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Misery is a 1987 psychological horror thriller novel by Stephen King. The novel was nominated for the World Fantasy Award for Best Novel in 1988, and was later made into a Hollywood film and an off-Broadway play of the same name. When King was writing Misery in 1985 he planned the book to be released under the pseudonym Richard Bachman but the identity of the pseudonym was discovered before the release of the book.
The novel focuses on Paul Sheldon, a writer famous for Victorian-era romance novels involving the character of Misery Chastain. One day he is rescued from a car crash by crazed fan Annie Wilkes, who transports him to her house and, once finding out what he has done to Misery in his latest book, forces him to write a new book modifying the story – no matter what it takes.
Paul Sheldon is the author of a best-selling series of Victorian-era romance novels surrounding the character Misery Chastain. He has just finished the manuscript of his new crime novel, Fast Cars, while staying at the Hotel Boulderado. Since 1974, he has completed the first draft of every one of his novels in the same hotel room in Colorado. With his latest project finished, he has an alcohol-induced impulse to drive to Los Angeles rather than fly back home to New York City. However, a snowstorm hits while he is driving through the mountains. Sheldon drives off a cliff and crashes upside down into a snowbank.
Paul is rescued from the car wreck, which has resulted in shattered legs, by Annie Wilkes, a former nurse who lives nearby in the fictive town "Sidewinder" in Colorado. She takes him to her own home rather than a hospital, putting him in the guest bedroom. Using her nursing skills and stockpiled food and medical supplies, including an illicit stash of codeine-based painkillers, Annie slowly nurses Paul back to "health". Instead of setting his legs, as a doctor would have done (so that they may mend and eventually work), she puts them in makeshift splints. This results in his legs looking somewhat like a child's doodle. She proclaims herself as Paul's "number one fan", being an avid reader of the Misery Chastain series. However, when she reads the manuscript for Fast Cars, Annie argues with Paul on its violent content and profanity, causing her to spill his soup. Saying that the accident was "his" fault, she begins a systematic process of minimization, punishing him by withholding his medication, then forcing him to wash it down with soap water. Paul, who has done extensive research into mental disorders, suspects that Annie is dangerously disturbed.
Prior to the accident, when Sheldon's latest novel, Misery's Child, had hit the shelves, Annie had bought herself a reserved copy. She does not know, however, that Paul has killed Misery Chastain off at the end, intending to end the Misery series and re-establish himself as a mainstream writer. Upon learning of the main character's demise (which she reads while Sheldon is her captive), Annie rages at Paul before leaving him alone in her house without food, water or the painkillers for over two days lest she do something "unwise". During this time, Paul suffers from extreme pain and withdrawal symptoms due to the painkillers; by the time Annie returns, he is close to becoming comatose or dying. Annie forces him to burn the manuscript of Fast Cars – the book he hoped would launch his post-Misery career – and presents him with an antique Royal typewriter, for the purpose of writing a new Misery Chastain novel that will bring the character back from the dead.
Paul bides his time and writes the book as Annie wants, believing her fully capable of killing him. He manages to escape his room while Annie is on an errand, touring the house in search of more painkillers. He manages to reach her telephone as well, only to discover it to be "for show". He is almost caught by Annie, but manages to return to his room before she enters the house. On another occasion when Annie is absent, Paul escapes his room again and steals a knife from her kitchen, intending to kill her. On the way back to his room, he finds a scrapbook full of newspaper clippings from Annie's life, suggesting that she is a serial killer who murdered her own father, her college roommate, and numerous patients in several states – thirty-nine people in all. She was arrested and charged with killing several babies at a Boulder hospital, but was acquitted. He also finds a magazine clipping about his status as a missing person, the latest entry in the scrapbook.
Annie (who is prone to blanking out for gradually increasing durations of time, moodswings, depression where she slaps herself continuously, periods of time where she binges on food and sweets without using cutlery, and mounting paranoia) eventually reveals that she knows about Paul's excursions from his room, and punishes him by cutting off Paul's foot with an axe (hobbling) and cauterizing his ankle with a blowtorch. Later, when Paul complains about a missing letter on the typewriter, she punishes him by slicing off his thumb with an electric knife. A Colorado state trooper eventually arrives at Annie's house in search of Paul. Realizing a chance for escape, Paul alerts the officer by throwing an ash tray through the window, alerting him. However, Annie surprises the trooper, stabs him with a wooden cross and finishes him off with her lawnmower. She intends to kill Paul and herself to avoid being prosecuted for the crime, but Paul convinces her not to proceed by promising to write the novel. She temporarily hides Paul in the basement while she departs, meaning to dispose of the trooper's police cruiser.
Paul finally finishes writing Misery's Return and calls Annie, who has been eager to read it, to his room. He is aware that once Annie has read the completed book she intends on killing both of them, as the police are getting ever closer to discovering she killed the state trooper. Paul surprises Annie by using the single match she provided him with to light his cigarette (having convinced her that smoking was his normal practice after finishing a novel) to seemingly light his manuscript on fire in front of her—having first soaked it with a bottle of charcoal lighter fluid he smuggled to his room from the basement. While Annie frantically tries to put out the flames, which by this point have spread to her clothing, Paul lifts the heavy typewriter and throws it down hard onto Annie's back. The two engage in a violent struggle, with Paul stuffing Annie's mouth full of the burning pages. Annie gets to her feet and steps forward to attack Paul but trips on the typewriter, causing her to hit her head on the mantelpiece. Although first appearing to be dead, Annie awakens and crawls towards Paul who, in turn, frantically crawls away from Annie towards the door. Just as he reaches the threshold of the room, Annie reaches Paul and tries to strangle him, but instead she collapses from her injuries. Paul then crawls out of the room, closes the door, and locks the bolt that Annie had installed. After slumping down in front of the door, Paul feels Annie's fingers tugging his shirt from under it. Horrified at the question of how she is still alive, he pounds at her fingers then makes his way to the bathroom for more painkillers. He finds and swallows some and sleeps against the door.
