By Stephen King


Ah, Misery. Stephen King has always been my favorite author. I love his subtleties and themes. His characters are so lifelike and realistic that I am drawn in by the end of the first page. I know he is a master on a level few will ever obtain but I am going to approach this review in the most honest and unbiased way that I can. Not as his “number one fan” but as a fellow writer who has studied his craft and found both genius and some petty mistakes as well.

There is no doubt in my mind that much of Paul Sheldon is King’s fictional alter ego. A prolific and successful writer who wants to dabble outside his designated genre and gets punished for it. And who else could write about the psychological terrors of addiction better than a man going through it himself. I think, when you look at King’s characters, there is often some autobiography in them, which is what makes his ability to turn them into real people so effective.

What King does well is analogy. Sometimes subtle and sometimes blatant his analogies are often both in one. For instance, Paul recalls a time in his childhood when he would go to the beach and watch the tide ebb and flow around wooden pylons. He remembers the ugliness of the portions that become exposed when the tide goes out. Soon, his mind uses these images as a meditation on his pain. As more and more of the pylon in his mind’s eye is exposed, so is his pain. The tide is the relief he receives from his pain meds. Later, as I read on, I wondered if King used those ugly stumps as a foreshadowing of Paul’s amputation at the hands of Annie.

Paul’s mind uses a lot of analogies to help him through his experience. The African bird trapped in a cage, Annie Wilkes as a goddess, immortal, powerful and all knowing, and Scheherazade. Although I do have an issue with the Scheherazade reference because first of all, it was too easy a connection (Scheherazade being the storyteller in One Thousand and One Nights who used her storytelling to save her life from the king who planned to kill her) and secondly King used it way too much. Constantly making reference to it until I was so sick of having it shoved in my face I wondered if King thought all his readers were stupid and wouldn’t get it. I got it before he mentioned it and certainly didn’t need it rehashed as a theme over and over. Yeah, obviously Paul is using his revival of Misery Chastain to prolong his own life.

Looking at the book as a whole, I also wondered if the entire tale itself was not an analogy of the task of writing a novel. The pain, the pressure to do it well, distractions, an alter ego that tells you it’s not good enough. Sometimes we need that sort of thing to drive us; that demon on our backs pushing and pushing. Paul ends up with the best book he ever wrote under those conditions. Maybe I should hire a dominatrix to help keep me in check.

Something that I often struggle with in my first draft is description. King is a writer of little sprinkles of it only when necessary and I love that. If you’ve ever read his book On Writing, he discusses that very thing. When I first read Misery, it was before seeing the movie, and it is funny to me that when I reread it again, I still saw the home I concocted in my head the first time I read it and not the movie’s scenes. That maybe why I thought to make this point. I bet those who have seen the movie before reading the book don’t necessarily notice King’s paucity of description. He only describes the things that are absolutely necessary for you to know and the rest he leaves up to your own imagination. So many Stephen King stories in my head took place at the farmhouse my Step-father grew up in. That was a scary place to me and so that’s the home I always saw in my head, the layout and everything. I like that we have a good idea of what Annie looks like, a vague idea of Paul and just a general idea of everything else. Because that’s all we need. We don’t need pages of boring description of the house, the room he is in. Just little details here and there and those almost give a feeling not a look to the room. The guy is a master with this and I think it is a big reason his books are so readable and catch you so quickly.

Now, I did promise you something petty so here it is. There is a scene after Annie takes Paul into the basement to stay and she brings a couple Pepsis and a bottle opener. “There were three bottles of Pepsi on the collapsed TV tray. She opened two of them, using the opener on her keyring, and handed him one.” Bottle opener=glass bottles, right? You wouldn’t need a bottle opener for a plastic bottle with a screw top, would you? But then, two pages later “Annie came back and took a third bottle of Pepsi…She twisted the cap off the bottle and drank deeply.” Ok, so two glass bottles opened with the opener on her keyring and one plastic bottle with a screw cap. A few pages later we are told the bottle is indeed plastic. “She drained her second Pepsi and held the empty plastic bottle…”

I told you, petty stuff, right? But hey, this is Stephen King we’re talking about. He is allowed a dumb mistake here and there. You’d think his editor might have picked that up, but one little thing in a sea of gold, is not all that bad. So, I’ll just end with this shout out to Mr. Stephen King—if you ever want or need a gal like me to hang around and pick out petty mistakes like this feel free to give me a call. I’ll move into your guest room, I’ll read each page as it comes off the printer. I’m a doc too, so I can always offer health related services as needed. Come on, Mr. King, I’m harmless and I just happen to be your biggest fan.



5 thoughts on “Misery

  1. vanessaessler says:

    I’m so glad someone else felt this book was an analogy about the struggles of writing a novel. I wasn’t sure if it was just me since I’m so wrapped up in writing my book. I’m also pretty sure that Paul Sheldon is King’s alter ego, which is pretty courageous in a way. He put himself through Hell in this book.

    I like King. His stories are always pretty solid and he builds characters well, but I’m going to have to disagree about his use of description. I’ve always felt King is a tad too skimp on descriptions, especially setting. Personally, I want more than just the details I absolutely need to know in description (we all like what we like). There is so much tone and uniqueness that a few more choice descriptions could bring. But, that’s just a style preference.

    I didn’t catch the glass/plastic bottle mistake though. No one can say you didn’t give this a close reading. 🙂


  2. Yeah, but can you bench press 190 pounds of horror writer?

    Joe-La, as usual I loved your post. Nobody digs into a story like you do. Who else could have found that soda bottle screw-up? No one. Not even the author, or the two or three editors who scoured over it. Impressive.
    To tell you the truth, King’s meager description never bothered me. It always seemed like just the right amount.

    And you might actually be onto something with your dominatrix idea…Although, I think that’s what the mentors are for.


  3. Tamar says:

    I think it’s interesting to read something from a person who likes Stephen King (though I am certain you tried to be as unbiased as possible). Personally, however, I love description. I like knowing exactly what characters look like. Still, I found King’s use of analogies and themes to be amazing.


  4. Your insight that the book was analogy for the processing of writing one is spot on, and something I thought about often as I read it. Just about everything he went through could be analogous to what we go through as writers. From being told what we’re doing isn’t good enough to being at a loss for words (not just a letter). And that it gets harder as we write (did I use that phrase already?). I always like it when King writes about writing, because it gives us tiny glimpses into his world.


  5. I thought a lot about the writing process as well. We’re shown Sheldon’s struggles in life and the way they are reflected in his art. Our lives shape our work. Sometimes great trials (which feels like a massive understatement for being kidnapped and tortured) produce amazing work. Both Paul and Annie talk a lot about not cheating the reader, and I think that’s definitely something we all have to keep in mind when we’re writing. We may write the fantastical, but it still needs believability to be credible and retain the reader’s trust.


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