Misery, being Stephen King’s first novel exploring the subject of fiction’s dangerous powers, was originally conceived as a Bachman Book. It is the eighteenth novel he published. There are only two characters in this graphically gruesome book. Paul Sheldon and Annie Wilkes. Like all of Stephen King’s work, readers with weak stomachs should probably just leave this book on the shelf, but those who can handle the gore should definitely give this book a read. Misery strongly exemplifies King’s three great strengths: compelling storytelling, including horror and suspense; unique and emotionally effective characterization; and insight into both human nature and the mystery of creative writing.
The story starts with Paul Sheldon celebrating the completion of his All American novel, which he was finally able to write after killing off the main character in his Misery Chastain romance novels. Paul is driving drunk and crashes his car on an isolated road in Colorado, during a blizzard. This romance writer is “rescued” by Annie. Annie, a middle-aged, manic-depressive, psychotic ex-nurse, drugs him, and holds him prisoner. "She was a big woman who, other than the large but unwelcoming swell of her bosom under the gray cardigan sweater she always wore, seemed to have no feminine curves at all--There was no defined roundness of hip or buttock or even calf below the endless succession of wool skirts she wore in the house (she retired to her unseen room to put on jeans before doing her outside chores). Her body was big but not generous. There was a feeling about her of clots and roadblocks rather than welcoming orifices or even open spaces, areas of hiatus" (Pg. 7). She is the “Number One Fan” of the Misery novels and is upset that he has tried to end the series by killing off the main character. She calls herself his “constant reader” and has decided to become his muse by forcing him to write Misery’s return to life so that the series of books she loves will continue indefinitely. Paul Sheldon had killed the Misery character because he felt imprisoned by genre and cult fit fan expectations.
Paul spends the course of the book as her prisoner, writing with a typewriter that throws keys while in immense physical pain caused by the accident and the torture of Annie, and struggling with the painkillers she has him addicted to. Annie’s obsession merges with the expectations of the page-turning reader of this Stephen King classic who demands and devours each chapter.
During the book Sheldon realizes that Misery Returns is his masterpiece, not the one he had been celebrating writing when he crashed his car and got himself into this mess. Ironically, Misery was King’s first novel to please most of the critics.
The character of Paul Sheldon is very much like his creator, Stephen King. At one point Paul discusses his incredible financial success and his own special talents as a writer, saying “there are lots of guys out there who write a better prose line than I do and who have a better understanding of what people are really like and what humanity is supposed to mean--. But if you want me to take you away, to scare you or involve you or make you cry or grin, yea, I can. I can bring it to you and keep bringing it until you holler uncle. I am able. I CAN" (Pg. 108). This book is a thinly veiled self-examination of King’s fans, his writing and his genre work. That’s not all it is though. It is also a psychological horror story without the supernatural that is common in King works. It is a frightening tale of the reality of everyday life, of repressed fears, of pain, frustration, loneliness, insecurity, insanity, dependence, and disintegration.
During the course of the book Annie amputates both Paul’s thumb and foot. This terrorizes him. Yet, she is not the most terrifying part of this book. What Paul becomes mentally is. The two horrifying dismemberments are ways of crippling Paul with the purpose of keeping him with her, and more importantly in order to reestablish her power over him.
The relationship between Paul and Annie changes and evolves as Paul learns about her mental state and grows to understand her. After Annie discusses killing the state trooper, Paul sees craziness in her grin and a conscious evil. She is not an actual monster, cannibal, vampire, or centaur. The real Annie, under all the masks is curiously pathetic as well as frightening. At times, when she is in a depressive state, she seems as much a victim as Paul.
Paul actually empathizes with Annie after reading her memory book of obituaries of her victims. She divides all the people in the world into "three groups: brats, poor poor things, and Annie". The poor, poor things had to be killed to put them out of their misery. She has murdered more than thirty people, including her own father. Being a victim of her manic-depressive cycles, Annie herself is a poor, poor thing. She has a compulsion to rid the world of brats and to end the misery of the poor poor things. This lonely loser’s major gratification in life comes from reading popular fiction.
Sheldon must write for his life. He knows that Wilkes cannot explain his captivity, and therefore can never just let him go. She won’t kill him though, at least not until she’s got her fill of Misery stories.