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Tuesday, February 28, 2023

The Reading List: Stoker Award 1987 - Misery by Stephen King

 The Bram Stoker Award is presented by the Horror Writers Association for superior achievement in horror writing.  It was first presented in 1987, and in that inaugural year saw two books take the prize for best novel, Stephen King's "Misery" and Robert McCammon's "Swan Song" (more on the latter at a later date).  Since then, it sees to have reflected the very best that horror writing has to offer, and nearly everything King has written has managed to find its way onto the nominee list.

In the 1980's, Stephen King was arguably doing his best work.  Some of his most iconic works, from "Firestarter" to "Cujo", "Pet Semetary", "It" and "The Dark Tower" originated in this decade, during which he prolifically proved his mastery of horror and dark fantasy.  However, towards the end of the decade there seemed to be another thematic thread rising in his work, and I would argue that it began with "Misery".  

One reason King's work has resonated so strongly with his fans is his handling of character.  In the horror genre at the time, there were few writers who gave their characters such depth and believability, where most authors seemed to prefer to focus on the lurid or the grotesque.  The terrible things that happen in King's novels have so much more impact because they happen to people, not just animated stick figures on the page.

Up until "Misery", the draw of King's work was definitely the monstrous; the vampires of "Salem's Lot", the ghosts of "The Shining", the devil dog of "Cujo", or any of his many deranged psychics.  With "Misery", King seemed to be exploring a new direction, setting aside his supernatural beginnings in favor of a quieter, more psychological kind of horror.  It was probably a gamble when his fanbase had bought in on the bloody promise of "Christine" and "Carrie", but it was clear that King wanted to explore new ground in his writing, and it was a gamble that paid off.

"Misery" has its share of the monstrous, but the thing that makes it work is that the monster is entirely human.  It is an exploration of solitude, toxic fandom, creativity (and, by extended metaphor, addiction) that takes horrible shape in the person of Annie Wilkes.  Behind her facade of adoration and support, she hides the face of the deadly consequences of the things we create.  The thing that looks like it is helping you is, in the end, going to kill you.  King lays out in very visceral imagery a picture of a writer who is bound by the persona he has created.  He is literally bound and hobbled by his own work.  Just as Paul Sheldon tries to escape from the restrictions that writing the chronicles of Misery Chastain has put him under, so Stephen King seemed to be trying to escape the limitations and tropes of his own work by creating a new monster that is so much more subtle, and so much more relatable, than the "famous monsters" cast he had played with up until now.

The proof of the value in this work, of course, lies not in the awards it won at the time, but in the way it has endured.  Beyond the book, beyond even the admittedly excellent movie, "Misery" has had an influence down the line to the present day.  It paved the way for many a psychopathic villain to follow and even, I would argue, set the tone for the recent trend towards "quiet horror" seen in the work of directors like Ari Aster and Ti West.  Only last Hallowe'en, I was treated to a new stage interpretation of the novel, done with some very creative set design and rendered with nearly as much impact as the original work.

Since "Misery", King has of course gone on to master this more literary form of horror with ensuing novels like "Dolores Claiborne", "The Dark Half" and  "Gerald's Game", and even woven the same kind of character development into more outright horror novels such as "Bag of Bones", "Dreamcatcher" and "Black House".  It is in part that depth that has kept his work from becoming stale and repetitive.  The supernatural elements in his work, when they are present, are often secondary to the character's arcs, and rightly so.  "Misery" changed a lot in King's work, for both the writer and for the reader, and overall (for this reader at least) for the better.

"Misery" is available at Amazon, or if you prefer, you can read it for free at archive.org.

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