Walking home from school one hot summer day, I happened across a prone squirrel, lying on a grassy boulevard. It looked hurt; it’s body not moving. I don’t know. I suppose I’ve always had empathy for small creatures. I thought, perhaps unrealistically, that I could help the animal in some manner: give it a nudge towards a home burrow; ascertain injuries and contact animal control. I don’t know. Just…help.
Carefully, slowly, I moved towards the creature so as to not frighten it, eventually placing my school backpack down and kneeling beside it. The squirrel seemed to shudder ever so slightly as I tentatively placed fingers on its coarse, sun-warmed fur.
But it didn’t move. Not really. Its muscles, under that brownish pelt, just rippled like tiny waves on a still lake and with the afternoon sun beating down, I gave the animal a more urgent nudge.
Surprisingly, the squirrel turned over easily, yielding an underbody awash with tiny white maggots, furiously burrowing and arising inside and outside grayish dead flesh. A flurry of noisy black flies rose and clouded my vision and I fell, choking back tears and vomit.
I was eight years old.
Thirty years later, I’m still horrified by that sequence of events. But horror is a strange thing: once experienced, we get ever so slightly hardened by it. It takes a horror on a much grander scale to truly move us on our next encounter.
For me, one of those encounters was Stephen King’s Misery.
Published in 1987, Misery, if you haven’t already read the novel, tells the story of Paul Sheldon, famed writer of the Misery Chastain series of romance novels. After a brutal winter car accident, Paul wakes to find himself bedridden and incapacitated at the remote Colorado home of his “number one fan” Annie Wilkes.
Annie, a former nurse, who’s life revolves around Sheldon’s fictional creation, decides to bring the author back to full health herself, but shows a dark side when she reads his latest novel, Misery’s Child – a story that ends with the main character’s death.
Sheldon’s horrifying experiences at the hands of his host begin in earnest now. Kept hooked on painkillers and reliant on her feeding him, Sheldon is forced to write the Misery Chastain novel that the deranged Annie desires. Her psychological state rapidly deteriorates and her history in the nursing profession is revealed to be truly frightening.
It’s here, with the help of a pleading and prone Paul Sheldon and an antagonist armed with an axe and a blowtorch, that Stephen King ups the horror ante that we’ve been hardened to.
In 1990, Rob Reiner directed Misery for the silver screen, his second Stephen King feature film (1986’s Stand By Me being the first). Starring James Caan as Paul Sheldon, the psychological thriller was greeted to both commercial and critical acclaim. Kathy Bates won the Academy Award for Best Actress for her role as the disturbed Annie Wilkes. Few will ever forget the performance.
Although the axe and blowtorch scene was altered to one of a wooden plank and a sledgehammer in the film version, the sheer horror remains. We as readers, we as viewers become Paul Sheldon here and in this scene we have all the necessary dread: calm piano music, a coolly detached historical account, a pleading man and a distinct lack of empathy. “Annie,” says Paul, “whatever you’re thinking about doing, please don’t do it.”
But she does. And it’s that image which will remain engrained in my mind for all time.
Stephen King, with Misery, smashed my hardened demeanor. It truly is the stuff of nightmares, never to be forgotten.