Why do we enjoy Misery?
Stephen King has a way of writing books about gruesome and horrifying topics that sell very well, and are generally received well by critics. Misery is no exception to King's library. But why is this tale about a deranged fan torturing her favorite au
thor such a winner? The reasons for the warm reception of Misery range from current events when the book was published in 1987 to the movie edition that did very well. In the end though all the critical praise and reception by the fans comes down to one
factor, Stephen King himself. Through his personality and celebrity, and also his basic ability to write, King has fashioned in Misery another in a long line of bestsellers.
In a critical essay, first we must look at the critic's response to the book. King is often perceived as simply a horror hack spinning tales of ghosts and goblins haunting little children or of monsters devouring cities. However, King has worked hard
and well to prove himself as something more than this. Often he delves into the arena of the human mind in his writing, and through a certain knowledge of the derangements of the human mind creates all-to-real monsters and would-be-heros in fantastical t
ales. While even the critics refer to him as the "Master of Horror" or "King of Gothic", in their reviews of Misery they recognize King's desire and ability to step a little out of this genre. Misery has only two characters in ninety-nine percent of th
e book, away from the group mentality that is often found in King's other work. Also, the story is not necessarily one of horror, but of more character study and suspense. All but one reviewer I found, and even that one is somewhat undecided, really se
emed to enjoy this different style of writing by King: "Even if 'Misery' is less terrifying than his usual work - no demons, no witchcraft, no nether-world horrors - it creates strengths out of its realities. Its excitements are more subtle. And, as s
uch, it is an intriguing work."(John Katzenbach, New York Times.May 31, 1987.) This quote also brings up another aspect of Misery that the critics raved about- King's somewhat satirical look at the writing profession and at himself.
Misery is the story of a writer who under extreme circumstances authors his finest work. The critics saw this as King making a little semi-autobiography of himself in the character of Paul Sheldon, and they praise this self-conscious twist. King makes
many statements about the process of writing in this book through Sheldon, and the critics realize this as a close look at how King and other writers work. This fascinates them: "In addition to being able to scare the reader breathless, he is able, in t
his book, to say a tremendous amount about writing itself, about its 'deep and elemental drawing power,' its letdowns, its challenges."(Carolyn Banks, Washington Post.June14, 1987) An inside look into King is what Misery seems to promise, and the criti
cs are happy to join this introspective view. But in the end what draws the most praise from the critics is the book's story and characters. King is known as a master storyteller, and even admits this about himself, and the critics really saw something
gripping in Misery. Some reviews see Annie Wilkes, the nurse who rescues Paul Sheldon, as a very well rounded and fleshed out character who provides great terror. All the reviews are quite laudatory towards the character of Paul Sheldon, because throug
h him King expresses some of himself, but also he is an interesting and intricate character. Also, the complicated relationship between these two characters excites the psychiatrist in the reviewers who try to examine it. Even though the story is not on
e of direct horror, they still see the plot as "cliffhanging" and keeping the pages turning. The reviewers view King in Misery as combining "serious" writing and storytelling into one globe that they can deconstruct, but also sit back and enjoy.
After hearing what all the critics have to say about Misery, the book's popularity definitely stems from what was going on in the world and especially the U.S. when the book was published in May of 1987. The year in the U.S. dwelt on a lot of what woul
d be called "right-wing" issues. Ronald Reagan was still in the presidency, even though he had some health problems. Congress was controlled by the Democrats, creating some tension between these two branches of government that was played up in the press
. Also, the Iran-Contra affair was in full speed having started in November of 1986. Americans watched and waited to hear what was happening with their troops and hoping not to have more government corruption come to light. Next in line was Gary Hart'
s dropping out of the presidential race later in the year because of sexual improprieties he committed. This also dominated the news of that year. Personally I do not see why this book was not even more popular with all this bad news coming out.
