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Who is Paul Sheldon? Misery by Stephen King

May 2, 2016

First, I should say that I know this book isn’t new. It came out in 1987 when I was a delicate three-year-old child, who had not quite gotten to chapter books just yet. Misery is a psychological thriller about an author of famous Victorian-era romances who is rescued from a car crash by his number one fan, Annie Wilkes. The only problem? Annie Wilkes is completely off her rocker.

Wilkes is a former nurse, with a store of all kinds of prescription medicine she copped from the hospitals where she was previously employed. She’s completely obsessed with Misery Chastain (the lead character in Sheldon’s books), and as she nurses Sheldon back to health from his terrible injuries, she reads the latest novel in the series. Suffice it to say, Annie is VERY unhappy with Paul when she realizes her favorite character dies. So, she decides to force him to bring her back.

The novel is a rollercoaster of terror and pain for Paul Sheldon. He is held hostage, and made to write what might be the greatest work of his life, knowing that once it is finished, Annie is likely to kill both of them.

While I love the exploration of Annie’s insanity in this work, there are some things that are really left up to the imagination of the reader. We have an idea of who Paul Sheldon is as a writer, and as a person, but only vaguely. In truth, he comes off as a bit of an irresponsible and arrogant jerk.

To him, the Misery Chastain novels were just a way to pay the bills so he could work on his “real” writing. He wanted to be respected as a writer, and he knew that the trashy, lurid romance novels he was writing were not going to get him any respect as a true literary author. He has had a least two wives that are mentioned, only in passing, as wanting their alimony checks. We know that after finishing his latest novel Fast Cars, he gets incredibly drunk, and drives his car out of town, and into a potential blizzard. He loses control of his car and smashes it (and himself) up pretty badly.

But really, who is Paul Sheldon? What is he like? He retires to a hotel room in Colorado, where he finishes all of his novels. He can be impulsive, vicious, and has a tremendous amount of willpower, even if he is driven by the need for revenge against Annie. Outside of the confines of his forced sick room in Annie’s house, what is he like? Is he a fierce lover? Does he pet strange dogs? Does he tip more than ten percent on his meals? Is he always an arrogant jerk, or is that only when he’s talking about his writing?

I think this novel really makes a statement about the fact that whoever Paul Sheldon is BEFORE Annie Wilkes, the person he is after is far rawer and more visceral than before. The novel he writes while under her “care” is one of his best - but he doesn’t give up. Despite the trauma, Paul keeps one vital part untouched. In the end, Paul Sheldon is an author – and he will write.

Reading Misery is part of my great Stephen King re-read.

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