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Misery and Rose Madder, by Stephen King - The Phantom Librarian
Spewing out too many words since November 2003
Misery and Rose Madder, by Stephen King
olympe_maxime mentioned that these two King books are among her favorites, and I haven't talked about them extensively. I haven't talked too extensively about most of the King books I like, mostly because King fans are a little more scattered than SW and HP fans. :)

Anyway, Misery and Rose Madder.

I was beginning to wonder if I was the only one who enjoyed RM... King himself makes a self-deprecating comment in On Writing about how its overplotting made it weak, which gave me the impression that he hasn't gotten a lot of good response to it. But I like the book quite a lot, which is saying something, as his other "I WILL WRITE A STRONG WOMAN NOW" books leave me cold, and domestic abuse plots in general usually leave me with no better than a resigned sigh about someone going there yet again as a cheap device for sympathy.

But in Rose, as in The Shining, the plot device becomes more primal than a simple sympathy ploy, and becomes not the great disease itself, but only a virulent symptom of something bigger and more dangerous, with roots that go deep into the very nature of the human being, which is why it becomes interesting.

For those who haven't read it, Rose Madder is the story of Rose Daniels, an abused housewife who, after years of horrific beatings (including one that caused a miscarriage), decides one morning that she's had enough, steals her husband's ATM card, and gets on a bus to a distant city. There, she finds friends in a shelter, a new job, her old name, a new love... and an old painting called Rose Madder, which shows a woman on a hillside, her back to the viewer, overlooking the ruins of a temple. This being a Stephen King book rather than a Lifetime movie, you can bet that the painting isn't what it seems. First, crickets begin to jump through from the field. Then flowers blow in. A cart moves. And then...

Well, she needs to escape somewhere, doesn't she? Her husband, Norman, a true psychopath, is onto her, and is hunting the people who have helped her. And he, er, bears a striking resemblance to Fenrir Greyback in his mode of attack. In fact, King uses the werewolf archetype throughout, as both Rosie and Norman start shifting their shapes, and Rosie herself begins to go too far, begins to be poisoned by her rage.

Norman is a chilling villain--a serial killer who is intimately tied to the heroine and working his way to her. There is definite jeopardy built up--you know that if he catches her, a quick death would be the best she could hope for. Is he believable? Well, he's over-the-top, but he's also not just The Abusive Husband. He is The Bull, the total egotist, the negative masculine utterly uncontrolled. (Which makes him a good contrast to Annie Wilkes; more later.) He is violent, he believes in control by physical force, expects total obedience, and exerts ownership of the people he interacts with. He literally can't comprehend the idea that he's in the wrong and anyone might have any legitimate reason for disagreeing with him. He is, in short, an animal, with only the barest mask of humanity covering him up... and, as you might expect, he loses the mask. And meets a suitably poetic justice.

Rose, on the other hand, is just a regular woman. She's neither particularly brave nor particularly spineless. She's not stupid, but she's got no special genius to get her through things. She got into a bad marriage and stayed there because she didn't think she had anywhere else to go, and because she knew where her furniture was. (Yes, she does acknowledge that this is a silly reason, but when your favorite rocking chair is your only refuge, you do develop an attachment.) When she leaves, she's nervous and lost, but she tries. Her devotion to the painting--her ability to escape through her imagination--is an interesting character trick, and her identification with the mad woman of the painting shows that the jeopardy she is in isn't just the physical jeopardy that Norman puts her in. But in the end, she understands that jeopardy as well, and finds her way through the maze of it all to the other side.

RM is a book about finding strength and balance, learning healthy self-reliance, but at the same time learning the difference between dependence and healthy reliance on others. And it's a book about the wild, vicious, predatory animals that live under our skin. It's a myth of the battle of the sexes that shows that both lose when they are consumed by it.

