By Stephen King
Viking. 310 pp. $18.95
IN DANSE MACABRE, Stephen King, discussing grist for the writer's mill, talks about a dream that plagues him when he's stressed. It's about a homicidal madwoman inhabiting a house in which he is busily writing. Sooner or later, he says, "the sound of my typewriter will cause her to come after me." When she finally comes it is "like a horrid jack from a child's box, all gray hair and crazed eyes, raving and wielding a meat-ax." Well, there, in a nutshell, is the plot of this, Stephen King's latest, most heavily autobiographical and funniest work. Here, though, it isn't a matter of causing the madwoman to come after the writer; she's got him from the start. King gleefully acknowledges his debt to earlier versions of this captivity plot: A Handful of Dust; Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?; The Collector.
The collector in this one is Annie Wilkes. The book opens with her describing herself to novelist Paul Sheldon as he emerges from his drug-assisted wooze: "umber whunnnn, yerrnnn umber whunnnn fayunnnn."
The set-up is that Annie found Paul after he'd crashed his Camaro in a Colorado blizzard. Paul writes historical romances and Annie has read all but his latest. In fact, the garble that Paul has been hearing is Annie Wilkes' declaring herself his number one fan.
Annie doesn't know that Paul despises not only the genre that has won her heart but its devotees as well, the "hundreds of thousands of . . . people across the country -- ninety percent of them women -- who could barely wait for each new five-hundred-page episode in the turbulent life of the foundling who had risen to marry a peer of the realm." And not only that, but Paul hates his own lead character, Misery Chastain, enough to have circulated among friends an obscene April Fool's Day parody called Misery's Hobby, featuring Misery and her husband's favorite Irish setter. Lucky for Paul that Annie Wilkes hasn't stumbed onto a copy of that one!
Because when Annie reads that last official volume of the Misery series and discovers that Paul has killed poor Misery off, she goes from mad to madder. And as the scrapbook she keeps will attest, Annie isn't someone to cross. She's a nurse. She keeps news of former patients in that book: their obituaries.
Annie is as round a character as they come, riddled with believable contradictions. She's cruel, yes, but also, as Paul describes her, "strangely prim." She won't take money from his wallet, for instance, but will hand it to him instead. And her objection to Paul's new manuscript -- the one that Paul thinks of as a real novel, book award material, the one that's going to free him from the whole historical romance biz -- is that "Every other word is that effword!" Annie herself says things like, "You dirty bird." Her favorite adjective is "cockadoodie." Annie proves positive King's dictum (again in Danse Macabre) that humor is implicit in horror.
IF ANY of the above might lead you to believe there isn't anything really scary in all of this, you're wrong. Stephen King proves his power, in part with what he himself has called "the gross out factor," but also in more respectable ways, through solid character delineation and terrifying insight. Paul's examples of "radical reader involvement" with fictional characters are superb examples of both. Here, Paul remembers a fan who creates a room for Misery, and who supplies a 10-page letter about the furnishings and 40 Polaroid shots of them. This admirer follows up with five more letters, "(the first four with additional Polaroids) before finally lapsing into puzzled, slightly hurt silence." But Annie is the real downside, the fan beyond whom all others, no matter how whacked out, are benign indeed.
But back to Stephen King. In addition to being able to scare the reader breathless, he is able, in this book, to say a tremendous amount about writing itself, about its "deep and elemental drawing power," its letdowns, its challenges.
In the letdown category, we learn that finishing a book is "always the same, always the same -- like toiling uphill through jungle and breaking out to a clearing at the top after months of hell only to discover nothing more rewarding than a view of the freeway -- with a few gas stations and bowling alleys thrown in for good behavior, or something."
On the challenges -- or maybe I should say the triumphs -- we have Paul's confession cum boast: "There's a million things in this world I can't do. Couldn't hit a curve ball, even back in high school. Can't fix a leaky faucet. Can't roller-skate or make an F-chord on the guitar that sounds like anything . . . I have tried twice to be married and couldn't do it either time. But if you want me to take you away, to scare you or involve you or make you cry or grin, yeah. I can. I can bring it to you and keep bringing it until you holler uncle. I am able. I CAN." Paul also provides a better lesson on plot than the reader is likely to get in any accredited college. The writer of Misery so clearly delights -- and we do too -- in his own virtuosity. Like the writer in Misery, he can bring it to you and keep bringing it to you and there isn't a one of us anywhere near to hollering uncle. :: Carolyn Banks' most recent suspense novels are "Patchwork" and "The Girls on the Row."