Sunday, April 28, 2019

The Importance of Imagination: Stephen King's Misery (1987).

My last post was an attempt at offering a snapshot of the pitfalls and hazards of the current state of both pop-culture and the creative arts in general.  Researching that book, and it's adaptation was a bit of a discouraging and thankless task.  I say this based on the mindset the reader is forced to endure when making it through both versions of Ernest Cline's text.

With that in mind, I thought it fair to offer a positive contrast to the negative impacts of a story like Ready Player One.  Perhaps a horror novel by Stephen King seems like an odd choice to make as a light and positive example.  I think it works, however, because of several factors.  The first factor is that as a story in itself, it's pretty darn great.  Part of the reason for the book's literary worth has to do with it's creation.  In his non-fiction study, Danse Macabre, King shares a series of recurring nightmares, some of which might have acted as inspiration for his own published works:

"In another dream - this is one which has recurred at times of stress over the last ten years - I am writing a novel in an old house where a homicidal madwoman is reputed to be on the prowl.  I'm working in a third-floor room that's very hot.  A door on the far side of the room communicates with the attic, and I know - I know - she's in there, and that sooner or later the sound of my typewriter will cause her to come after me (perhaps she's a critic for the Times Book Review).  At any rate, she finally comes through the door like a horrid jack from a child's box, all gray hair and crazed eyes, raving and wielding a meat-ax.  And when I run, I discover that somehow the house has exploded outward - it's gotten ever so much bigger - and I'm totally lost.  On awakening from this dream, I promptly scoot over to my wife's side of the bed (88)".

Later, in his semi-autobiographical On Writing, King reveals that the basic setup for his plot came from a dream where the main character and the antagonist appeared in a kind of tableau.  King barely knew who they were.  All he knew is that the image presented to him was enough to suggest the outlines of an actual plot, one that might be worth setting down on paper.  However, he did admit one piece of information that could be telling: the protagonist of his dream "may or may not have been me (161)".  I think a case can be made that the idea for Misery was always swirling around somewhere in King's mind for quite a while.  It started with the idea of being stalked by the ax-happy, witch-like figure.  Over time, this image progressed and developed until the madwoman had morphed into the form she now appears in between the covers of her own book.  All this germinal idea needed was time to marinate in his imagination until it was ready to trod the boards.

The second reason for Misery being a good example of a positive contrast is that no matter how dark the subject matter, it's ultimate vision is, at it's heart, a positive one.  It is the art of writing, and the viewpoint King brings to the table for his reader's consideration that makes the novel stand out as the exact opposite of the mercenary nihilism of Cline's work.  In Misery, we are presented with an idea of writing, and it's relation to real life that has a genuine substance to it.  Part of the approach to this subject matter is to realize that Misery is very much a novel of layers, and it helps to reach a deeper understanding of the book if we dig through one layer at a time.  With any luck, this method of approaching the novel will help readers gain an understanding of why it is able to work so well as a story, and why it has been able to hold on to its staying power after more than a whole decade.  It is also this approach that will help illustrate the substance at the heart of King's story.

Plot Synopsis.

It is just possible that the wages of fame are regret.  That's a lesson Paul Sheldon learned way back in 1987, on his way home to New York from Denver, Colorado.  He was drunk.  He'd been coasting on the adrenaline of just completing his latest novel.  In the grand scheme of things, that's not such a big deal to others.  In a way, though, it was sort of a private victory as far as Paul was concerned.  For most of his professional life he made his living as a popular writer, penning a series of sweet and savage romance novels featuring the titular heroine known as Misery Chastain.

Through four bestsellers Paul has chronicled the exploits of this imaginary girl while pretty much loathing both the character and himself for what he feels is a form of literary self-prostitution.  That's what made him decide one day to kill off his meal ticket and see if he could make it on his own merits as a word-slinger.  With Misery's Child, Paul did his best to put a final nail in Misery's coffin.  His elation at being able to pull this feat off was to chant the words: Free at last (20)", and order not one, but two full bottles of champagne.  He then compounded this choice by deciding to drive his way home (or maybe "Go west, young man, go west (ibid) through an oncoming Rocky Mountain snowstorm with only half his brain cells still working.  The result wasn't inevitable.  It's just what happened.  And, like I said, he was drunk.

The next thing Paul remembered is waking up in an unfamiliar house with a strange woman tending to him.  His legs were shattered in the crash.  He was crippled, and the woman who saved his life called herself Annie Wilkes.  He was lucky to be alive, that much was certain.  The trouble started once he began to get a sense of both his bearings, and situation.  In a case like his, the regular procedure of things would be for Annie to wait for the storm to pass, phone the local hospital, then wait for just a bit longer until the paramedics had come to her house and taken Paul to where he could get some regular help.  That would be all there is to tell if things were normal.  Paul would have a long and excruciating recovery ahead of him, though he'd most likely get by.  One day would follow another, and there would be the end of it.

The trouble is, Annie is a bit peculiar.  Her phone line is really just the hollowed out shell of an old dial phone.  She doesn't get many visitors out her way, and she claims some of the closest neighbors don't like her.  Also she's temperamental.  She gets angry with surprising ease, and once that happens things can turn nasty real fast.  Still, she claims to be Paul's number one fan, and it seems she has no intention of ever letting him go.  One of the things Paul comes to learn in a short amount of time is that Annie is "dangerously crazy (11)".

