Wednesday, August 04, 2010

Stephen King's Misery and the Uses of Horror

Stephen King has been lobbying for respectability for a while, and the literary world seems to be coming around to him. Unlike most of the celebrated novels from the last thirty years, people are still reading King’s old work, and some of it seems likely to survive. I haven't read his other novels, but just going off the movie adaptations, there seem to be a wealth of narrative ideas in King's books. He isn’t, like most successful pulp novelists, simply writing to formula.

Misery, published in 1987, feels like a particularly personal book. It’s hero, Paul Sheldon, is a writer of historical romances who wants to be thought of as a serious writer, and even with all of his success has been hurt by the dismissiveness of critics. One day, drunk, having finally written what he thinks is a great book, he crashes his car in a Colorado snowstorm. When he comes to, his legs are shattered, and a large, strange woman named Annie Wilkes is taking care of him in her house. This care includes dosing him with powerful pain medication, on which Sheldon soon realizes he has become entirely dependent. Wilkes, an ex-nurse, is a huge fan of Sheldon’s work. She recognized him when she pulled him out of the car and hasn’t told anyone he is up in her house in the mountains.

Little by little, Sheldon realizes that his caretaker is deeply deranged. Annie becomes furious when she reads his latest romance, because Sheldon has killed off the series' main character, Misery Chastain, whom he desperately wanted to be rid of. Annie also forces Paul to burn his latest stab at literary respectability, Fast Cars, which she doesn’t think is worthy of his talent (too much profanity). Finally, trapped in his room, Paul is forced to write another novel that brings Misery back to life, while continually dealing with Annie’s rages and his own humiliating dependence.

This is certainly a gripping idea, and King develops it with great skill. It met, for me, the simplest test of a good novel: except for some pages from Sheldon’s ongoing captive manuscript, I never skimmed or even had the urge to skim. I was as interested in how things happened as what happened.

King also respects the tradition that he’s working in and has clearly read an enormous amount. Both Dumas and Fowles, past masters of the captivity narrative, come up in the novel, along with a number of other good writers. The book’s psychology is convincing, and the push and pull of power between Annie and Paul is ingeniously handled. King also has a fine sense of what needs to be left out to maintain his claustrophobic atmosphere – we get almost no backstory about Paul, and certain questions, like what became of Annie’s brief marriage, are pointedly left unanswered. There is a great deal of artistry in the book, and I think King deserves, in some ways, the respect he is looking for.

There are, however, several things about it that bother me – and they bother me not only about King but about all of his much less talented imitators working in pulp and television. Misery is about as good as the modern Gothic novel gets, so I think it is worth exploring how it works on a reader.

First, to quote one of Annie’s objections to Paul’s first draft, King cheats a little. He never cheats on plot; he knows all about how locks can be picked and how drug dependencies are created. But there are certain aspects of reality that he simply refuses to explore, and at a certain point this becomes an evasion instead of a narrative choice. For example, Sheldon can’t get out of bed for much of the book, and there is no bathroom where Annie has locked him up. A bedpan is mentioned near the end, but this obvious and intimate element of their relationship – with Paul probably wearing an open gown, and having to be bathed and cleaned and wiped everyday if he isn’t to smell – is never mentioned (their relationship would feel very different, I think, if it was). This aspect of Sheldon's plight is probably much more horrifying than anything else King describes – it is also something that everyone, at some point, is probably going to have to experience or watch someone else experience – but it is entirely outside of the realm of King’s interests.

The obvious objection is that King’s primary concern in Misery is not the body’s breakdown, but the nature of evil. Because Annie turns out to be not just a slightly addled fan but an actual psychopath. Paul is not her first victim; she has been killing people ever since she was an adolescent, and then repeatedly, quietly, and pointlessly ever since she became a nurse, until she was finally dismissed from her post. There is a long tradition of remorseless characters in literature, from Iago to Rigaud in Little Dorrit to Kate in East of Eden, whose motiveless malignity is, I suppose, meant to personify the same force that causes the tumor to metastasize, the stair to be not quite where we thought it was.

King is clearly trying to recreate this same sense of an implacable and unreasonable force bearing down on each of us. The Goddess never dies, Paul thinks, even when he is finally free of Annie, because she has become more than a human being for him; she is, like Iago, a demon.

Demons, though, to retain their power, must exist outside of psychology. And this is where Annie fails as a character, and in a profound way. Like so many modern villains, her actions are explained using the latest research from the abnormal psych people. We learn about Annie’s depressive states, her sense of paranoia, her inability to feel anything for all the infants and terminally ill patients she has killed as a nurse. When Annie suddenly feels bad about buying Paul a terrible typewriter than has hurt his hands – she actually cries – Paul, for the first time, considers why his captor might be this way:
Paul thought that the occasional moments like this were the most ghastly of all, because in them he saw the woman she might have been if her upbringing had been right or the drugs squirted out by all the funny little glands inside her had been less wrong.
This is not real empathy, and it also manages to kill the demon. The line about Annie's upbringing is disingenuous, because we never find out anything, good or bad, about her upbringing, and, like Kate from East of Eden, she began killing when she was still a child. All we have left as an explanation, then, is her glands. Annie is a typewriter with a piece broken; there is no hope for her, no possibility of an understanding than is more than mechanical. And there is absolutely no grandeur to her evil.

