When writer Paul Sheldon’s car crashes in the snow in a remote area of Colorado, he is badly injured. As luck would have it, he is discovered unconscious by Annie Wilkes, a former nurse. She takes him back to her house and she plies him with painkillers as he recovers. What better hands could he be in? What’s more, Annie is Paul’s number one fan, especially when it comes to his series of romance novels featuring heroine Misery Chastain. But as events unfold, Paul comes to realise that Annie Wilkes is far from being his guardian angel, and perhaps it would have been better if she’d left him out in the cold to die…
Stephen King’s celebrated 1987 psychological horror novel is the latest of his works to be released as part of The Folio Society’s catalogue. It follows the inclusion of The Shining in 2016. Many readers may have already seen the 1990 film adaptation, which starred Kathy Bates and James Caan. It’s fair to say that the novel goes much further and deeper, subjecting the reader to scenes of disturbing psychotic violence. You have been warned!
Misery is an ingenious novel. It not only presents readers with a tangible frightening scenario, but it is also clearly an extension of author Stephen King’s worst nightmare. As such, it delves into the mind of a writer, through the protagonist Paul Sheldon. When Annie finds out that Paul has killed off her beloved character Misery so that he can write a crime novel he is hoping will bring him literary acclaim, she is outraged. A typewriter, archaic even in the 1980s, is brought in, and Paul is forced to bring Misery back from the dead. This allows King to lead the reader inside the writing process, and the novel contains excerpts from his new novel written under duress. The typewriter starts life with a missing letter ‘n’, and later it loses a ‘t’ as well. But then, it’s not only the machine that starts to lose pieces as Annie Wilkes oversees the creation of ‘Misery’s Return’. Worse still, Paul discovers secrets about Annie Wilkes’s past that leave him under no doubt that his life expectancy has plummeted, unless he can recover enough strength and movement in his limbs to escape. But what if he finishes his novel first?
There are very few characters in ‘Misery’, and the vast majority of the action takes place either with Paul alone, or with Paul in the company of Annie Wilkes. Almost all of the story is set within the confines of Annie Wilkes’s spare bedroom, with the occasional venture into other parts of her house. You are invited to feel as claustrophobic and panicked as Paul, trapped inside four closing walls with only a psychopath for company and an addiction to painkillers to contend with too. Yet the pacing is perfect, and the suspense King sustains is masterful. Many times I found my eyes skipping ahead to find out what happens next, and my heart-rate speeding up through adrenaline.
My usual objections to King’s work are absent from ‘Misery’. None of it is overwritten – there is no fat on the bones here, save perhaps for the intrusions of excepts from ‘Misery’s Return’, which are used to give readers a temporary reprieve from the constant ratcheting up of Paul’s living nightmare. The story takes as long as it needs, but no more. There is no supernatural element, either. The imaginative premise is horrific enough without any need to invite the forces of darkness along for the ride. There’s no denying that ‘Misery’ is a literary and skilfully-written book, full of clever ideas and neat reversals. It also keeps you guessing right up to the end: is there a possible route out of hell for Paul? And in the final reflection, which character do you have sympathy for?
Despite the graphic depictions of horror within the book – an incident with a lawnmower will live especially long in my memory – there is an element of ‘Misery’ that is darkly humorous. A gallows humour, certainly. But it’s there, not least in the cutesy turns of phrase of Annie Wilkes – ‘do-bee’ and ‘oogy mess’ are two cloying examples. The juxtaposition between her language and her deeds is part of what makes her such a vivid creation.
Among his shorter novels, and highly accessible, ‘Misery’ is a great choice for readers so far uninitiated with Stephen King’s canon. This edition from the Folio Society comes with eight full-page colour illustrations by Edward Kinsella that are perfectly spaced to avoid spoilers. The typewriter, blood on the keys, is embossed onto the black hardback cover. The stunning design of the book neatly captures the horrifying world within the pages. It’s a must-have edition for collectors of Stephen King’s works.
The Folio Society edition of ‘Misery’ by Stephen King, illustrated by Edward Kinsella, is available exclusively from www.foliosociety.com.
Publisher: The Folio Society Publication date: May 2021