That's the lesson that gets driven home when Annie finds out that Paul has killed off her favorite fictional character of all time: Misery Chastain.  Annie retaliates by leaving Paul alone to go think for a while, leaving Paul at the mercy of his own injuries.  When she returns, she makes him burn the manuscript of a new novel he was working on called Fast Cars.  The next thing she does is buy him a typewriter.  The reason for the gift of a writing box is because Annie claims Paul needs it for his next one.  It'll be his ultimate masterpiece: Misery's Return.  He can say no, of course.  It's a free country and all that.  The trouble with making choices, however, is that there is always some kind of consequence attached.  In Sheldon's case, if he decides not to cooperate, Annie can always just kill him.

A Novel of Layers.

I said that Misery is a novel of layers.  The first level is the surface plot in itself.  After that comes a series of layers that (so far as I can tell) break down to just three more.  These layers are perhaps just another way of saying there are at least three more themes to the novel.  They are (1) an exploration of the Nature of the Art of Writing.  There is also (2) a look at the writer as both artist and person, and the responsibilities that come with the decision to to tell stories for a living.  Finally, (3) King's book bears an interesting thematic relationship with William Shakespeare's The Tempest.  I would like to suggest that our understanding of the two main leads from Misery will be enhanced if we consider the possibility that they echo or embody themes and ideas contained in Shakespeare's Prospero and Caliban.

One more thing should be noted before we jump into each these topics.  While this diagrammatic approach to the novel will help the reader gain a clearer appreciation of King's novel, perhaps it's best to keep in mind that each of the themes outlined above are each just one aspect of what is, in reality, a unified narrative whole.  If the story itself didn't exist, then it's doubtful any of themes we're about to examine would even exist.  King has a rule or guideline he likes to follow, and in On Writing he cites it as the advice of 19th century author Frank Norris on the importance of always making sure the story comes first before all other considerations: the book is the boss (187).  I think that's the best advice to keep in mind as we make our way through the meaning of King's text.

A Writer's Manual.

King will often bring the action to a stop in order to insert a brief lecture on how to write for a living.  The curious part is how none of this seems gratuitous, or a drag on the narrative.  King is able to get away with this because the confined setting of the story means there is nowhere to go externally, leaving the protagonist's mind as the major center of narrative action.  A lot of the book consists of the inner thoughts of Paul Sheldon as he tries to figure a way out of his predicament.  Because Paul is a novelist, it only makes sense that every so often his thoughts will turn to a consideration of his chosen craft and profession.  Whenever he does this, King is allowed a certain amount of leeway to share his thoughts about storytelling with the reader.

King makes a distinction in how stories are created.  For the author, a work of fiction can have it's origin point one of two forms.

"He understood what he was doing now as TRYING TO HAVE AN IDEA.  TRYING TO HAVE AN IDEA wasn't the same thing as GETTING AN IDEA.  GETTING AN IDEA was a more humble way of saying I am inspired, or Eureka!  My muse has spoken (119)"!

This distinction is one King holds to in real life.  In his On Writing memoir, King elaborates this distinction between trying to have and getting and idea a bit further.  From his words in the latter text, it's clear that King has another word for trying to have an idea, and that word is plotting.  It's a word and a practice King finds little time for.  "I distrust plot for two reasons," King writes, "first, because our lives are largely plotless, even when you add in all our reasonable precautions and careful planning; and second , because I believe plotting and the spontaneity of real creation aren't compatible.  It's best I be as clear about this as I can - I want you to understand that my basic belief about the making of stories is that they pretty much make themselves.  The job of the writer is to give them a place to grow (and to transcribe them, of course (159)".  "Plot," King thinks, is "the good writer's last resort and the dullard's first choice.  The story which results from it is apt to feel artificial and labored (160)".  Nevertheless, King is forced to admit : "I won't try to convince you that I've never plotted any more than I'd try to convince you that I've never told a lie (159)".  Hence, in Misery, the reader is given a hypothetical situation in which both processes of inspiration and invention are at work.

Paul starts out trying to have an idea, as opposed to getting one.  In these passages King is able to evoke a reasonable snapshot of what that process is like.

"This other process - TRYING TO HAVE AN IDEA - was nowhere near as exalted or exalting, but it was every bit as mysterious...and every bit as necessary.  Because when you were writing a novel you almost always got road-blocked somewhere, and there was no sense in going on until you'd HAD AN IDEA (153)".  "He sat quietly, almost dozing, waiting for something to happen, really aware of nothing at all except that things were happening down below, that whole edifices of make-believe were being erected, judged, found wanting, and torn down again in the wink of an eye (155)".

Eventually, however, invention can either yield to or uncover an element of inspiration with the right amount of patience (and the ability to even be able to tap into the Imagination, in the first place).

"Finally the guys down below shot up a flare, as they always eventually did.  Poor buggers down there never stopped..., and he didn't envy them one little bit.

"Paul sat quietly, beginning to HAVE AN IDEA.  His conscious mind returned - THE DOCTOR IS IN - and picked up the idea like a letter pushed through the mail-slot in a door.  He began to examine it.  He almost rejected it (was that a faint groan from down there in the sweatshops?), reconsidered, decided half of it could be saved.  A second flare, this one brighter than the first (155-56)".