Such a person doesn’t produce the dread of a great villain like Iago, or the true sympathy that one can feel for, say, Mr. Falkland in Caleb Williams – instead, Annie just makes people scared. During the week I read this novel, I remember sitting in a bathroom stall in a library and being convinced that a man who walked in was going to burst through the doors and kill me. I even waited a second to buzz up a friendly census taker because I thought he was part of some murderous scheme.

There’s something unhealthy about this. A great book should make you feel more at home in the world, not less – the truth always does this, even if it’s unpleasant. But books like this, and the thousands by King’s much less talented followers, ignore genuine and universal anxieties – like Sheldon’s inability to clean himself or go to the bathroom – to create fresh and stupid ones. They succeed largely based on manufacturing false unease – a world filled with terrors that are, at best, immensely rare.

To some extent, this obsession with psychopaths reflects a natural interest both in the macabre and the extremes of human experience. People have always wanted to hear about murderers. There’s a difference today, though. Our fictional killers, like Annie, are less and less driven to crime by money or passion or revenge, and more often are actually wired wrong. They kill and torture simply out of some error of the brain. I suspect that anyone who watches even a little bit of TV could put together a psychological profile of one of these killers, representing the latest state of criminological science (I am tempted to put quotation marks around that last part).

Brain chemistry, glands: these are the explanations that the times demand. Some of the reasons are obvious: people who are simply, fundamentally, wrong, are the only ones who could possibly justify our fiercely punitive system of justice. We have to believe that such people not only exist but are quite common: the incorrigible, the unreachable. Not many people consider, though, what follows if we consider someone beyond hope. Tolstoy talked about this in The Kingdom of God is Within You. He discusses John Chrysostom’s arguments that some men are fundamentally bad, and must be restrained by force if the world is not to come to ruin:
This is ill grounded, Tolstoy writes, because if we allow ourselves to regard any men as intrinsically wicked men, then in the first place we annul, by so doing, the whole idea of the Christian teaching, according to which we are all equals and brothers, as sons of one Father in heaven.
Tolstoy also points out that there is no “perfect and unfailing distinction by which one could positively know the wicked from the good,” but he didn’t think then of the false certainty provided by brain chemistry and psychology, with which modern juries and modern readers are easily convinced that the death of a certain person is an unmixed blessing.

I am not a Christian, and I am not sure if there is such a thing as a soul, but I know that, if we are truly convinced that there is even a single person who, from birth, is completely impervious to love and incapable of empathy, we have to throw out even the possibility of one, because by what mechanism would some people receive a soul and others be denied one?

I’ve never meet one of these supposedly soulless individuals, though, so I’m not willing to do this, and I think there is something profoundly unhealthy about narratives like Misery and all of its screen siblings that present such people to us again and again. Faulkner talked about the modern author who writes “not of the heart but of the glands” – those same funny little glands that control Annie’s behavior – and saw it accurately as an assault on the dignity of man. This has to be a consideration when we try to measure the value of a book. King has an abundant imagination and a fine sense of craft – he is also, quite probably, a perfectly humane and intelligent person – but his books encourage an ugly and easy view of the world that I find inconsistent with real writing. Certain tasks, even done well, are better not done at all.


Thursday said...

I’ve never meet one of these supposedly soulless individuals

Oh, you almost certainly have. But psychopaths tend to be extremely charming people, so if you only had fairly superficial relationships with them, you wouldn't be privy to their full darkness. You should read this book. Hare also has a book on psychopaths in the corporate world.

Also check out some blog posts at GNXP on psychopaths here and here.

Thursday said...

The problem with the literary depiction of psychopaths is that they are just so totally banal. Their thought processes are just not interesting to someone with a normal psychology. See this article at Salon on mass murdering dictators.

Shakespeare or Dostoevsky take someone who does horrifically evil things and then imagines what it would take to make someone with normal psychology do those things. Thus we get villains like Iago who do all their stuff for essentially aesthetic motives.

In real life you may get the occasional Nero or Idi Amin, but mostly people of that ilk tend to prove Hannah Arendt's point about the banality of evil.

Akshay Ahuja said...

Dear Thursday,

The second post at GNXP seems to indicate that these genetic differences only increase the probability of certain actions. These people, then, are not (conclusively) different sorts of people - just inclined in certain unhealthy directions, as all of us are.

I don't think Tolstoy's criterion of a "perfect and unfailing distinction" between the good and the wicked, then, is even close to being met. Throwing around words like "psychopath" that segregate people with great finality strikes me as extremely dangerous, especially with the evidence as thin as it appears to be.

Even in King's book, Annie's worldview, which is entirely based on power and getting the other guy before he gets you, is at one point shaken by Paul not betraying her when he had the chance (this is, by the way, to King's credit as a writer). So even if brainscans were to reveal some clear differences, we have no idea how these people might change based on the way they are treated.


Tracy Brooking said...

Funny, I figured she was just a stand-in for his critics, who certainly must have objected to so many of his books ending in holocausts, thereby avoiding all those untidy objections that would have otherwise needed addressing. The possibility that he simply wanted to paint them as banal and unreasonably, mercilessly malevolent yet adoring dilettantes does seem to present itself.