On the more frivolous side, it also includes the silly peccadilloes of the kind-hearted philanthropists who help Rose--the meek and gentle volunteer who takes her to the shelter, but who gets in vast shouting matches with anyone who disagrees with his politics; the arrogant wealthy woman who runs the shelter and fantasizes about being on the cover of Time, giving an interview about how modest she is about all she's done for the women of the world; many others. Gertie, the former resident who now teaches self-defense, has a wicked sense of justice. Little Cynthia Smith (who also appears in The Regulatiors and Desperation), with her two-tone hair, is believably delighted about being out on her own for the first time.

Is it overplotted?

No--I think it's plotted just enough to avoid the common SK problem of the amazing underwhelming ending. It's put together quite tightly, its movements are logical, and the end is what it needs to be.

To go from the uncontrolled negative masculine to the uncontrolled negative feminine--interesting pair of books there, olympe_maxime!--Misery features a violently overemotional woman who believes she can control the feelings of other people, and is responsible for putting poor-poor-things out of their misery and punishing the "cockadoodie brats" of the world. Like Norman, she is bloated in her own grandiose ego, unable to conceive of being in the wrong. She takes her imaginative faculties to unhealthy extremes--like Rose, she uses art (the Misery Chastain novels, in Annie's case) to escape... but she becomes trapped in the world, unable to bring herself back to the real world when she needs to.

Fewer people don't know this plot, because it was made into a successful movie, but for those who don't, Misery is the story of Paul Sheldon, a writer of popular romance novels about a character named Misery Chastain. When he is in a car accident on an isolated road, he's found by a nurse who announces that she's his "number one fan," who he realizes very quickly is psychotic. Unfortunately, his legs have been smashed and she's gotten him hooked on pain pills, so he has no escape. When she reads a manuscript of a non-Misery book, she is incensed by the vulgarity, and forces him to burn it. When she reads the latest Misery novel and finds out that Misery has died (Paul is very relieved about this), she forces him to bring Misery back to life.

This book has been deemed highly misogynistic, and it's hard to argue against it when the book is seen in isolation, as opposed to Annie being one of many monsters that King has made up, some feminine (Annie, Carrie, It, Christine), others masculine (Barlow, Jack Torrance, Walter, Randy Flagg, the Shop, Norman), and others indeterminate. The monster's got to be something. And as this is one of the books we know the provenance of--long before he wrote Misery, he wrong the non-fiction Danse Macabre, in which he mentions a nightmare about being forced to write a novel while trapped in a house with a madwoman--I think it's safe to say that Annie isn't meant to be Stephen King's commentary on women. I could do without some of Paul's commentary as he kills her, but mostly, she's simply an extreme.

Most of what I like about the book is when it deals with the question of the imagination as a kind of window into another world. The movie, which really is one of the better ones from King's books, really drops the ball at the end, when they have Paul apparently re-write the novel Annie made him burn, and he's supposed to win a prestigious award for it. I kept my mouth shut when I saw it, because I was curious about the guy I went with... he hadn't read the book. After we'd seen it, we were standing at the bus stop, and he frowned and said, "You know, that was an awesome movie... but what was that supposed to be that he published at the end? Shouldn't it have been Misery's Return?"

Which, of course, in the book--it is. Even without all the internal monologue sections, apparenty that's still an integral part of the story that my friend sensed even without having read it. Because, you see, what Paul learns is that his real strength is writing the Misery novels. He realizes by the end that Misery is the reality in his mind, the vivid eye of his imagination, while the other was just mechanical and derivative. There's a great deal of discussion of the hold that popular novels have on the reader and on the writer, the vast power of the form. There are people who take it too far, but there are also healthy ways to use it... that's the message of Misery.

Which comes back to the shared theme, in these two books and many of King's others, of finding sensible balances. There is the allure of the wild Dionysian, but the characters grow up and come into their own when they take on Apollonian responsibility for their lives and learn to keep a steady head. Much is made about southern romanticism in American literature, but King works the other end of it--there's a queer kind of Yankee stoicism and pragmatism that nearly always comes out as the ideal.
16 comments or Leave a comment
frenchbraider From: frenchbraider Date: August 5th, 2006 05:44 am (UTC) (Link)


Rose Madder and Desperation were my first two favorite King books, but what I liked the best in RM is that the knowledge of an inevitable faceoff with her husband is built up with her happy, hopeful interactions with other people interspersed with her husband's POV when he's hunting her. You feel so happy for her small victories (which I've only really felt with It), that the part when he finally catches up to her becomes a lot more intense in my opinion.