These are the handful of metaphors King uses to describe the origin process of writing a story.  Not long after, King compares the emergence of various elements or plot point as the "equivalent of an island archipelago seen from the air - a chain of low humps broken by broad swaths of blue (ibid)".  "He was warming up by the bottom of the page.  By the bottom of the second he was in high gear...He had finally escaped.  He was in Little Dunthorpe's church-yard, breathing damp night air, smelling moss and earth and mist; he heard the clock in the tower of the Presbyterian church strike two and dumped it into the story without missing a beat.  When it was very good he could see through the paper.  He could see through it now (156-57)".

In these scenes, King has managed to pull off the very difficult feat of making the art of writing look not just interesting, but entertaining.  The reader is invested in Paul's struggles as he sets about his novel.  The main reason for this is because King has done a masterful job at establishing the stakes involved with the scenario.  By now, the audience knows that if Paul can't find a way to write his way out of his predicament, he'll die.  This is the knowledge King's takes care in setting up at the outset.  Because he is so good at setting up and laying out the suspense, one narrative beat at after another, by the time we've arrived at the moment where King is ready to share his thoughts on the craft with us, we don't mind at all because it all fits well into the narrative strategy of whether or not the main character will even be able to get out of a jam.  The metaphor of the imagination as an unglamorous sweat-shop is also by turns amusing, and perhaps a bit more on the point in that it points out that even inspired fiction is the result of a great deal of hard work, both mental, and physical.  This also plays into the theme of the responsibilities an artist must shoulder if he wishes to play the game of art.

The Responsibilities of the Artist.

At one point, Paul recalls a game he used to play when he was a child.  It was called Can you?  This game centers around a hapless soul known as Careless Corrigan, the kind of mascot figured doomed to forever get the short end of the stick.  It is the sad fate of Careless to always find himself in a jam, lost in a South American jungle straight out of Joseph Conrad by way of Chuck Jones.  The job of the players who participate in this particular game is to see if they can guess what happens to Corrigan.  Does he live to fight another day, or does the improbable jungle conquer him?

It was a storytelling game.  Each player had ten seconds to advance the narrative in order to discover what happened to old Careless.  Those players who couldn't fill in the ten seconds are out  of the game.  However if someone is able to come up with, or discover what happens next in the Careless story, all the players are faced with a second question.  The first was Can you, as in can you finish the story?  The second question is Did he?  In other words, does the storyteller of the moment accurately describe what happens to the protagonist?  Once this question is asked, the players must vote about whether the bit of narration is right or not.  King doesn't go this far in his metaphor, yet it would have been fascinating to have imagined just how the players determined whether this or that event was the right one to happen to Corrigan.

King makes some interesting commentary about the rules of storytelling in this sequence.  "Realism wasn't necessary; fairness was (150)".  The other rule is that the author shouldn't be allowed to cheat.  What occasions these ruminations is an earlier scene between Annie and Paul.  As far as literary villains go, Annie can't be considered the most powerful, or perhaps even the most important, for that matter.  Despite that, she remains one of the most compelling.  This could be down to the writer's ability to infuse her with a sense of menace that is convincing in her moments of both insane rage, and feigned concern.  She also has a very strange, yet acute sense of perception when it comes to close readings.

This is something Paul admits as much later on, when he notes how "she'd shown not the slightest interest in a trick of the trade that would have held a class of would-be writers spellbound.  The reason, he thought, was simplicity itself.  Annie Wilkes was the perfect audience, a woman who loved stories without having the slightest interest in the mechanics of making them.  She was the embodiment of that Victorian archetype, Constant Reader.  She did not want to hear about his concordance and indices because to her Misery and the characters surrounding her were perfectly real.  Indices meant nothing to her.  If he had spoken of the village census in Little Dunthorpe, she might have shown some interest (82)".

It is this ironic lack of interest in story mechanics that makes Annie such a good reader when it comes to the narrative proper.  This lesson is brought home to Paul in great detail when Annie recalls an event from her past involving an old, Republic movie serial.  In it, the protagonist is locked inside a car with the doors welded shut.  The film reel shows the car going over a cliff, hitting the opposite side of the cliff wall on the way down, causing the car to burst into flame.  The final reel shows the burning wreckage going into a raging river.  All of this happens with the implication that the protagonist is still inside.

The logical narrative step after that set up is that whoever penned that scene has more or less written himself into a corner.  The only place left to go is to admit the hero has just been reduced to a charcoal briquette with a fatal amount of water in a set dried husks that used to be his lungs; end of story.  Still, they were only half-way through what had to have been at least a ten chapter serial picture.  So the next chapter installment shows they hero flying out of the car, safe, sound, and everything normal.  Except, that's not really the case, is it?  As Val Kilmer once observed, the problem with such a scene setup is that "it just raises too many questions".  Too many questions have a nasty way of shattering the audience's suspension of disbelief in all the wrong ways.  Unless it's one of those stories that is meant to engage the audience on several levels, it would probably have been better for the scriptwriter to leave the whole scene on the cutting room floor and start again from scratch (141-44).

