Gerald’s Game is a best-selling novel from the extremely successful author, Stephen King. Its first edition printed 1,500,000 copies when it was published back in 1992, and it is still in print today, now accompanied by a movie version that came out in September, 2017. There are many factors that can contribute to a novel becoming a best-seller and being written by Stephen King is one of them. Stephen King has written more than 50 novels in his career (some under a pen name) and all of them have been bestsellers (Simon & Schuster). Since his first best-selling novel, Carrie (written in 1974), he has continued to release novels, short story collections, and/or other types of writing every year (with a few exceptions), sometimes releasing multiple in a single year. He produces an incredible amount of reading material and his massive fan base consumes all of it, without fail. One Washington Post journalist, Karen Heller writes,
“He didn’t sell 350 million books through wishful thinking or banking on the prior success of “Misery” or “The Green Mile.” This year, he published what might take another author a decade or more to produce: a novel, a contribution to an essay collection, a children’s book and two short stories. He’ll have another novel next year. They’re all a sure way to keep King a king among readers, and have him dancing atop the bestseller list where he lives.”
His constant writing keeps his fans engaged, but there are reasons beyond his rapid output that contribute to the success of his books. Many authors have had hit bestsellers, but not many have been unable to hold the public’s interest for over 40 years like King has. By taking a closer look at the elements that make up Gerald’s Game, I will show just what can make a bestseller a bestseller, specifically looking at the themes, complex characterization, and strategic plot structure.
When Gerald’s Game was released, it was clear that it was a different type of Stephen King novel. The majority of King’s novels up until this point featured male protagonists. In his stories, he wrote men very well, but rarely wrote women as main characters, and when he did they were often psychotic. Gerald’s Game was a change because the story is all about a woman, and she serves as a strong, and likable lead. Critics note this feminist element of the book and how it was a change for King (see reception history). We get a very thorough and interesting look into her character and the innerworkings of her mind. We also see a criticism of men and how they treat women. This somewhat feminist turn for Stephen King comes at a very relevant time, as 1992 was a time when women were making big strides. Susan Milligan made a timeline of the feminist movement on U.S. News and World Report where she cites 1992 as, “The Year of the Woman: Following 1991 hearings in which lawyer Anita Hill accused Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas of sexual harassment, record numbers of women are elected to Congress, with four women winning Senate elections and two dozen women elected to first terms in the House.” This female-powered novel comes out right after a case that got most of America talking about men sexually harassing women, and within a time where women are starting to establish their power in society. This book’s topical relevancy made it a welcome read for 1992 America.
The theme of female strength emerges very early in the book. The initial pages of the book show Jessie telling her husband that she no longer wants to partake in the sex game that he is playing, and when he decides to continue without her consent, she asserts herself by kicking him in the groin to get him off her. This is what causes the heart attack that kills him. This early scene shows the importance of consent, that a woman should be able to withdraw her consent at any point, the nefariousness of ignoring a woman who is saying no, and the power that women can have. While she initially triumphs over her cruel husband, she remains handcuffed to the bed (which was part of his game). This leads to the real beginning of her nightmare situation. Her remaining trapped by her husband even when he has died speaks to the vicious reaches of the patriarchal system. It continues to show how much this malicious system has trapped Jessie when her father’s sexual abuse of her as a child is revealed. The effects of this have remained in her mind and have affected her whole life. The voice of “Goodwife Burlingame,” a voice that represents the ideal housewife/soft-spoken woman that Jessie has felt she had to be for years, shows an internalization of the patriarchy that has shaped Jessie’s behavior and her relationship to her husband and father. In this terrifying situation she is finally able to push back against this voice and it is the female voices in her head of her college friend and her former therapist that help her to get through the ordeal. The book shows Jessie mentally working through her troubled relationship with her husband, and her traumatizing past with her father, and her eventual escape from the handcuffs seems to represent a physical embodiment of her freeing herself from the shackles of patriarchy in her past. This story of female resilience was very in tune with the times, and likely led many readers to feel a continuing admiration for King’s writing as he displays his widened characterization abilities.
Another aspect of this novel that is different from his previous novels is the extremely limited setting and number of characters. The book, with the exception of the very beginning (before Gerald dies) and the very end, takes place entirely in a bedroom and has only one human character (with the exception of the “Space Cowboy” who is not really characterized and is thought to be a hallucination for the entire time that Jessie is trapped). Stephen King challenges his own writing abilities and creates a unique experience for the reader by having the vast majority of the book tell what is taking place inside of Jessie’s head. Jessie’s memories and flashbacks as well as her mental projections of voices inside her head drive the plot of the novel. It seems like it would be tiresome to read a 332 page book where over 250 of the pages are just one character’s thoughts while she is trapped alone in a bedroom, but King manages to draw the reader in. He paints such a realistic picture of the panic of such a situation as Jessie’s that the reader becomes hooked, turning page after page to see how (or if) Jessie will be able to think her way out of this situation. He also gives her mind a great amount of dimension by having it be composed of multiple voices that speak to her and make up the parts of her conflicted inner mind. Her mental trials are interspersed with flashbacks to her childhood and the abuse that her father put her through. The way that the flashbacks are broken up creates intense suspense as the reader slowly finds out what happened to her as a child that sparked her mental turmoil. This impressive writing by King made for yet another best-selling novel. He yet again showed his ability to write the suspense novel in a new way, that keeps his readers wanting more.
