(Soon to appear (amended) in print in my very own self-published Stephen King fan-zine! Watch this space!)
Paul Sheldon, author of the best-selling Misery Chastain series, finds himself in a very precarious situation. After finishing his new novel ‘Fast Cars’ (his long-sought escape from Misery’s world) and inebriated after a bottle of celebratory champagne, Paul drives off in the snow. You can probably guess what happens next.
At the bottom of a ravine, Paul lies broken and bloodied in the wreck of his car. Lucky for him, a mysterious stranger comes to his aid and administers life-saving CPR…
…his rescuer is none other than former nurse and self-proclaimed number one fan, Annie Wilkes.
For me, Annie is a very interesting horror character. At first glance the narrative may seem to paint her as just another one dimensional psychopath but as Paul’s suffering intensifies, the complexities of her characterisation and representation are revealed to the reader.
Annie, represented as the archetypal ‘mother goddess’ initially, is caring, nurturing and patient. She rescues Paul from the snow blizzard, resets his shattered limbs, feeds him painkillers (the origin of which remains a mystery) and selflessly nurses him back to consciousness in her own home.
It soon becomes clear that Annie does not fit any particular ‘mother goddess’ archetype. She is quick to anger, abusive, possessive, obsessive and driven to acts of extreme violence at the slightest provocation.
One notable transgression has terrible consequences for Paul when Annie punishes him by chopping off his foot with an axe and cauterising it with a blow torch (this scene was executed rather differently in the 1990 film adaptation).
Paul, a man used to fast cars, hard living and women on tap, soon realises he is in a hell of jam long before the foot-chopping even begins.
To Paul, Annie represents an ancient savagery that existed before the birth of ‘civilisation’; an elemental force of nature designed to punish and destroy the unfaithful:
‘The image of Annie Wilkes as an African idol out of She or King Solomon’s Mines was both ludicrous and queerly apt…like an idol, she gave only one thing: a feeling of unease deepening steadily toward terror. Like an idol, she took everything else.’
Paul has seemingly awoken a malevolent deity determined to devour and destroy his life as he knows it.
Annie further destroys the ‘mother goddess’ archetype when Paul discovers that in her nursing days, she was alleged to have killed a number of patients under her care; gaining her the nickname of ‘Dragon Lady’ in the press.
Inevitably, Annie does have some weaknesses. One is Liberace. The other is Paul and the Misery series. Annie’s obsession with the fictional Misery Chastain see her buy into a world with entrenched gender norms; i.e. helpless maiden, smitten (male) rescuer. This is obviously directly at odds with her behaviour regarding Paul. But, she is manipulated by Paul to a certain degree; he flatters Annie by calling her his ‘favourite nurse’ and plays upon her social awkwardness (or naiveté) in order to get the things that he wants or make her look stupid.
Paul often denigrates Annie by calling her a ‘bitch’ and in the final climatic scene alludes to rape as the ultimate punishment: ‘I’m gonna (sic) rape you, all right, Annie. I’m gonna rape you because all I can do is the worst I can do’.
The rape threat is a metaphorical allusion, as he does not actually rape Annie (as you can read in the book); having been emasculated in several horrifying ways, all Paul has is his manhood and defending it is worth risking his life.
Obviously, the word ‘bitch’ has strong cultural connotations; one is that it is often used to describe women who are strong, uncompromising and uninterested in pleasing men.
But ultimately, Annie does want to please Paul. She wants Paul to love her as much as she loves him. The power of the idol lies in the unwavering obedience and blind devotion of the hapless worshipper.
Whilst King’s representation of mental illness may be a little clumsy in parts, I think he is successful in creating a character that not only rebels against the ‘mother goddess’ stereotype that is often attached to women, but also horror genre conventions that relegate women to passive and undemanding roles.
This is especially apparent in film where many female characters meet their maker by the most pointlessly violent means, or through sadistic sexual torture.
Annie smashes ‘traditional’ horror conventions by existing within her own right as a female character who is seemingly indestructible. Paul’s attempts to kill Annie are often thwarted by her unworldly levels of precognition (alluding to her representation as some kind of all-knowing being).
However, Annie is not infallible, and she does meet her death at the hands of Paul.
We sympathise with Paul, as we should, as he’s had his goddamned foot and thumb cut off and cauterised with a blow-torch! But we are not surprised because the good guy always wins, right? Especially when there are some crazy women that need putting in their place.
Ultimately, Annie’s (somewhat deranged) ‘love’ for Paul was her undoing; we can also sympathise with her, too.
Anyway, I still love Misery despite my minor observations.