This is how a more or less logical critic would approach such a writing faux pa.  The trouble with Annie Wilkes is that her mental psychosis means she's forced to express her displeasure in the following way: "He didn't get out of!  It went over the edge and he was still inside it!  Do you understand that?...DO YOU UNDERSTAND THAT?...DO YOU (143)"?  Paul does understand what she's trying to get at.  Of course he does.  He is a writer, after all.  What he realizes is that, on his first attempt to bring Misery out of her grave, he committed what amounts to a cardinal offense in the creative writing world.  "He understood how she could like what he had written and still know it was not right - know it and say it not with an editor's sometimes untrustworthy literary sophistication but with Constant Reader's flat and uncontradictable certainty.  He understood, and was amazed to find he was ashamed of himself.  She was right.  He had written a cheat (142)".

Paul further reflects that the cheat should have been obvious based just on an observation of his working habits.  "He would know the real stuff when he found it.  The real stuff would make the crap he had given Annie to read last night, the crap it had taken him three days and false starts without number to write, look like a dog turd sitting next to a silver dollar.  Hadn't he known it was all wrong?  It wasn't like him to labor so painfully, nor to half-fill a wastebasket with random jotting or half-pages...The fact was things had gone dry.  The work had gone badly because he was cheating and he had known it himself (146)".

The use of the word cheat is interesting.  Perhaps it may even be significant.  By allowing a word like cheat into his novel, King seems to be introducing a certain ethical, or moral element into the proceedings.  The author seems willing to hint at or acknowledge the possibility of a set of guidelines that writers ought to obey.  It's difficult to tell whether such an idea is radical or not.  If it is, in fact, a radical notion, then perhaps there is a bit of irony involved in the idea that something subversive could sound so old fashioned.

I am willing to admit the idea that the quality of the story can be enhanced by the amount of "fair play" involved on the part of the author.  It may be that all the great novels are, in some degree, the author's ethical reckoning of the world and life around him.  If that is the case, however, then I also want to stress that just because the best art often squares up with the best sense of right and wrong, this can never be an excuse for a shallow didactic on the part of the writer.  The value of any story lies in two inter-related parts: it's ability to entertain, and it's theme.  I'd argue that if the writer has even a small amount of genuine ability to tap into the Imagination, then that should be all he needs.  If the story is any good then the moral of it, if any, should be able to take care of itself.  Those caveats aside, the rules King lays out in Misery seem to boil down to just two.  (1) Don't cheat the audience and/or yourself.  (2) Try to get the story as right and fair as possible.

As far as both of those stipulations go, it's hard to lodge anything like a real complaint.  The idea that a story is something that tells itself (if the author will just let the Imagination do it's job) is far from a novel concept.  It seems to have its origins in the Romantic School of Blake and Coleridge.  Looked at from this perspective, King's idea of a story as a "found thing" like a "fossil (160)" buried underground can perhaps make a bit more sense.  The important fact is that once more King is able to fulfill the first rule and make all this entertaining as well as enlightening.  This relation of King's thinking to the Romantics is notable for one other reason.  It takes us to the final layer of the meaning of Misery.

Mastering the Craft: The Writer as Magician.   

What do Stephen King and William Shakespeare have to do with each other?  The average response would have to be that there's very little to be had in terms of any sort of relation between the two writers.  It is possible that some might even hold that it's impolite to even mention King and the Bard in the same sentence.  The funny thing is it hasn't kept King from utilizing a lot of Shakespearean elements in his writings.

In books like Danse Macabre and It, we see King make a startling use of a number of concepts native Shakespeare's own day.  The most telling example is his use of the inter-twined concepts of Microcosm and Macrocosm. King utilizes both of these concepts at numerous points throughout his study of the Horror genre.  In Macabre, they serve almost like a constant back-beat to which the author keeps returning in order to transition to a new riff and chord.  A good example is his discussion of what was then the New American Gothic (296-97).  If there is any thing to criticize about King's thought's on the matter, it is this strange use of the word "new" to describe a literary practice that, from the sound of things, has to be as older than the Founding of America.  It is possible that surface superficial qualities are being focused on to the point that they obscure any sense of historical continuity.  All that authors like Shirley Jackson have done is to take the elements of the Shakespearean Stage and the Victorian Gothic Novel and placed both of them into the same modern day Brooks Brothers suit.  The fashion and look might have changed, while the stories, symbols, and their overall function remain the same.

An interesting question that the presence of these critical terms and concepts raises is just where or how did King find out about them?  And why has he decided to make them a part of his critical aesthetic thought.  My guess is that if there are answers out there, then they are worth searching for.  In the meantime, we're stuck with the radical claim that King has borrowed his ideas of macro and microcosm from the Elizabethan vocabulary and literary-conceptual thought of Shakespeare.  This claim is born out once we look back in the historical records to find that King's two terms were more than familiar to the Bard and his contemporaries.  Prof. E.M.W. Tillyard gives a concise description of how Shakespeare uses macro and micro terms in his own plays.