This book served to turn attention or provide escape from all the disturbing things going on in real life. They could travel to Paul Sheldon's problems and watch a play of sorts develop in their imagination and on the page, not on the evening news. Ki
ng definitely knows what is going on in the world and slips little notes to readers at different points. Paul Sheldon ends up in his problematic situation with Annie Wilkes because he crashes his Camaro and crushes his legs in the process. Later we lear
n through a flashback by Paul that he has a Gary Hart for President sticker on his bumper, a faded sticker. Also, earlier, Paul compares his situation to a part Ronald Reagan had played in his days as an actor. Clearly King recognizes what is going on i
n his world and how things work in this alternate but very closely related reality.
Another very powerful happening in the world that affects this novel is the Cold War. The Cold War is definitely still in effect as Reagan in his State of the Union address mentions Russia's deployment of troops in certain areas, and how this violates
goodwill. Annie and Paul are engaged in their own kind of Cold War. They each have a certain amount of power: Paul depends on Annie in his weakened state, but he also is writing a new Misery novel for her and she waits on his every chapter. They are st
alemated for a while in their movements against each other because of their dependence, just like the two superpowers were. Eventually though this is a Stephen King novel and the stalemate is broken by the fact that Annie is insane. And we cannot forget
that this novel was published in the "me" era of greed, the 1980's. Paul thinks of writing as the business that it is because he lives in the 80's. But Annie in her naivete and her psychosis lives somewhere in the past and she cannot stand for him to
speak of writing in this way: "Annie, one of the first things you find out in this business...'Don't call it that. I hate it when you call it that.' He looked at her, honestly puzzled. 'Call what what?' 'When you pervert the talent God gave yo
u by calling it a business. I hate that.'" (Misery.p. 65-6.) King, through Annie in one of the few moments we may like or pity her, speaks of a code that opposes the business-minded workings. This code of writing because of the love and joy it inspire
s, Paul Sheldon speaks often of. This is something King seems to believe in through all the hype and big business. But one review also brings us back to the reality of things in the publishing world. Karen Liberatore of the San Francisco Chronicle voic
es her disgust with King: "save for one irritating quality. It's not polite to whine in public and charge $18.95 plus tax for the luxury." (Karen Liberatore, San Francisco Chronicle. May 29, 1987.) This honest and ideal believing side of King is temper
ed with the business side that is always evident and this particular reviewer takes umbrage with it. King is a shrewd businessman as he has shown time and again in his dealings with publishing houses over his worth, and this definitely reflects the time
he was living in. He wants to believe in the fact that he enjoys writing and telling stories as his character Paul Sheldon does, and I am sure King does really enjoy this because of the love he seems to pour into his writing. But it is a business, and P
aul Sheldon and Stephen King of the 1980's realize this.
The success of Misery may also be tied into the connections both critics and audiences alike can make with some of King's other novels. Misery most resembles one of King's first successes in novel form and on the bigscreen, The Shining. The setting i
n Misery is a cabin near a small town in Colorado, and in The Shining it is a resort hotel in Colorado. Both work's main characters are writers who are dealing with writing blocks, though one breaks out of this block by typing the same sentence for hund
reds of pages and the other pens his best work. Also, the snow factor works into both works pretty heavily. The snow is the reason that Jack Torrance in The Shining is watching the resort with his family since the guests can do nothing during the heavy
snow season. In Misery, the snow (and the fact that Paul is drunk) cause him to lose control of his car and crash and then the snowstorm covers his car and delays his rescue. Both novels also deal with the progressive onslaught of madness and what can h
appen to the human mind. This is where they resemble each other most, I think. Annie gets worse and falls deeper into her psychosis throughout the novel as Paul tells it, and Jack in The Shining starts out normal and sane but as he deals with the resort
hotel he goes mad. King fans and casual readers would easily recognize these similarities and latch on to the workings of both of these novels. The Shining was a big success for King, in both novel and movie form, and this success is passed on to Miser
Another motif of Misery that is shared with other King fiction and non-fiction alike is the strong feminine character, even if she happens to be crazy. In King's non-fiction work Danse Macabre, published in 1981, he discussed a nightmare he has when he
is stressed in his writing. It details the story of a madwoman who roams the house where King is working and who finally gets to the breaking point by hearing his typewriter and comes to kill him. Misery looks not much further than this vision. But An
nie is also at times a sympathetic and strong feminine figure that even Paul Sheldon admires. King explores this motif often in some of his fiction, most notably Dolores Claiborne, Carrie, and Rose Madder. Still most of these empowered women are dangero
us, but King also writes many positive feminine characters. Most of these works also share something else-popularity at the box office.
