul is at Annie’s mercy. Lucky for him, she used to be a nurse, and so has the supplies and the wherewithal to treat his injuries.

Oh, but things are not so lucky for Paul after all. She doesn’t like his just-finished manuscript — he gave her permission to read it; it’s not a Misery book, and it’s full of profanity that upsets her. And then she gets her hands on the latest Misery novel, just published, and discovers that Paul has killed off his bestselling character — Misery may be a license to print money for Paul, but he’s sick and tired of her. Annie’s anger simmers, and though the weather improves, Paul sees no sign of an ambulance or any means of contacting the outside world. It soon becomes obvious to him that he is a prisoner and, indeed, very much at Annie’s mercy.

Part of the startling horror of Annie is that she is just about the last person in the world from whom you’d expect antisocial or violent behavior. Nunlike, in his shapeless shifts and with a tiny gold cross dangling from her neck, she’s a meek and timid thing, mouselike for all that she’s big and lumbering (Bates always seems to come across onscreen as larger, more ungainly, and less lovely that she actually is). Her aversion to profanity is played up for comedy, even if those laughs come at uncomfortable points — the first hint Paul gets that his would-be savior is actually a madwoman is when she rants about the vulgarity of his new manuscript; the worst word she can bring herself to scream at him is “cockadoodie.” (She’d be even funnier if she weren’t so scary.)

And part of the horror of Annie is that she probably is only a step beyond many of Paul’s fans: lonely women who let their fannish instincts get the better of them. How many other of Paul’s fans likely felt moved to violence by Misery’s death at his hands? And how many of them would have jumped at the opportunity to force Paul to write a new Misery novel that resurrects her, as Annie does, under penalty of extreme physical and mental anguish?

Procrastination and writer’s block can’t be much of an issue when your life is at stake in your writing… though King’s and Reiner’s oblique commentary is that your life often does feel at stake when you’re embroiled in something creative. What if you can’t pull it off? What if it’s no good? What on Earth else could you possibly do with your life if you suck at what you love?

And then there’s the fear of people who consume your creative works without understanding what goes into them. The fear of never being able to replicate success… and the fear that you’ll be so successful that you’ll never extricate yourself from a project once you’ve done all you can with it.

I’m a big fan of Stephen King’s — a huge fan. But just as it’s kinda nice to see his books on the clearance table at Barnes & Noble and know that even he gets remaindered, it’s also kinda nice to know that he probably suffers from the same anxiety that plagues us mere mortals.

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