Hazel McHaffie

Misery: Learning from a master storyteller

OK, I know, I know, the one thing we don’t need when life is so out of kilter during a pandemic, is depressing literature. Certainly none of my ‘death’ and ‘tragic options’ stuff –  you’ll have noted I’ve been steering well clear. But long before we’d even heard of Covid-19, back in those halcyon days when there was nothing to prevent me poring over psychological thrillers, searching for the magic ingredients that keep you turning the pages long into the night, I read a cleverly constructed thriller that impressed me. Now I think about it, it puts a whole different perspective on lockdown; imagine not just being isolated and captive in a remote place, but being incarcerated with a violent maniac! So I thought I’d share its merits with you today, not just because it has parallels with our present situation, but because it’s the product of an exceptional mind and an impressive facility with words.

REPORTED MISSING: Paul Sheldon, 42. Novelist best known for his series of romances about sexy, bubbleheaded, unsinkable Misery Chastain; by his agent, Bryce Bell. ‘I think he’s fine, Bell said, ‘but I wish he’d get in touch and ease my mind. And his ex-wives wish he’d get in touch and ease their bank accounts.’ Sheldon was last seen in Boulder, Colorado where he had gone to finish a novel.’

Paul Sheldon is a writer of novels of two kinds, good ones and best-sellers. Annie Wilkes is his number-one fan. When he’s involved in a car accident during a violent storm, he comes to after being unconscious and delirious with the agonising pain of two shattered – no, pulverised – legs, and a horribly damaged pelvis, to find it was Annie who dragged him from the wreckage of his car, and took him to her remote mountain home in Sidewinder, Colorado. Having crudely splinted his legs, she is caring for him with large amounts of pain killers which have the side-effect of suppressing his breathing, necessitating occasional mouth-to-mouth resuscitation.

About ten days after regaining consciousness he discovers a number of things about his ‘nurse’. She is in possession of a great many drugs of a dubious nature; she has already managed to render him addicted to one of them, Novril. She is dangerously crazy. Everything she says comes out in the wrong key.  She’s also given to frequent episodes where her mind goes blank. She has a volatile temper; she is a woman full of tornadoes waiting to happen. She has previously had to take the stand for some major crime in a Denver court of law …

And she has told no one he is in her house.

As Sheldon discovers the hard way, Annie is seriously mentally ill – hovering on the murky borderline between ‘the Sovereign State of Reality and the People’s Republic of Paranoia.’ What’s more, she is much more than his carer; she’s a stern critic of his work. When she discovers he has killed off her favourite character, Misery Chastain, heroine of a string of romantic bestsellers … that he has then gone on to write a story full of profanities, 190,000 words of it … she exacts a terrible penalty. And Sheldon can only lie immobilised, his vivid imagination in overdrive, his present reality and his future destiny growing daily more horrific.

Misery is the perfect title – shared by the principal character in Sheldon’s book, a pig on Annie’s farm, and the total experience of Sheldon’s captivity and torture.

Master storyteller Stephen King has created a  terrifyingly grotesque character in Annie Wilkes, and devised a fearful form of entrapment for his hero, Sheldon. Both are so brilliantly realised they inhabit the pages and suck us into their reality. And having experienced the lengths to which Annie will go to punish him, we live in constant fear of still more appalling things happening to Sheldon. We can have no confidence at all that the hero will escape a terrible fate or even survive the story.

I don’t want to spoil the book for you, but I do want to draw attention to a few devilishly clever aspects of the writing.

First the stories within stories. Inside the whole tale of Sheldon’s captivity and Annie’s revenge are mini-tales – what Sheldon’s literary character Misery Chastain is up to; what Annie’s Memory Lane scrapbook reveals of her former life.

When Annie ratchets up the torture, Sheldon realises he is doubly cursed. Not only are his sensitivities acutely tuned to pain, but his writer’s mind is destined to remember every tiny detail of the horrors inflicted on him. And in his analysing, he reveals technical tips about creative writing – some in response to his lived experience, some through his writing. He’s acutely aware too that his captor understands certain truths about what writers can and cannot do, even though she is unable to enunciate them in writerly jargon. A few examples will suffice:

… resigned to the fact that he could not read stories as he had when he was a kid; by becoming a writer of them himself, he had condemned himself to a life of dissection.

… not being sure of things  ... was a charmless corner of purgatory reserved for writers who were driving fast with no idea at all where they were going.

a gothic novel … more dependent on plot than on situation.

The reason authors almost always put a dedication on a book, Annie, is because their selfishness even horrifies themselves in the end.

He felt as he always did when he finished a book – queerly empty, let down, aware that for each little success he had paid a toll of absurdity.

It gives an extra dimension of reality to what could be a totally unbelievable tale. Except that in the hands of Stephen King you believe it could actually happen.

An ancient manual typewriter is central to this book and indeed features on the front cover of my version. King’s description is wonderfully evocative: It was an office model from an era when such things are electric typewriters, color TVs, and touch-tone telephones were only science fiction. It was as black and as proper as a pair of high-button shoes. Glass panels were set into the sides, revealing the machine’s levers, springs, ratchets, and rods. A steel return lever, dull with disuse, jutted to one side like a hitchhiker’s thumb. The roller was dusty, its hard rubber scarred and pitted. The letters ROYAL ran across the front of the machine in a semicircle …  it already looked like trouble. The ribbon was a faded two-tone, red over black … A real antique … with a missing n … the missing striker like a missing molar in a mouthful of teeth worn but otherwise complete.

And there are 26 pages of the text of a new book Paul writes on that same typewriter with the n strangely skewed where it’s been inserted ‘by hand‘, reproduced in the book, giving a very clever ring of authenticity. And later, when the machine loses its t, that too is inserted by hand. T: the second-most-common-letter in the English alphabet. Imagine the labour involved. Imagine the implications even for someone writing this novel on a modern computer!! When the key hammer for e eventually falls off, there is nothing for it but to resort to longhand. An exercise that rendered Sheldon’s hand almost useless, so the last few pages are typed on the hated machine with ns, ts and es all filled in ‘by hand’. It’s a masterly touch.

It’s a brilliantly conceived and realised horrifying thriller, but I must confess I found the closing few pages which constitute Part Four disappointing. Indeed I read them twice, thinking I must have been too tired, too distracted, or missed the point. And of course, that realisation – when it’s found in a work by one of the best selling names in the world – teaches me something in itself. Which is what my endless reading is all about.

 

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