Misery, on the other hand, just made me want to gag. I just wanted the poor guy to die so I wouldn't have to read any more about sledgehammers and broken bones.
cadhla From: cadhla Date: August 5th, 2006 04:10 pm (UTC) (Link)
I have no real idea who you are -- aiglet pointed me here, possibly because I'm a King fan to the extreme of 'started crying at the first Dreamcatcher trailer, because it looked like they'd managed to get it right for once' -- but I just wanted to thank you, from the bottom of my heart. Serious analysis of King is a bitchkitty to find, and it always delights me to know that I'm not alone in it.
fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: August 5th, 2006 04:13 pm (UTC) (Link)
Maybe we need a comm... it really is a bitch-kitty to find, isn't it?
cadhla From: cadhla Date: August 5th, 2006 04:28 pm (UTC) (Link)
I've had a disturbingly high number of people -- people with their own little literary fetishes, some of which (like bodice-ripper romances) are much tackier than King -- tell me that everything he writes is trash, or tripe. Or that he's a hack. That's actually the one that now makes me going on a towering rant, as it's been said by people who freely admit to never having read him.

(Plus, what does it say about me, if he's a hack, that I re-read IT and The Stand yearly, and consider multiple of his other books to be 'comfort re-reads'?)

A comm would not be a bad plan. Hmm.
fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: August 5th, 2006 04:33 pm (UTC) (Link)
Yeah, I've heard that as well, as well as comments along the line that the increasing respect he's getting from the literary community lately just shows that the literary community has been "dumbed down." Grrr. There's excellent stuff for analysis, and anyone who looks at The Stand and sees no substance has some serious snobbery issues. (Many of which are skewered beautifully in It, with Bill's memory of his Creative Writing class!)
izhilzha From: izhilzha Date: August 5th, 2006 06:22 pm (UTC) (Link)
There's excellent stuff for analysis, and anyone who looks at The Stand and sees no substance has some serious snobbery issues.

Word. Now, mind you, I've had a hard time reading some of King's stuff--I don't handle horror all that well (could *not* finish Carrie). But what I have read, the ones that gripped me so hard I could not put them down...those I have reread and they have ingrained themselves into my mind. I do need to read IT (puts on list), but The Dead Zone, The Stand, The Green Mile...King's very far from being a hack.
fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: August 5th, 2006 06:43 pm (UTC) (Link)
Much as I love It, if the horror element was what freaked you out with Carrie, I feel obliged to warn you that It is very much a horror novel... much moreso than Carrie.

But yeah--DZ? Wow, that's an actual moral question. The Green Mile, "Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption," "The Body"... I've read tacky books with no substance, and those aren't them.
izhilzha From: izhilzha Date: August 5th, 2006 10:21 pm (UTC) (Link)
Well...I'm not sure whether it's just that I'm not good with more straight-up horror (The Stand is religious and post-apocalyptic; the others are very morally interesting and character-driven, even with the supernatural or paranormal overtones), or that I have a hard time with some of King's "gross-out" scenes. Heh. I've actually seen about half of the "It" movie (on TV) and found it very interesting, characterwise. But I could neither read nor watch Carrie. And there have been others I haven't even bothered trying (like The Shining, though I might actually like that one). *shrug*
fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: August 6th, 2006 12:34 am (UTC) (Link)
The Shining is a curious example of the cultural echo chamber. Kubrick's less-than-stellar characterization skills, subordinated to images of blood rush around, have imbued the reading public who haven't yet stumbled on it with the idea that it's, quite literally, a bloodbath. In fact, it's a story about a disturbed family with a weak father who are pushed to their limits by extraordinary circumstances... not even that much of a gross-out factor! Like Frankenstein, it's really much less of a scare-fest than its reputation would suggest.
alphabet26 From: alphabet26 Date: August 7th, 2006 03:20 am (UTC) (Link)
Waitaminute...the movie isn't a heartfelt story about a father and son bonding? I have been deceived! ;P
fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: August 7th, 2006 03:28 am (UTC) (Link)

