Stephen King’s name is a legend. The critics didn’t create this heavyweight of American Literature. However, the readers put to King at the top of the world preferences, it was impossible to ignore him. It was impossible for so-called “serious” writers to draw their attention to that Stephen King who was breaking sales records. The authors and literary critics became interested in his titles, and at least they wondered: Who is this person? Then some films were made based on King Works: ‘The shining’, or ‘It’, the diabolical clown that will be forever in the popular imagination.
King’s own physical appearance is somewhat enigmatic. His face denotes a bit of mystery, in it is observed something of the Maine forests of which he has spoken so much in his horror novels. Finally I was also caught up for the talent of Stephen King, and I started to read him. First it was ‘Bag of Bones’, then ‘It’, and then, in the last days of 2016, I read ‘Misery’, which is the novel that I liked the most.
‘Misery’ is not only a novel of terror, suspense, and intrigue, but is a kind of metaphor, of treatise, about what the art of writing literature means.
“Misery” is a novel whose protagonist is a famous writer. Paul Sheldon, creator of the saga where the main character is the young lady Misery Chastain, decides to abandon this genre of ‘commercial’ writing, and writes what for him is a novel more serious, entitled “Fast cars”. He finishes the manuscript and keeps it in his car. After several miles of travel, Sheldon suffers an accident on a desolate, lonely, and deserted road in the state of California. The man was unconscious inside the car, his legs not be so lucky. Sheldon’s bones broken in several places. The winter was very strong; soon the writer’s car would be buried by snow.
To Sheldon would have been a certain death, but there passed Annie Wilkes, retired nurse, who saw him, taken him out of the car, puts him in his old truck, and taken him to her farm, also isolated and remote.
Hours later, Paul awakens from a drug to discover that Annie keeps him incapacitated by feeding him “Novril,” a codeine-based pain pill. Paul is subject to (and terrified of) Annie’s fits of rage. During one, she spills soup on his bed cover, smashes the bowl against the wall, and cleans up the soup while Paul writhes in agony for his pain pills. She forces Paul to drink the dirty rinse water in order for him to take his pain pills, he complies and he is satisfied but humiliated.
After a few days, Paul begins to realize that Annie is dangerously obsessed with him and his Misery Chastain novels. Annie reads Misery’s Child and his enraged that Paul would kill off her favorite character: Lady Misery. Wilkes forces him to write a new novel, bringing Misery back to life.
Through a series of abusive and dangerous events, Annie tortures Paul by leaving him without food, water, or medicine for 50 hours at a time – forcing Paul to break out of his room and find the Novril for himself. In another one of her episodes, Paul breaks out of his room again and, while he gets food and water, sees a memory book on Annie’s life. The book contains newspaper clippings that tell the story of all of Annie’s murders from her time as a child in Bakersfield, California to her time as a nurse across the country, including her time in Denver where she was brought to trial for the murder of babies when she was a maternity ward nurse. She was cleared of all charges but labeled “The Dragon Lady” by the media.
When Annie returns she reveals that she has left her hairs strung across the house and has found them broken, knowing that Paul has gotten out. To stop him from getting out again, she chops his right foot off with an Ax and cauterizes the wound. Paul almost dies from the shock and, once he recovers, is cowed and seeks to finish Misery’s Return – losing his left thumb in the process.
The tortures and punishments that Annie Wilkes applies to Sheldon are too many to count in this article. My pretension is another: to analyze the unconscious and conscious processes that induce a writer to do his work.
The only reason Wilkes saved Paul Sheldon is because she had recognized him as the author of the famous romantic saga of Misery Chastain, of which the former nurse is a fanatical reader. She had checked the documents of the wounded man and knew who he was.
Annie Wilkes submits Sheldon to so much terror, so much pain, with only one goal: he must continue to write the saga of Misery Chastain. The writer, in the last book, had killed Misery’s character. Paul will now retake the plot of the young lady for a single reader: the mad nurse who has him kidnapped.
At first Paul Sheldon refuses. But Annie Wilkes forces him to fulfill her wish through cruel tortures.
This system of terror makes Sheldon, overwhelmed by fear, write the continuation of Misery Chastain, and not only for feeling menaced, but with a certain sick passion in which terror is mixed with the pride of writer to give it better of himself. What are the substances produced by Sheldon’s brain when Wilkes makes him suffer? Are these substances that make Paul’s writing masterful? The mad nurse, through terror, forces Sheldon to discover the best of himself as a writer. She uses terrible punishments so that Paul reaches the maximum of creative capacity. Can this be real and true? Has this ever happened in the world beyond the pages of a book? The answer is yes. Julius Fucik and Anna Frank are examples of this. People can write under terror, and, moreover, do this very well. The Cuban writer Reinaldo Arenas is another example of a creator who works under the pressure of fear. Arenas was imprisoned and persecuted by the communist regime of Fidel Castro. The writer ended up in exile in New York, where he committed suicide. The life of this author outlawed by communism was made into a film in ‘Before Night Falls’ directed by Julian Schnabel and starring Javier Bardem, who won the Oscar nomination for Best Actor for his played of Cuban writer character.
Does the pain inflicted on a writer cause his most unconscious traumas to arise? Do the tortures with which the executioner makes an author of novels weep; bring out their most secret nightmares? Are the punishments applied to a creator of literature capable of reminding him of his worst experiences of childhood or adolescence? My answer to the above questions is: yes. Our personal traumas, our most secret nightmares, and our worst experiences of childhood or adolescence, are the best material to build a great literary work. Stephen King gives us this masterful class of how to write literature in his novel ‘Misery’.
From this story, added to the feel of terror masterfully handled by Stephen King, emerge many others lessons from the work of writing literature.
One of them is that writing mutilates us; it takes away a part of our being, either spiritual or material, like Sheldon’s foot and thumb.
The psychological mechanisms that give rise, that activate, and develop a story in the mind of a writer are mysterious. It can be joy, contemplation of beauty, but also terror, fear of dying, physical suffering. The author needs to save from himself. The man who does a literary work needs to draw from himself the horrible ghosts that overwhelm him. These monsters are hidden in the deepest caves of our memory. We have some pretty awful things buried in our past. Moreover, the mechanism that activates the tales in the mind of the writer, far from being rational, has been related, speaking in Freudian terms, with the unconscious. It’s what Stephen King calls ‘the workshop boys down there’. When these ‘boys’ get to work, that’s when, precisely, the best stories come up.
‘Misery’ is also a parable of the relationship between the writer and the publisher, because when Annie Wilkes did not like a fragment of the novel, she tortured Sheldon to change it. And it’s a new lesson: sometimes the editor is more right than the writer himself. Wilkes was right, it is the changes she asks Sheldon what makes the novel a success among the reader.
J.R.R. Tolkien thought that his best work was the ‘Silmarillon’, but nowadays the book or the film that everybody knows is ‘The lord of the rings’. Which is one more proof that writers do not know very well which their best work is: the editor or the reader can better define which the best book of this creator is.
We now return to the plot of the novel ‘Misery’. Finally Sheldon, using his great cunning, kills to Annie Wilkes and he is rescued by the police of the county. The continuation of the saga of Misery Chastain, written under the terror, becomes, against what he has hoped, in the greater literary success of Paul Sheldon
Stephen King won the 2003 US National Book Award in the category of Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Literature. He has been nominated fifty times for the Locus Award, winning only five. In addition he has been winner six times of the British Fantasy Award among other prizes.