The motion picture version of Misery, released in 1990, was well received both critically and popularly. Kathy Bates won the Academy Award for Best Female Lead for her performance of Annie Wilkes. Understandably, this created a new surge in popularity
for the book. However, the movie also did something else for the novel. Since the movie was so well-liked by audiences and seen as a "good" movie, it created a sense of respectability for King in a different audience. I know at least for myself and som
e of my friends it did. Previous to my screening of the picture, I had thought of King as someone who wrote only scary novels. The characters in this movie were both frightening and likable in a way, and drew me to explore some of King's other work tha
t I had never thought of doing before. Maybe the Oscar did this for me and others, but King also helped write the movie script and embellishes the characters as he does in the book. A younger audience I think was drawn closer to the literary works of Ki
ng and had a new type of respect for him after seeing the movie.
In the end though, I attribute most of the success to Stephen King himself. First, there is just the specter of the author as celebrity that King through his amazing sales figures and popular identity creates. Not many other authors at the time would h
ave received a 900,000 to 1 million first printing or gotten $40,000 of promotion. The advertisements are very well put together and through their manipulation create a sense of wanting to read the book. America's love for celebrities is enormous and K
ing plays his cards very well on this point. He is loved by his fans for being the type of strange figure who lives up in Bangor, Maine in a creepy old mansion. He consistently puts out pictures of himself on his back covers in very strange faces, and w
ith his thick glasses he looks like a character right out of one of his books. King attends horror writer conventions and is known for a quirky sense of humor that appears in his books. This persona is also translated to the big screen, as King takes sm
all parts in many movie adaptations of his novels, pulling an Alfred Hitchcock. His fans have grown to love him this way, and he only feeds the flame with Misery. King's books are instant bestsellers because of this reputation.
The reputation also translates into the novel with the figure of Paul Sheldon. The reviews and even the sleeve of the hardcover first edition tells the story of the writer who is trapped by the crazy fan. This is a type of soap opera paparazzi thing th
at King plays, but more importantly he develops the story of the writer and storyteller as a version of himself. The fans and readers want to know more about this celebrity, and through his discussion of writing and Paul Sheldon he gives a little piece o
f himself to them. The readers for whom Danse Macabre was too intellectual, here is a perfect substitute. The fans want to know about their favorite celebrity, and through Misery King gives them both this and a fascinating novel to continue the strand.
For all of the reasons above, Misery has stood for quite some time now as one of King's most popular novels. It still gets strong responses I noted on e-mail discussion groups and on reviews on amazon.com. King gives us another great story to follow
and involve ourselves in while trying to provide some serious writing. When I picked this book I had only seen the movie to reference it by. It seemed like an easy choice, but when I began reading at first I thought it was a little abstract and strange.
I mean come-on, I am going to read three-hundred pages about some bedridden writer and his crazy humongous nurse. But once I picked it up for certain I was hooked and through all the interruptions and commotions of life I did not want to put Misery do
wn. I wanted to see what would happen to Paul and Annie regardless of the fact that I basically knew what was going to happen. King once again creates great characters and story you care about and it comes down to this: "As King himself puts it, 'I'm
no one's National Book Award or Pulitzer Prize winner, but I'm serious all right. If you don't believe anything else, believe this: when I take you by your hand and begin to talk, my friend, I believe every word I say.'"(Lint Hatcher, "Gadfly".p.18).