That was funny.
From: dafne99 Date: August 9th, 2006 09:16 pm (UTC) (Link)
Dare I to disagree? Even just minimally? It's been years since I read many of these novels, but I have to say that saying "It is very much a horror novel... much moreso than Carrie" is kind of selling it short. I always thought of It as a love/coming of age story based in horror. Yes, the images are horrific, but that's not the story. The story is the relation between the characters and how they have to recreate their past love for one another in order to get through their present ordeals. Like I said, it's been forever since I read It, but I don't ever remember being horrified by it.
maidenjedi From: maidenjedi Date: August 5th, 2006 07:43 pm (UTC) (Link)
Your comment about Yankee stoicism has me curious now. I'm tempted to go in search of it elsewhere (though, offhand, I know I could find it in Alcott).

Other than that....

I'm a rare King fan who hasn't read Misery, but I devoured Rose Madder when it was first released and loved every minute of it. I've wanted a movie made out of it, but I realized long ago that there isn't a chance in hell that anyone in Hollywood could touch the subject matter and make it anything but cheap. King deals with domestic abuse in a very interesting way - I always thought of Rosie as another version of Beverly Marsh, as the imagery seemed very similar in both Bev's story and Rosie's (Bev's father goes feral, in the end, and we're supposed to believe it was It's influence, but I've also thought as a lot of the incidents in It as being just "regular" events with a lot of imagination thrown in). I don't think King gets the proper credit he deserves for this story, because it reaches outside of his personal experience and fear and gets down deep into male/female archetypes, and into plain ol' storytelling.
olympe_maxime From: olympe_maxime Date: August 7th, 2006 02:36 pm (UTC) (Link)
Oh, wow. See what I mean when I say you're bound to see something in these books that I wouldn't, not in a million years? Uncontrolled negative femme and uncontrolled negative male - I never looked at it that way. I just know that these are the two SK novels that frightened me the most and reached satisfying conclusions and didn't wander away someplace else in the middle. :)

I also like novels that deal with the issue of finding a balance, as you put it. Of course, I'd never put it in so many words before you aid it in this post, but I've often criticised novels for being "too neat and tidy" and "too black and white" and this is exactly what I mean. I loved the part where Rose has to deal with her rage at the end of RM - her rage was nearly as frightning as Norman himself, brief though it was.

So I just have this to say to the whole post: WORD. And thank you.

BTW - it was really great seeing you in Boston! And you know, Fern, I was totally on the verge of squeeing, literally... but that would've made my husband and his friend think I was mad, so...

Next time, though. :D Be prepared.
From: dafne99 Date: August 9th, 2006 09:21 pm (UTC) (Link)
I'd like to say for the record that you are most definitely not the only one who liked Rose Madder. I can see why most fans wouldn't like it because it is very un-King, much in the way that Hearts in Atlantis is (at least the first story). I have my favorite King books and Rose Madder is definitely high on the list, but it's in a different category from everything else. I just don't know how to explain how that book makes me feel - fabulous, empowered, and creepy all at the same time.

As far as books that didn't go over too well in the King community, what's your take on Insomnia? This is another of my favorites, mainly because of its quirkiness.
fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: August 9th, 2006 10:37 pm (UTC) (Link)
I liked it to some extent, but not wildly. The characters were great, and I liked the whole "random" vs. "purpose" thread, but the actual big climactic sequence with the Crimson King left me kind of cold.

Interesting to go back to Derry, though... and see that the more things change, the more... etc, etc.
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