Awakening, Paul musters up the courage to leave the bathroom in an attempt to escape, uncertain if Annie is either alive or dead. After slowly crawling to the parlor, he sees headlights through a window and two state policemen approach the house. He finds an ornament of Annie's and throws it through the window to get their attention. When they find him, Paul warns them about Annie still being alive and her being locked in the guest bedroom. They leave him to investigate. When they return, they tell Paul that they had not found anything but a shattered bottle of champagne and the room burned. Paul screams until he faints. Later it is revealed that Annie had escaped through the window and gone out to the barn in order to get a chainsaw to kill Paul. However, she had died in the barn due to the skull fracture inflicted when she fell against the mantelpiece, one hand grasping the handle of the chainsaw.
Returning home to New York, Paul submits Misery's Return to his publisher (it was earlier revealed that he burned a decoy of the manuscript instead of the book itself). Paul's publisher tells him that the book will become his greatest bestseller, and wants him to write a nonfiction book about his ordeal. However, the ordeal is far from over for Paul: he suffers nightmares about Annie and continues to have withdrawals from painkillers. He has also become an alcoholic with writer's block. Eventually, after a random encounter with a child pushing a shopping cart containing a skunk in a cage, Paul has the same spark that inspired him to write Fast Cars and begins typing about this boy and his skunk, weeping as he types, both in misery for his shattered life and in joy that he is finally able to write again.
One of Stephen King's inspirations for Misery was the reaction his fans had to his 1984 novel The Eyes of the Dragon. Many fans rejected The Eyes of the Dragon because it was an epic fantasy book, with virtually none of the horror that initially made his reputation. Paul Sheldon feeling chained to the Misery books by his fans was a metaphor for King's feeling chained to horror fiction. Another source was King's addiction to drugs and alcohol, and his struggle to give them up. He stated: "Take the psychotic nurse in Misery, which I wrote when I was having such a tough time with dope. I knew what I was writing about. There was never any question. Annie was my drug problem, and she was my number-one fan. God, she never wanted to leave." When further addressing the idea of whether the character of Paul Sheldon was based on himself, King stated that in certain ways, he was, but in the ways where every character is a part of the author in some way: "It would be fair enough to ask, I suppose, if Paul Sheldon in Misery is me. Certain parts of him are . . . but I think you will find that, if you continue to write fiction, every character you create is partly you."
King has also attributed a dream he had while on a trans-Atlantic flight to London with the situation and characters that became fleshed out in Misery. He noted that he wrote the idea on an American Airlines cocktail napkin when he woke up so he could make sure to remember it, writing: "She speaks earnestly but never quite makes eye contact. A big woman and solid all through; she is an absence of hiatus. 'I wasn't trying to be funny in a mean way when I named my pig Misery, no sir. Please don't think that. No, I named her in the spirit of fan love, which is the purest love there is. You should be flattered.'"
King and his wife, Tabitha King, stayed in London's Brown's Hotel, and wrote "sixteen pages of a steno notebook", on a desk the concierge offered him that was the same desk Rudyard Kipling owned, and died of a stroke at while writing. The working title of the book, which King thought would only be around thirty thousand words (it ended up being almost four times that at 370 pages), was The Annie Wilkes Edition. While discussing the pros and cons (mostly cons) of pre-plotting novels, King mentioned that he had originally planned for Annie to force her prisoner to write a book, that she would then bind in Paul's skin. When commenting on why he chose not to go that route, King said:
...it would have made a pretty good story (not such a good novel, however; no one likes to root for a guy over the course of three hundred pages only to discover that between chapters sixteen and seventeen the pig ate him), but that wasn't the way things eventually went. Paul Sheldon turned out to be a good deal more resourceful than I initially thought, and his efforts to play Sheherezade and save his life gave me a chance to say some things about the redemptive power of writing that I had long felt but never articulated. Annie also turned out to be more complex than I'd first imagined her, and she was great fun to write about..."
The novel was adapted into a film in 1990. James Caan and Kathy Bates star as Paul and Annie, with Lauren Bacall, Richard Farnsworth, and Frances Sternhagen as the only major supporting actors. Kathy Bates won the 1990 Best Actress Oscar for her performance.
The novel was also adapted into a play by Simon Moore. The play premiered in London at the Criterion Theater in December 1992, starring Sharon Gless and Bill Paterson and directed by Moore. The play, directed by Alan Cohen, was revived in 2005 at the Kings Head Theatre in London, starring Michael Praed and Susan Penhaligon.
A play written by William Goldman and directed by Will Frears opened on Broadway in 2015 for a limited engagement. The play starred Bruce Willis as writer Paul Sheldon and Laurie Metcalf as Annie Wilkes. It opened in October 2015 and ended on February 16, 2016. For her performance as Annie, Metcalf was nominated for a Tony Award for Best Actress in a Play. This new version is not connected to the earlier adaptation by Simon Moore.
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