GERALD'S GAME By Stephen King Viking. 332 pp. $23.50
WHEN by the end of the first chapter of Gerald's Game, Jessie Burlingame has been left handcuffed by her husband, Gerald, to the posts of a heavy oak bed miles from anyone who could hear her screams, when sustenance is inches out of reach, and monsters of the past and present conspire to rob the heroine of life and sanity, when the writing itself is an uneasy mixture of terror, black humor and occasional lyrical bursts, the reader is sure of one thing only: He is trapped as surely as Jessie in Stephen King country, and it's going to be a wild night.
Under the best of circumstances, Gerald's game isn't much fun for his wife. To jumpstart his flagging sexual desire the otherwise conservative attorney relies on bondage games -- nothing very shocking between consenting adults, and Jessie has always been an indulgent if not enthusiastic partner. But this lonely October afternoon in their summer house in Maine, she's suddenly had enough. When her strident protests are first ignored and then interpreted as part of the fun, Jessie kicks her husband hard, and where it hurts most. With the unlikely convenience that is needed to get the plot rolling, Gerald topples backward off the mattress, dead of a coronary.
Suddenly, as Jessie looks at him lying inert on the floor, the prospect of sharing the rest of her life with her braggart, overweight, mean-spirited and generally loathsome husband doesn't seem so bad after all. Not when the remaining options are dying of thirst or being mauled by the starving cur that later munches on Gerald's cheek. Oh yes, that too, and much more -- Stephen King has an imagination that is apparently untaxed by the plot limitations of his heroine being chained to a bed miles from human contact.
Within a few hours panic, thirst and muscle cramps erode her reason, and Jessie's own mind provides more than enough company. She is visited by voices -- a fragmentation of her own personality resulting from trauma -- including the tough-talking Ruth, the simpering Goodwife Burlingame, and a host of other, unidentified commentators. The interaction of these phantoms of the heroine's past tells another, older story of sexual exploitation and terror, the molestation of Jessie when she was just 10 years old.
Then, as darkness descends, King brings in a really ghastly ghoul that might threaten more than Jessie's mental health. Who is that in the corner with a face like a skull? It looks like an apparition of the Grim Reaper, but it might not be an hallucination at all; it might be some corporeal nightstalker, a parasitical madman come to feast on Jessie, even as the starving dog consumes her husband's fly-blown corpse. Beyond our desire to be terrified, the reason we stay with Jessie in her increasingly claustrophobic chamber of horrors is to discover not only if and how she will escape, but if and how she can recover from the abuse of the past.
The author of 24 previous novels, all tales of horror, King is indisputably a master of the genre. Some of his books dwell in the realm of the supernatural, involving vampires in Salem's Lot, ghosts in Pet Sematary, or psychokinetic powers in Firestarter. Others, like Cujo, about a rabid dog, or Misery, about the kidnaping of a writer by a deranged fan, exploit the equally horrific potential of the natural world.
Not unexpectedly, some of the books are better than others. And in Gerald's Game King is more successful at making monsters monstrous than at making emotions felt. The wild, exaggerated horror of Jessie's ordeal becomes burlesque at points, and his talent for the absurd inclusion of pop culture -- Jessie's imagining her plight televised on "A Current Affair," for example -- overwhelms the horror of child abuse, ultimately undoing his efforts to make those older terrors real.
Gerald's Game bears an epigraph from Somerset Maugham's "Rain" in which men are called "filthy dirty pigs," and while King's agenda is clearly to illustrate this point, his purpose is undone by his method. In comparison with the finely detailed unraveling of Jessie's mind and the horror show of the dog and the flies and the fiend in the corner, the usual crimes committed against women and children seem mundane, unremarkable, boring. And this kind of distortion is not only perverse but dangerous, because after all it is in such brutalities that real fear lies. King is best when his agenda is simply to frighten us with his tried and true repertoire of monsters, which he does so well.
Kathryn Harrison is the author of two novels, "Thicker Than Water," and the forthcoming "Exposure."