"The world picture so far dealt with was vertical: that of a chain beginning on high with the noblest and descending to the meanest things of creation.  But the second picture of the same world was largely horizontal.  It consisted of a number of planes, arranged one below another in order of dignity but connected by an immense net of correspondences.  It is on one of those correspondences, macrocosm with commonwealth, that Ulysses's speech on degree in Troilus and Cressida is built up.  The different planes were...the universe or macrocosm, the commonwealth or the body politic, man or the microcosm, and the lower creation.  With a network of correspondences between all these Shakespeare must have been familiar, as must Andrew Marvell by the very casualness of his references when in the Garden he calls the mind:

that ocean where each kind
Does straights its own resemblance find.

First the mind is like an ocean because it is microcosmic, it contains all the bounty of the seas in little.  Second the ocean was supposed to contain a complete store of parallels to whatever existed on earth, after the manner elaborated by Kingsley in the Water Babies or by Lewis Carroll describing insects in the looking-glass world (83)".

I suppose the real question is whether not all this use of Renaissance elements in his fiction is deliberate and calculative, or else it's just going by wherever his inspiration takes him.  I tend to fall somewhere in the middle of those two options.  I'm willing to admit that sometimes King has been willing to insert some of these ideas in with genuine deliberation.  The trouble however is that King's overall approach to composition is much more intuitive than intellectual.  He's an artist who's far more comfortable going with his instincts more than trying to invent things with his mind.  To his credit, it's usually when his imaginative intuition is firing on all cylinders that King is at his best.
Just because a story is written in such a Romantic, as opposed to a more Structuralist mode, doesn't make it any less a potential work of art.  Misery seems to operate as an interesting blend of both worlds.  The overall arc of the narrative is instinctive while also being of a nature that allows the artist to step back and contemplate the meaning of his work.  The curious bit is that even this contemplation may just be part of a greater thematic whole.  There could be aspects of the novel's themes that are so instinctive that the author can be totally unaware of them.  This is where the work of the critic begins.

Tony Magistrale has proven to be the most perceptive reader of King's work.  In The Shawshank Experience, co-authored with Maura Grady, Magistrale offer that "King possesses deep insight into the anxieties, violence, and other horrors that belie the placid surface of bourgeois America (15)".  In addition, Magistrale is able to shed some illuminating light on the inter-textual level of Misery.  He takes up a discussion of the book in Stephen King: The Second Decade.  There he brings up a relation to the work of Shakespeare that is perhaps just a bit telling.  "On two separate occasions in...Misery,...King makes reference to John Fowles's fine first novel, The Collector.  King's book is indebted to The Collector on a variety of levels, most obviously because it recreates Fowles's plot: a lonely and misdirected individual, motivated not by a desire for money or sex but by a curious admixture of admiration and rage, kidnaps and romances an innocent artist (124)".

There is one thematic element to note about Fowles's book.  The title collector is named Frederick Clegg, and his victim is Miranda Grey.  "She begins to pity her captor, comparing him to Caliban in Shakespeare's play The Tempest because of his hopeless obsession with her. Clegg tells Miranda that his first name is Ferdinand (eventual winner of Miranda's affections in The Tempest (web)".  It is this level of literary allusion in Fowles's text that might just be the deciding factor of the final layer of meaning in King's novel.  Once more, it is Magistrale that helps us to dig and uncover the significant correspondences.

"Fowles's antagonist resembles Annie in a number of remarkable traits.  Both Caliban and Annie seem sharply aware that their social status is inferior to that of their guests.  Paul Sheldon is a famous and wealthy "smart guy" novelist, while Miranda is an exquisitely beautiful and cultured daughter of a doctor.  Annie and Caliban resent deeply the class differences separating them from their captives, and often inflict verbal and physical punishments as a consequence (125)".

There is just one element of King's novel that Magistrale never quite gets at.  So far, every critical look at Misery has operated under the assumption that what we are given is essentially a sort of stage drama between just two characters.  The thinking behind this perspective is that because the action is confined to the cabin where Paul's captor lives, and very few other characters appear on stage beside them, then the main conflict of the story has to be driven by friction caused by the two leads as they clash together throughout the narrative.  To be fair, all of that not only makes sense, it is also just what the reader will get from paying attention to the surface appearance of the story.  The key though that this is all the reader can get based on paying strict attention to the most superficial surface levels of the book.  If you take a symbolic, rather than a naturalistic approach, we find that it is at least possible there is one other character hovering over the action of the novel.

The crux of Annie's obsession with Paul revolves around all his writings about one fictional girl: Misery Chastain.  It is Misery, and Paul's ability to conjure her up from the imaginative aether, that are very near the roots of her obsession.  I would like to argue that when it comes to taking stock of King's novel, it always to keep in mind that there is a third actor in the drama.  It is true that Misery the character is just a fiction within a fiction, yet even as a bit of make-believe, she still manages to hold Annie under a form of psychological, literary enchantment.  This is what Paul picks up on very soon.  He refers to this as "the gotta (300-3)", as in, I gotta read this, or I gotta find out what happens.  It helps to view Misery as a character in her own right, because she is the one who always seems to hold the most power as the story unfolds.  She keeps Annie's psychosis at bay by holding her imagination in thrall.  She also helps Paul stay alive through his own imaginative gifts for being able to tap into the storytelling function in his own mind.

