Steven King, huh? What a guy. What a prolific author. What a monolithic cultural touchstone. A household name and a bastion of creativity. Once you pick up a Steven King book, they say, you can’t put it down.
First you have to pick up a Steven King book though.
I’ll admit it. I’ve never read anything Stephen King before. Do I reference the book-only events in It whenever someone brings up the movie? Yes. Is that because my friend, who actually read the book, told me what happened? Maybe. But hey, you’re never too old to stop being a literary fraud, so when that same friend handed me a copy of Misery saying it was her favorite book by ol’ Stevie (as his true fans call him) I did what only a true friend would do and I actually read it.
Misery follows the unfortunate author Paul Sheldon as he awakes to discover that while driving drunk he got into a car accident and was rescued by his self-proclaimed ‘number-one fan’, Annie Wilkes. Annie has braced his broken legs in a way that ensures they won’t heal properly, and has gotten him addicted to painkillers for good measure. Rather than presenting Annie as a unilateral force of menace and cruelty though, King takes the tried-and-trued story about a psychotic cabin-dweller and gives it a nifty spin by putting Paul in a unique situation: he is quickly aware that there is something deeply disturbing about his so-called rescuer, but it is also clear that Annie treats Paul and his shlocky Victorian-era romance series as her gospel truth. Annie truly might be Paul’s number-one fan.
“I love you,” she said, kissing him on the cheek.
What ensues is more terrifying than any Texas Chainsaw Massacre as Paul tries to balance plans for escape with his attempts to placate Annie, a process that forces him to make continual compromises with his identity and values as an author. Before his crash, Paul had grown tired of churning out what he considers commercial trash for money, and wants to write a book with laurels–a story that holds up critically and not just financially. We learn that before his accident Paul had recently published the tenth and final installment in his Victorian romance (a series cheekily named Misery after the titular character.) In this last volume he has vindictively killed off his protagonist Misery in a blatant effort to enrage his clamoring fans, and while waiting for the fallout has been working tirelessly on what he considers his real work, a grounded, salt-of-the-earth story called Fast Cars. Meanwhile, Annie feels quite the opposite: she considers Fast Cars to be worthless drivel, and wants him to keep producing her beloved Misery novels.
Misery was what she liked; Misery was who she liked, not some foul-talking little spic car-thief from Spanish Harlem.
This conflict, which is in essence a clash of creative priorities, looks at first to be an outlet for King’s own frustration as an author. Paul being held captive in a bed, his legs broken and his body addicted to painkillers, seems a clear metaphor for King feeling as though he is a captive of his fans. Paul laments how little his fans appreciate truly good writing, bemoans how they ravenously seek out propulsive, thematically-vacant entertainment, and generally decries the decline of the modern population’s literary prowess. Annie’s character props up this theme nicely: unhinged, demanding, and presented as dull when it comes to matters of fiction, she appears to be a caricature of rabid fandom. Her deranged reaction to the fictional Misery’s death seems a clear indictment of a modern audience’s unwillingness to grapple with difficult emotions. Stories, according to Annie, should make you feel good. The end.
“I don’t want her spirit!” she screamed, hooking her fingers into claws and shaking them at him, as if she would tear his eyes out. “I want her! You killed her! You murdered her!”
If you’re someone who’s tired of hearing people try to critically unpack Avengers: Endgame, it’s easy to sympathize with Paul. In the modern era it often feels as though true, inspired storytelling is dying. Not only are there over 30 Marvel movies each using the exact same Joss Whedon script, but Lord of the Rings is getting an Amazon-funded prequel, The Hunger Games has been rewritten into over a hundred dystopian YA series, and the best-selling Fifty Shades of Grey literally started as a Twilight fanfiction. The holiday movies this year are West Side Story and The Matrix, The Witcher is now a TV series, book series, and a videogame, and even Garnt, Joey, and Connor, hosts of the Trash Taste podcast and anime’s most ardent apologizers, have basically abandoned the medium because (to summarize) “it has been overtaken by repetitive, pandering isekai that all reference each other.” Every movie is an adaptation or sequel, every book is trying to fuse Harry Potter with Game of Thrones (or embark on some dark but ultimately cliché retelling of Alice in Wonderland,) and each and every one of these stories follows the Annie Wilkes doctrine: their purest, most distilled purpose is to make the audience feel good.
