Rose Madder (novel)

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Rose Madder
First edition cover
AuthorStephen King
CountryUnited States
Publication date
June 1995
Media typePrint (Hardcover)

Rose Madder is a Fantasy Thriller/Horror novel by American writer Stephen King, published in 1995. It deals with the effects of domestic violence (which King had touched upon before in the novels It, Insomnia, Dolores Claiborne, Needful Things, and many others) and, unusually for a King novel, relies for its fantastic element on Greek mythology. In his memoir, On Writing, King states that Rose Madder and Insomnia are "stiff, trying-too-hard novels."


In the prologue, which takes place in 1985, Rose Daniels' husband, Norman, beats her while she is four months pregnant, causing her to suffer a miscarriage. Rose briefly considers leaving Norman but dismisses the idea: Norman is a policeman, and is excellent at finding people. Norman also has a violent temper and was recently accused of assaulting a black woman named Wendy Yarrow. The subsequent lawsuit and Internal Affairs investigation has made him even more volatile.

Nine years later, when Rose is making the bed, she notices a drop of blood on the sheet that dripped from her nose the night before; Norman had punched her in the face for spilling iced tea on him. Rose realizes that she has passively suffered through Norman's abuse for 14 years and that if she continues to put up with it, he may well eventually kill her. Rose decides to leave Norman, departing from her unidentified city on a bus, with their bank card. Once Norman realizes that Rose is gone, he resolves to hunt her down and kill her.

Rose arrives in a Midwestern city, disoriented and afraid. When she arrives at the bus station, she meets a man named Peter Slowik, who guides her to a women's shelter called Daughters and Sisters. There, she quickly makes several friends and, with the help of the shelter's director, Anna Stevenson, gets an apartment and a job as a hotel housekeeper, with her new friend Pam.

Rose decides to pawn her engagement ring, only to learn that it is cubic zirconia. However, she notices a painting of a woman in a rose madder gown and immediately falls in love with it. She trades her ring for the painting, which has no signature. Outside, a patron of the pawnshop, who witnessed Rose's ordeal with her wedding ring, asks her to read a passage from a novel. He is so impressed that he offers her a job recording audiobooks. Bill Steiner, the owner of the pawnshop, asks her for a date. Rose falls in love with him, but she is afraid to begin a new relationship.

Rose discovers that the painting seems to change from time to time. Eventually she is able to travel through it. On the other side, she encounters a woman called Dorcas, who resembles Wendy Yarrow. She also sees the woman in the rose-madder gown, whom she calls "Rose Madder" because of her gown and her evident madness. Rose Madder asks Rose to rescue her baby from an underground labyrinth inhabited by a blind, one-eyed bull called Erinyes who orients by his sense of smell.

Dorcas, or "Wendy", leads Rose to the edge of the temple grounds. She warns Rose of several dangers and trials that await her on her mission. Dorcas cannot enter the labyrinth, as she is afflicted by the same mysterious illness as her mistress, and Erinyes would be able to smell her. Before Rose parts from Dorcas, she is made to strip naked. Dorcas instructs Rose to rip her nightgown into several strips. One is soaked in Dorcas' blood and tied around a rock. Rose then wraps the bloodied rock in the remainder of her nightgown so its scent cannot escape. Rose then continues into the temple, cold and alone. She continues to argue with herself, trying to decide if she is dreaming or if everything is really happening. There seems to be just too much detail for it to be a dream, but Rose still cannot seem to decide for certain.

Rose manages to save the child and escape Erinyes and returns the baby girl (whom Rose has temporarily named "Caroline", since that was the name she had chosen for the infant Norman caused her to miscarry) to Rose Madder, who promises to repay her. Rose returns to her world and puts the strange incident at the back of her mind.

Norman, who has arrived in what is suggested to be Chicago, attacks some of Rose's friends from Daughters and Sisters, murders Anna and Pam, and then goes to confront Rose at her apartment. Norman kills the policemen assigned to protect Rose, then poses as one of them in the patrol car, and is able to see Rose and Bill returning from the police station. He attacks them both, almost strangling Bill to death, but Rose is able to fight him off because she believes she is wearing the golden arm circlet Rose Madder had given her. After inflicting an enormous amount of damage on Norman, she carries Bill to the apartment, where Rose sees the circlet on her table and realizes she's been fighting Norman alone the whole time. She then tricks Norman into following her and Bill into the painting, where Rose leads Norman, who has turned into Erinyes the bull, to Rose Madder, who kills him. Rose returns to her world with the instructions from Rose Madder to "remember the tree", where she leads a normal life with no further summons from Rose Madder. She marries Bill and has a daughter, but finds that the violent rages that characterized both Norman and Rose Madder have begun to spring up within her. She then remembers that Rose Madder, perhaps foreseeing the problem, allowed her to take some dangerous seeds home with her, and Rose plants the last remaining seed, along with Norman's police ring, in a secret grove by her favorite lake and finds the seed grows into a beautiful but deadly tree. She revisits that tree periodically as it grows, and is able to release her rage and go on with her life.


The novel is Stephen King's lowest-selling book in history and one of the least well-received by fans, and even Stephen King himself regretted writing the novel.[1]

Cancelled Film[edit]

A film adaptation of Rose Madder was in development in 2011, but the project fell apart.[2][3]