Here is where Magistrale is helpful in sussing out the last layer of meaning in King's narrative.  He has shown that there are echoes of John Fowles's The Collector embedded in the story.  In turn, Fowles's novel features callbacks to Shakespeare's Tempest in the use of the names Caliban and Miranda.  For the record, Caliban is a secondary villain in Shakespeare's play.  From what I can tell, he seems to be written very much in the tradition of outcast, fringe characters like Grendel from Beowulf, or Gollum in The Lord of the Rings.  Magistrale has already drawn enough of a picture to begin to see the literary relations between Caliban and Annie.  Both are outsiders who hold a grudge against the outside world, and, for whatever reason, willingly choose their status as monsters.

While Magistrale tries to show a similar thematic relation between Paul and Miranda, I'm not sure how well the comparison holds up.  For one thing, Paul turns out to be more resourceful and quicker to understand the stakes involved in his situation.  For another, Paul demonstrates an ability to master his own particular craft as an artist.  This is something that Miranda can never manage in Fowles's novel.  Instead, I think a better comparison has to be made.  Perhaps it makes more sense to view Paul not as Miranda, but as Prospero, the flawed, yet resolved hero of Shakespeare's play.  Like Prospero, Paul finds himself marooned in a secluded spot with a monster which he must subdue if he is to survive.  Also like his Shakespearean counter-part, Paul is an adept in a particular branch of the arts.  Prospero was able to master the arts of magic.  For Paul it is the simple ability to write entertaining novels for a living.  It doesn't change the relation both men share in that each has to learn to discipline themselves in order to make themselves worthy of their chosen professions, and to achieve a form of escape.

That leaves just Misery, the fiction within the fiction.  If she has any thematic counter-part in King's drama, then it could be as Paul's version of Ariel.  This figure is a kind of sprite or spirit in Shakespeare's play who acts as a muse to Prospero.  The most informative insights about this character are also the most awkward.  They come from The Shakespearean Tempest, which is a critical study by G. Wilson Knight, an author who is both perceptive, misguided, and just plain loopy all at once.  His opinions on the figure of Ariel, however, are sound enough.

To summarize a complex argument, Knight holds that both Caliban and Ariel exist in Shakespeare's comedy as oppositional types set against each other.  Caliban, as is fitting for his character, is a figure that represents a constant, looming possibility of unleashing chaos, and setting everything into disorder.  Ariel, by contrast, is a literal expression of both the poetic muse, and a controlling and ordering reason.  Where Caliban is all blind passion ready to break things down, Ariel is a form of intellect capable of building up.  "And the same thought inspired Plato's vision of man as a charioteer driving two steeds, one bright and fiery, the other ugly and sluggish (279)".  Hence, in a literary form of transition and borrowing from Plato to Shakespeare, we have the "fiery and earthy in man: Ariel and Caliban (ibid)".  Thus the two are set in opposition, yet it's an opposition of a curious kind.  When the two clash just right, the result is an ironic, yet genuine form of harmony.  In literary terms it is known as the establishment of the unity of opposites.

The key is that if two opposing tendencies can be held in a kind of mental equilibrium, then what you get is what was known in the Bard's day as a mappa mundi, a diagram, or image, of a balanced human mind.  In that regard, Ariel and Caliban are illustrations of the tendencies of human thought in the best of the Renaissance tradition.  The trick is that in this same tradition, if the passions cannot be tamed, then it can sometimes be necessary to cut out the mental deadwood.  Hence you have the deaths of both Grendel and Gollum.  This is the situation Annie ultimately finds herself in.  In Hollywood's Stephen King, Magistrale notes how Annie longs to identify herself with Misery, and yet it's a goal that always remains out of her reach (66-7).  She can't create like her favorite fictional heroine.  Instead, her own psychotic passions leave her to a life that can only destroy everything she comes in contact with, even (especially?) if she loves it.

This doesn't have to be Paul's fate.  He has a gift which is also a craft.  The trick for Paul is to see whether he has it in him to be like Prospero in his ability to spin a yarn.  His literary spells are the only thing keeping him alive.  For Paul, being Prospero is all about learning what it means to live as both a writer and a man.  He comes to learn that you can't necessarily separate the two sphere's of his existence.  This means that the art of writing itself carries a bigger laundry list of responsibilities than even he figured at first.  Sheldon's job is to learn those responsibilities, this means owning up to his own faults and mistakes as an artist who is all too human.

The moment he does this, he discovers how art and life can mingle and mix together to create  symbol that tells the truth inside the ostensible lie of fiction.  T.S. Eliot offered, in On Poets and Poetry, a good example of how this discovery of the responsibilities of the artist can play out in real life.  "The poet," he writes, "out of intense personal experience, is able to express a general truth; retaining the particularity of his experience, to make it a general symbol (299)".  While Annie might be the instigator of Paul's dilemma, she is not the main takeaway.  The real general truth Paul discovers is how art can lead one to a sense of personal responsibility.

That's also a lesson King learned right about the time he was composing Misery.  As he admits in On Writing, "Annie was coke, Annie was booze, and I decided I was tired of being Annie's pet writer (91)".  The biggest takeaway King got out of the whole experience is the kind that always manages to sound trite on paper, yet it's worth repeating anyway:  "Life isn't a support-system for art.  It's the other way around (94)".