For others, even more disheartening than the contemporary creative wasteland is popular opinion about it. I’ve listened to plenty of English majors complain about how these regurgitated narratives are treated by fans not as fun-but-ultimately-vacant distractions but as works with real artistic merits, worth discussing for what they say about people and society and whatever. It is true that many fans build their identities around these clearly play-it-safe reskinnings, picking through Kill La Kill to explain how it’s a brilliant analogy for Buddhist doctrine. I’ll also admit that I regularly see criticisms of mainstream works met with feedback along the lines of “you’re a dense moron who doesn’t get it,” which isn’t the most productive discourse. The sentiment of that rankled fan is the visage that Annie wears in the early pages of Misery, telling Paul, the author, that he’s got it all wrong–that the escapist Misery novels he’s so tired of writing are actually transcendent reflections of the human soul, and that his passion project Fast Cars is try-hard junk that serves no purpose. Misery is written to make the reader frustrated with Annie’s lack of vision, and as Annie forced Paul to burn his unfinished manuscript I felt his existential outrage, outrage at the narrow mind of fandom and how it essentially burns passion projects out of existence before they can be born. After all, fiction that fails to cast a wide net isn’t lucrative, and fiction that isn’t lucrative is doomed to rot in the fully-stocked shelves of the self-published section. Ignorance, King tells us, along with a ravenous hunger for easy-to-consume entertainment, is the death of the artistic soul. Paul wept, I wept, and the integrity and truth of fiction was pronounced dead.
“The mother feels badly when her child says she’s mean or if he cries for what’s been taken away, as you are crying now. But she knows she’s right, and so she does her duty. As I am doing mine.”
And then Misery continued: both the novel and the fictional Victorian series by the same name. Annie demands that Paul resurrect her beloved heroine with a new book, and Paul, captive in mind and body, has no choice but to comply. A clean extension of the metaphor, capturing how companies and audiences won’t let a popular IP rest until they’ve squeezed every last drop of life out of it.
Or so I thought at first. But then, lo and behold, Annie rejects Paul’s first draft of his new novel. The way he undoes Misery’s death, she claims, is not fair. It doesn’t fit in with the details of the story. It doesn’t mesh with the canon. Annie may want to read escapist smut, but it becomes clear in this moment that she isn’t a clueless consumer. She demands consistency from her dramas. She wants them to follow rules. At first, Paul is livid. How could a Misery reader care about writing quality? But then, forced to sit and think about how to undo his protagonist’s death in a way that feels plausible within the confines of the story, Paul stumbled upon something unexpected.
In a crazy way, he was even having fun with it.
While writing Misery volume 11, Paul starts to have a rollicking good time. And along with that fun comes a confession to himself, a truth that he’d kept locked deep in his writer’s soul: that he enjoyed writing the Misery novels. He even loved the stories themselves. It was the reviews from critics and consistently deranged behavior of his fans that drove Paul to feel as though if he were to acknowledge the Misery novels to be a real measure of himself as a writer that he couldn’t be taken seriously. Thus, Fast Cars. A Pulitzer-bait narrative, the fictional equivalent of Leonardo Di Caprio screaming at snow in The Revenant, a movie that no one wanted to actually watch but was made with all the precise, profound prowess befitting a masterpiece. If books can be measured by their refined technique, movies by the micro-expressions of their actors, than our stories lose their single most important purpose: to affect us. This is what Paul realizes while trapped in a murderer’s spare bedroom and banging on a half-broken typewriter. The Misery novels might not have been “high art” by the standards of the upper echelons of literary society, but they sure as hell moved the hearts of countless readers. Readers who wrote to Paul about how they’d re-created rooms from the books as described down to the precise details, readers who found themselves whisked away into the world of their imagination, readers who discovered a deep love for history, or for their own writing.