Gerald’s Game is also a bestseller because its plot fits a successful pattern. In their book The Bestseller Code, Archer and Jockers break down the elements of a successful bestselling novel by making a computer program that can read books for certain elements that spell success. One of the aspects that they point out as important is a book following one of seven plotlines that follow distinct curves of increasing and decreasing emotional mood. By tracking the positive-emotion words and negative-emotion words in books they can see how the mood rises and falls between happy (or some other positive emotion/situation) and sad (or another negative emotion/situation). It is important that the book go both into the positive and the negative emotions, rather than being happy all the way through or sad all the way through. There are seven different common plotlines that are seen in bestsellers. These plotlines show the order, the frequency, and the extent to which moods shift in the books. Gerald’s Game fits very well onto Plotline 7: the “man in hole story.” This starts out somewhat positive (though not extremely positive), before quite quickly beginning to decline, so that a major chunk of the story is spent in a negative situation, before eventually it rises again and ends with somewhat positive emotion, though the depth that negative center of the story hits is much deeper than that of the positive beginning and end emotions. Gerald’s Game maps perfectly onto this pattern. The plot starts relatively positively, with Jessie and Gerald simply on a little trip to their lake house trying to spice up their love life. Though Jessie isn’t in an excellent mood, the situation is alright. Things begin to take a turn for the worse when Gerald attempts to rape her, has a heart attack, and dies, leaving Jessie manacled to the bed. Things get even worse as she tries and fails to escape, becomes thirstier, more delirious, sees a dog come in and feed on her husband, has a (possibly real, possibly imaginary) scary figure enter the room, and mentally re-lives her father’s sexual abuse of her as a child. Her chances begin to look better when she figures out a way to get her hand out of the cuff, though the gruesome way that she does this is extremely painful, and she passes out from blood loss. However, this is still the start of the upward movement of the emotional plot. She is not safe yet, but she has more hope. She wakes up and runs away from the Space Cowboy (who has come back) and eventually ends up safe. While the novel doesn’t close with “they all lived happily ever after” she does seem to have found some peace and is getting over her Post Traumatic Stress Disorder symptoms. The shape is exactly the large scoop from happy, to extremely sad, to happy, that is a perfect recipe for success.
Another important factor that Archer and Jockers highlight for a novel to be a bestseller is to only cover a small number of themes, and Gerald’s Game does this. The story covers: troubled relationship with parents, troubled relationship with husband, sexual abuse, and personal development. It also includes an aspect of human closeness that plays a very important role in the ending. Archer and Jockers write that the element of human closeness is very important in making a bestseller. One of the voices that helps to save Jessie is the voice of her old college friend Ruth. This voice is one of the main things that keeps her going. The novel ends with Jessie writing a letter to Ruth to reach out to her, thank her, and apologize to her. It is a touching ending that shows that despite the negative relationships with her husband and father, Jessie grew closer to a friend through her traumatic experience. These themes make the reader feel a connection to the book that keeps them reading, and keeps the book selling.
Gerald’s Game is just one of many Stephen King bestsellers, but it has unique attributes that speak to its individual success. Through the breakdown of the characterization, plotline, and themes of the book, it is easy to see the building blocks that make King’s writing successful time and time again. With a recent (this is written in April, 2018) film released on Netflix that received a 91% approval rating from critics on Rotten Tomatoes (Rottentomatoes.com), the book is likely to have somewhat of a resurgence in popularity among the younger audiences who were not around for its initial release, but will now be drawn in by the movie. Gerald’s Game is likely to live on as part of the Stephen King literary empire for a long time to come.
Archer, Jodie, and Matthew Lee Jockers. The Bestseller Code: Anatomy of the Blockbuster Novel. St. Martin's Griffin, 2016.
Flanagan, Mike, and Jeff Howard. “Gerald's Game.” (2017) - Rotten Tomatoes, 17 Apr. 2018, www.rottentomatoes.com/m/geralds_game/.
Heller, Karen. “Meet the Writers Who Still Sell Millions of Books. Actually, Hundreds of Millions.” The Washington Post, 20 Dec. 2016, www.washingtonpost.com/lifestyle/style/meet-the-elite-group-of-authors-who-sell-100-million-books-or-350-million/2016/12/20/db3c6a66-bb0f-11e6-94ac-3d324840106c_story.html?noredirect=on&utm_term=.3fb0bd625624.
Milligan, Susan. “Stepping Through History.” U.S. News & World Report, U.S. News & World Report, 20 Jan. 2017, 1:54pm, www.usnews.com/news/the-report/articles/2017-01-20/timeline-the-womens-rights-movement-in-the-us.
“Stephen King.” Simon & Schuster, Simon & Schuster, Inc., www.simonandschuster.com/authors/Stephen-King/1666839.