(Note: My headlines are becoming an exercise in cattiness and need not reflect the arguments within the body of the blog entry. In this case, however, the title is the article. Let’s take a tangential route through the world of clowns, spiders, and psycho-fans that is Stephen King.)
Somewhere between Carrie and Mr. Mercedes are a pair of books by Stephen King on the actual art of horror. One is the highly insightful, often critical Danse Macabre, being King’s examination of the source material of horror which influenced him as a child and young man. The other book, an advertisement for an amazing Twelve-Step Program called On Writing, outlines King’s personal sadistic writing regimen and then excoriates the use of whiskey and cocaine for destroying his memory of penning Cujo. And that makes On Writing seem horribly pretentious and pedantic–and it is–if you haven’t read Misery.
Misery is a story of addiction, a story of unhealthy dependence, a story of predictability. As Paul Sheldon lies helpless in bed, completely dependent on the sadistic, emotionally distant Annie Wilkes for life itself, he finds himself stripped, reduced, and ultimately broken by his psychopathic caretaker.
Yet Annie is an addict, as well. In truth, it is Annie’s addictions which have been foisted off onto Paul. Annie is addicted to the world of Paul’s epic heroine, Misery Chastain, as well as to the power of life and death she wields over her patient/prisoner. Paul discovers that Annie has a long history of psychopathic violence and a number of murders are associated with her. She has a pathological need to kill and her modus operandi mutates.
Annie forces Paul to burn the manuscript for his latest novel–a non-Misery novel–and we find a parallel to King’s own loss of memory in writing Cujo. Of course it has been argued that this event actually reflects King’s feeling trapped as a writer, being forced to write horror after his fans rejected his fantasy offering, The Eyes of the Dragon. (Which, by the way, reads a lot like the new style of fantasy we give Robert Jordan and George R.R. Martin credit for creating.)
But this is a story of addiction–of Paul’s addiction to Annie’s pain killers, of Annie’s addiction to escapism and control. This mirrors the story of Stephen King’s addiction to his fans, his fans addiction to his writing, and the generally unhealthy results that stem from chemical, emotional, and psychic dependence. It’s life as art and so reads well, even though we want to stop. Each page brings new pain, new depravity, but we keep reading because we feel compelled to read it, because somehow we’re in it.
And that sounds pretentious, but it’s not. In a recent Rolling Stone interview, King says “Misery is a book about cocaine. Annie Wilkes is cocaine. She was my number-one fan.” While King fought with drug addiction for eight years, I bought his books–they were some of the first “grown-up books” I ever read as a kid–and I fed the monkey on his back. We all fed Stephen King’s monkey, and he’s been feeding ours.
So there’s a strong appeal to Misery that transcends the usual writer-reader-critic paradigm. It’s tinged with an addict-enabler-dealer element that we buy into; as readers we are enablers. But as an author, King’s our dealer. We want to read this stuff, we seek it out, it’s not a nice story, not the literary equivalent of a Thomas Kinkade painting. He slings dope and we snatch it up and somewhere along the way if we don’t feel bad on some level, we accuse him of running a scam on us. Enter The Eyes of the Dragon.
Did we make Stephen King into a junkie by demanding he meet our expectations? No. Did we directly enable his cocaine and booze habit? No. Do readers create stress in author’s lives by assuming that writers of genre fiction are one-trick ponies? Yes. Is that likely to turn a writer into a junkie? Probably.
So that sanctimonious, heartfelt drivel King gushes about in On Writing, the moments when he sounds like South Park‘s Mr. Mackey with his refrain “Drugs are bad, mmmkay”, is actually a damnation of complacency, of falling into the rut of writing in only one genre (or writing too heavily about certain topics.) Critics of On Writing have said that it lacks little practical advice on the art and craft of writing. I truth, it contains a wealth of information if you look at King’s body of work and the known details of his life.