And, most importantly, the books affected Paul, loathe though he was to admit it.
His whole life hinged and continued to hinge on Misery.
Therefore what starts out as a critique of the decadence of fandom turns into a critique of the elitism wielded to demote and trample on the stories that are meaningful to people. King’s novel rebukes pursuing the creation & consumption of ‘good fiction’ for its own sake. ‘Good fiction’, the novel argues through Paul’s slow realization, is wherever the honest strands of inspiration pull you, whether you be reader or writer. If the expert finesse of a slow-burn Best Picture nominee is what truly sets your heart ablaze, then by all means scoff it down. But if you’re like Paul and you have deep-seated adoration for overblown melodrama and nail-biting cliffhangers, never try to reject them–or worse, consume them only as ‘comfort food’. Love your favorites proudly, dig deep into content that satisfies your innate curiosity, and never, ever bow to the pressure of a literary superiority complex.
However, in all matters we must find nuance. Paul comes around to see how misguided his disdain towards his reader base was, but Annie Wilkes comes from another end of the extreme: the absolute rejection of any ideas not conforming to her own egotistical worldview. Annie’s resilience to new ideas drives her to isolate herself from the world, mistrust her neighbors, and last but not least brutally butcher anyone who criticizes her taste in art. Here we must return to our original thesis, which, though trimmed of much of its smothering panic, is not entirely untrue. Much of mainstream media is combed free of any potentially ‘provocative’ content, and extreme audience members will react much like Annie to any attempts to rectify this: with outrage and violence. This is not some new phenomenon. Mainstream media throughout history has always strived to placate the masses, not incite them. Extreme consumers have always chosen to go for the throat before pausing for self-reflection. Here, it’s important to note that Paul’s entire reader base doesn’t rise up in a tidal wave to break his legs: only Annie Wilkes does that, Annie Wilkes who turned murderer before she turned teenager and who went into nursing so that she could pick off those she considered uppity or unfit.
Annie Wilkes, like most extremists, is an anomaly; a dangerous, disturbed person that Paul must contend with, but not a metaphor for modern fandom as a whole. However, Annie does exist. Annie can be found in numerous assassins carting The Catcher in the Rye, in Joker-cosplayers shooting up cinemas, and in the criminal that burned down Kyoto Animation’s headquarters. Annie isn’t hyperbole. There’s a real and terrible truth to her character, the truth that fiction provides the motivation for some number of disturbed individuals to torment and even kill. Perhaps that’s why King’s horror lands so well–when you take away the panic about the death of art, there’s still undeniable proof that creators of fiction can inadvertently provoke some terrifying reactions. It’s also true that the Annies of the world can sometimes spearhead a crowd reaction rather than embarking on lone crusades. Most Haruhi Suzumiya fans may not have dreamt of sending death threats to Aya Hirano, but they got caught up in the mob started by a toxic few. Similarly, all it took was a few truly spiteful individuals to light the fires of Gamergate, a movement which took great delight in ruining the lives of anyone perceived to be ‘prejudiced against gamers’. Paul is right to have lingering night terrors about this kind of hateful backlash. No creator should have to experience that kind of treatment.
Misery ends while balancing in the middle of a seesaw between these two core ideas. Paul escapes from Annie’s dungeon-house by pretending to destroy his new novel and sending Annie into a deranged frenzy, but ultimately preserves a copy thanks to his newfound understanding of how important the Misery series really is to him. He publishes his new novel, but is continually haunted by the image of Annie, imagining her springing up in his bedroom or crawling out from under the bushes. It’s a clear dichotomy: reject elitist pressure and pursue your own interests, but don’t go so far as to blind yourself to new ideas and end up unwilling to listen to other voices. I won’t pretend that Misery introduced me to this notion, but it did serve as a potent refresher. It’s always good to get a reminder of how to keep a healthy perspective towards fiction, and for that Misery is exemplary.
I will say though–naming the book and the book within the book the same thing was a despicable choice, and Stephen King should rot in hell for it.