Number One Fan

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I was glad to revisit Misery for our horror genre readings course.  It's been several years since I first read this novel, and I was interested to see if it still held the same morbid fascination for me now as it did when I was a teenager.  King is definitely a master storyteller (well, as he points out, storywriter).  If anything, I found the book had more impact on me now, since I more fully appreciate some of the subtexts King has included about the relationship between reader and writer.

In her essay "Reading, Writing, and Interpreting: Stephen King's Misery," Lauri Berkencamp argues that Paul Sheldon and Annie Wilkes are both learning to read each other in the story, much as the reader reads and interprets the text of the novel.  I thought this was an interesting observation, and it gave me another perspective on the text.  The idea of literary criticism is a fascinating and often frustrating one.  How do you separate the subjectivity of your own ideas from an objective critique of a novel?  And how do you correctly interpret what the writer truly intends, as opposed to what you read into the text?  Is such a thing even possible?

In Misery, sometimes Paul correctly reads Annie and sometimes he doesn't.  The mistakes for him are costly--his latest manuscript, his medicine, and various bits of his body.  But through the mistakes, he does learn to assess Annie's moods.  He also goes from a dismissive attitude of her as another dumb fan into an almost religious fear of her power (the Burka bee goddess).  This can be seen as both King's ideas of his readers, as well as perhaps an inverted view of himself as a writer of "dumb" genre fiction.  Paul begins to read Annie so well that he predicts what has happened before (reading Annie's book of memories), as well as what will happen next.  The ultimate success, of course, is the climactic scene where he finally overpowers Annie and gains his freedom.

For her part, Annie is actually more astute at reading Paul from the beginning.  She knows of his escape from his room, and also knows exactly what motivates him and manipulates that in order to get what she wants from him.  In Annie, King has embodied the dynamic reader, and how reader expectations can affect a writer.  Ultimately, Annie misses Paul's final plan, but only because of outside interference and her own spiraling madness.  King may have been making a point that if a writer and a reader were sequestered, the reader's interpretation would be much closer to the writer's intention.  Those shared experiences and environment would meld the two into collaborators rather than dispenser of information and receiver of information.  Everything that separates the two, though, serves to blur and diffuse that sharing, until the two people are separate islands.  (Alternatively, perhaps he was just writing a cool story and didn't think this much into it.)

In any case, Berkencamp's ideas about the complexity of the reader-writer relationship present another way to view Misery.  It's always important, as a writer, not to underestimate your reader.  If you do, you hobble yourself (sorry!) and cheat your audience.  Of course, King noted in On Writing that the first audience should be yourself, but once you share that work with anyone else, you have relinquished control.  That's a scarier thing than most of us imagine.

(As a side note, my wife stole my thunder about Freud's "The Uncanny" and the castration fear present in Misery.  Suffice it to say, King makes a very clear connection between the amputations Paul endures and his anxiety about other parts.  "You're lucky I didn't cut off your man-gland," Annie says, and Paul agrees--even though he's minus a foot and a thumb at that point.)

Works Cited

Berkenkamp, Lauri. "Reading, Writing and Interpreting: Stephen King's MISERY."  In THE DARK DESCENT: ESSAYS DEFINING STEPHEN KING'S HORRORSCAPE. Ed. Tony Magistrale. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992. 203-11.

King, Stephen.  Misery.  New York, NY: Viking Penguin Inc., 1987.



Mike Arnzen said:

Glad that the Berkencamp essay fostered a productive re-reading of the book! I still feel much the same way you do, even re-reading it again for the umpteenth time. I also liked your connection to King's ON WRITING book, about 'relinquishing control' -- it's true that every published text is a 'social' text; much like our houses contribute to the neighborhood, so too does our 'literary property' contribute to the culture.

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Mike Arnzen on Number One Fan: Glad that the Berkencamp essay