Stephen King's Misery proves an altogether rewarding experience.  It's accomplishment is all the more remarkable for being unlikely to draw in casual readers with it's setup.  The action is confined to a single space or setting, with little in the way of actual movement or propulsive action.  Whether in spite or because of this, King is able to weave a riveting amount of tension and suspense out of his claustrophobic narrative.  He does this mainly by keeping the central threat that Annie Wilkes poses to the main character foregrounded almost from the start, and then let's it linger as a constant reminder in the background.  The threat of violence is always hanging over Paul's head, and it's this note of impending menace that King is able to play and riff on like an expert from the first to last page of his book.

This is a skill that is sorely lacking in the later movie adaptation, starring Kathy Bates and James Caan.  Magistrale highlights the drop in quality, noting: "While (Rob) Reiner's and (William) Goldman's screenplay sought to soften King's portrait of Annie, their efforts are also a reflection of Hollywood's desire to tone down her character...Finally, in Reiner's film there is the addition of Sheriff "Buster" McCain (Richard Farnsworth) and his wife, Virginia (Frances Sternhagen), who are both missing from King's text.  Their presence serves once more to lighten the darkness of Paul's entrapment by providing a measure of comic relief for the audience, as the older couple poses an amusing counterpoint to the intensely serious relationship that is forged between Annie and Paul.  When we encounter a long scene featuring Paul inside his bedroom or witness a specifically terrifying moment between Annie and Paul, the sheriff and his wife often appear in the next sequence to provide a comic and less oppressive view of reality.  Their inclusion in the film contrasts sharply with the relentless claustrophobic perspective afforded the reader of King's novel, where Annie is not only Paul's jailer, she is also his sole connection to the rest of the world (63-4)".

The unfortunate result of these creative choices is that the whole story is toned down to the point where everything loses its sense of tension and narrative urgency.  The whole affair should be one that leaves audiences struggling to breathe as things wind up to the final showdown.  Instead, Goldman and Reiner are a bit too willing to hold the audience's hand, where King was more skillful at manipulating their expectations from one moment to the next in the original novel. 

It is because King has brought his A-game to this work, taking great care and applying his under-appreciated skill to the story's composition that it is possible to speak of Misery as late 20th century masterclass in the narrative arts.  It may not be as much of a trademark work like The Shining or It.  It does not feature any of spectacle or epic scale of those former books.  However, what it lacks in scope it more than makes up for in its exploration of the rich inner landscapes of its main characters.  In some ways, these deep dives into the map of the Gothic psych can prove just as epic as anything penned by Tolkien.

That sounds like a tall order to swallow.  The trick is that audiences have to be willing to play a part of their own.  In order to do it's work, even a good novel needs an attentive ear.  If the audience is willing to grant Misery the effort required in terms of both time and attention, the rewards will be well worth it.


  1. (1) In some ways you lost me a little with the Tempest allusions, but the more I think about it, you're right: The Tempest is very much about an author reconciling himself with the power/ addiction/ consequences of his creative powers. His creative predicament as it were. Here I think of the excellent last issue of Neil Gaiman's THE SANDMAN series which has "The Tempest" being a work actually commissioned by Dream and Shakespeare wrestling with all of this himself. And another thing it reminds me of "Emergence," the penultimate episode of ST: TNG, where the crew struggles to understand and overcome (and ultimately assist) a lifeform created from its own logs, databanks, and "dreams" as it were. Looked at like this, Annie is less a dream and the nigthmare side of creation. An interesting comparison, and you're right to make it. Hadn't occurred to me before.

    (2) I concede that a faithful adaptation of the book still remains to be made. But I wouldn't necessarily call the movie a failure of adaptation, particularly compared to some of the other works based on his work. Admittedly that's not the highest bar to clear. But it seemed a logical enough way to get the core of the film to the screen, and the addition of Buster works for me. Not only does it add a familiar structure to things, it augments Paul's predicament once Buster pieces it together and almost saves him before being tragically killed. The patrolman who serves this function in the book is perfectly fine, but I can sympathize with the adaptors' choice, here, to widen the role a bit. It fits the screenplay.

    (3) The last time I read this one I was really struck by how subtly Misery's Return reflects (and refracts) Paul's own story. King did a great job with that. This whole book is a real home run from him.

  2. (1) I really have to tip my hat to Magistrale for all this. He was the one who pointed out the relations between King and Shakespeare. I just added a few thoughts of my own, based on other stuff I've read about the symbolism in old Bill's plays. A lot of it is work by guys like Stanton Linden, and the above mention Wilson Knight.

    (2) I suppose one way of looking at it would be to describe the shared subject brought up by King, Gaiman, and Trek as that moment of transition where the "gotta" becomes canon, or at least something that has more or less turned into an essential.

    Maybe the real question is whether the elements that turn a story into an essential are contained in the story itself, or in the perception of the audience?

    (2) This reminds me of something else Gaiman said. It comes from an essay collection, "The View from the Cheap Seats". At one point in the book, Gaiman talks about the work of a film professor named Linda Williams. He gives a summation of what he learned from her work about the nature of genres and the audience expectations that come with them:

    "In a musical you are going to have different kinds of song - solos, duets, trios, full choruses, sons sung by men to women and by women to men, slow songs, fast songs, happy songs, love songs...that "need to be gone through".

