I first read Stephen King's Misery many years ago when I stole/borrowed my sister's copy of it. Being a naïve youth, most of the story went over my head. But then I grew up, understood more about writing, and not too long ago, came to the conclusion that King is one of my personal heroes, and a career in writing is definitely within my grasp. Diligently, I picked the book up again a couple of weeks ago. Going into the novel after a break of maybe thirteen years, the only thing I remembered about Misery was a trapped writer, insane serial killer-turned nurse, a typewriter, and something about an axe.
For a Stephen King book, Misery is comparatively short - only 338 pages - so King doesn't waste any time getting into the story and introducing us to the two main characters. As Paul Sheldon slowly regains consciousness following his car accident, we soon find out that not everything is right with his rescuer, Annie Wilkes. She lives in the middle of nowhere. She eschews taking Paul to a hospital, or calling the police, and instead rigs up an IV drip and gives him painkillers that she assures him she has in abundance. Worse, she's his number one fan.
The way King sets ups the character of Annie Wilkes is so good, sometimes you feel it teeters perilously close to being too good. When she tells Paul in extensive methodical detail how she will dispose of the body of a Colorado State Police officer she killed (and how she will handle the ensuing investigation), you start to think that this is a bit of "As you know, Bob", a low point in an otherwise gripping and flawless book. But then she tells Paul (and us) why she's taken the time to let us know, point for point, what she intends on doing and how every detail is mapped out, circled and then devoured. Annie Wilkes is crazy - she's convinced the whole world is out to get her - but she can spot a deus ex machina better than a lot of highly-paid editors could. Annie Wilkes is insane - she cuts Paul's foot off after an escape attempt, amputates his thumb when he complains about the defective typewriter she gave him to write his greatest novel, and through it all insists she loves him - but she knows how to hide a body and a car, without the help of an education, police procedural TV shows or novels.
That said, the most horrifying thing about Annie Wilkes is her one moment of plaintive confusion and simple humanity in the last minutes of her life. While the (fake) manuscript of Paul Sheldon's greatest book rains down around leafs of flame, with burning pages stuffed down her gullet courtesy her favorite author, the pure, innocent Annie Wilkes speaks through the eyes of a woman who killed dozens of infants in her care - What happened, Paul?, those eyes ask, uncomprehending of the fiery inferno that heralds the end of Annie Wilkes' life, I was bringing you champagne, wasn't I? That's what makes this book (and Stephen King) so great - in the midst of insanity and chaos, between evil and the struggle to survive, there's a single second of tortured harmlessness and naievete that makes us wonder what the normal Annie Wilkes would have been like; an Annie Wilkes who didn't mutilate herself in the depths of her depressive catatonia , who didn't lose sight of the dividing lines between her fictional heroine and the fallible man who brought her to life. Anybody could write a book about a crazy former nurse terrorizing her favorite author. Only Stephen King could make every other author reading his book put it down and wonder "What if…?"
In retrospect, Misery says more about Stephen King than it does the state of depressive psychotics stalking their favorite authors - in particular his struggle with drug and alcohol addiction, but also the sheer power of his gift. There's a moment in Misery just before Paul Sheldon starts writing again, following his accident. Paul confesses that he's never been good at a lot of things - couldn't play sports, can't play the guitar, no good at marriages, but damnit, he can write. King has such passion for what he does that it practically bleeds off each page, making Misery, in some ways, more than just a novel.
Perhaps the more intimate setting of Misery allows for a better conclusion than some of King's more epic, climactic finales. The resolutions of The Stand and the confrontation between Roland and the Crimson King in The Dark Tower left me cold, but the showdown between Paul and Annie is riveting and terrifying. You're cheering for Paul all the way - except when he sees that helpless look in Annie's eyes as the madwoman is temporarily incapacitated. And then you have to wonder. You've got to wonder.