    "In a musical the plot exists to allow you to get from song to song and to stop all the songs from happening at once...And furthermore and most importantly, the songs in a musical are, well, they're not what you're there for, as you're there for the whole thing, story and all, but they are those things that if they are not there you as a member of the audience would feel cheated. If you've to a musical and there are no songs, you are going to walk out feeling that you did not get your musical money's worth. You are never going to walk out of "The Godfather going, "There weren't any songs" (43-44)".

    My question is if this is what you mean when you say that the "Outside" segments of the movie "Misery" made sense? If so, then I can see how it is possible to make a counter-argument. If it's genre tropes that's the real concern, then perhaps a suggestion is that while a character like Sheriff Buster makes sense in some other context, perhaps the genre context of "Misery" is just not the right one.

    I find it interesting that all those insertions can entertain other people, where they just come off as distractions for me. That plus the fact that Reiner and Goldman sort of take Annie a bit less seriously than King does. In the novel, I always get a clear sense of threat from her. In the movie, what I am getting is the "potential" for for a sense of threat. The problem is potential is all the audience is given, not something actual. Again, I think this is down to problems with the writing the actors have been given to work with, everything is set at mild, when it should be like slow burning fireworks.

    (3) Surely it's gone down as a college level worthy text, hasn't it? If not, I can see a day when this becomes a reality.


  3. (1) "Perhaps a horror novel by Stephen King seems like an odd choice to make as a light and positive example." -- Not to me!

    (2) That excerpt from "Danse Macabre" is provocative, isn't it? I don't think I connected that with "Misery" the last time I read it; thanks for pointing it out!

    (3) "Paul starts out trying to have an idea, as opposed to getting one. In these passages King is able to evoke a reasonable snapshot of what that process is like." -- And it's very interesting that (as you point out later) Annie, reading the weak-sauce results of these efforts (although I'm not sure if this happens after the excerpts you provide or if that was earlier), immediately sniffs out the difference. She's a monster, but a perceptive one. I don't know what this shit is, she more or less says, but it sure ain't Misery. (This is not unlike me saying "Star Trek: Discovery" isn't really "Star Trek," I just realized. but hey, Annie wasn't WRONG...)

    (4) "King doesn't go this far in his metaphor, yet it would have been fascinating to have imagined just how the players determined whether this or that event was the right one to happen to Corrigan." -- An argument could be made that anyone who reads "Misery" (be it Sheldon's or King's) is put in the role of deciding the answer to "Did he?" Not just this novel, in fact, but every novel.

    (5) "By allowing a word like cheat into his novel, King seems to be introducing a certain ethical, or moral element into the proceedings. The author seems willing to hint at or acknowledge the possibility of a set of guidelines that writers ought to obey." -- Fascinating! I think King's overall career probably speaks to the idea that he does feel a moral obligation to be true to his own storytelling instincts. This explains why he occasionally says things like how it wasn't him who write Tad Trenton's death in "Cujo," it was just that Tad got to the end of the novel and died on his own. There is zero doubt in my mind that King's entire body of work could be viewed through this lens.

    1. (1) Yeah, sometimes the weirdest things are the most helpful.

      (2) That whole description of the dream just jumped out at me, really. I forget when it all first clicked in my mind, however I do recall jus thinking back on that Macabre passage and wondering if maybe the Dream Witch and Annie were one and the same archetype?

      (3)(4)(5) For me it all comes from the idea that the writer is supposed to "get it (i.e. the story) right". That just leaves two questions. 1. Does the story work? 2. If not, then how come, or why? I think the question of "Did he plays pretty much into this idea of getting it right. I'd argue that if a story fails, then it should be reasonable to pinpoint or find out where it went wrong. If you can do that, then maybe both audience and storyteller are able to find a mutual benefit.


  4. (6) You know, it just occurred to me that I ought to have used letters or something to split my comments apart, since McMolo already used numbers. I apologize for the muddying of the waters! But having thus begun, I guess I'll get right on going in the same vein.

    (7) "What do Stephen King and William Shakespeare have to do with each other? The average response would have to be that there's very little to be had in terms of any sort of relation between the two writers." -- I'd argue that they are similar if only in the sense that they both produced very large bodies of work, and in the sense that those large bodies of work tend to encourage one to explore it widely rather than narrowly. How many people are fans of "Hamlet" but no other works of Shakespeare? How many people love "It" but then never read another book by King? I'm sure examples of both exist, but fewer than would be true of other authors, I bet. So I'm sure there's something to be said for both authors' ability to engage.

    (8) "The crux of Annie's obsession with Paul revolves around all his writings about one fictional girl: Misery Chastain. It is Misery, and Paul's ability to conjure her up from the imaginative aether, that are very near the roots of her obsession." -- I can't quite turn it into a fully-formed thought, but something about this puts me in mind of Alan Moore's assertion of being a magician. In a sense, I think maybe what you're saying about Paul's creation of Misery (the character) is an argument for Moore's assertion being accurate.

    1. (6) (shrugs) I'd have to say a good idea is still good either way. Never bothered me none.

      (8) Okay, now I have this parody image of Alan Moore stuck in Paul's place. Yeah, that's a whole SNL idea right there!