I read Stephen King’s Misery earlier this summer for my comprehensive exams. Then, I let the book rest for a while and didn’t do much with it. It juxtaposes fascinatingly with the film, which depicts an Annie Wilkes who’s incredibly true to King’s story, courtesy of the monumentally talented Kathy Bates. And, like the film, it explores concepts like female madness, and madness depicted as monstrosity, but in more depth than the film does. Wilkes is at least a somewhat complex character who King—and his protagonist, Paul Sheldon—come close to virtually humanizing at times, despite her atrocious actions. But the fact remains: Annie Wilkes is a madwoman, and she’s depicted as a monstrous madwoman. I thought I’d use this post to look at more of Annie’s personality, and what the madwoman—and the monster woman—is, if we take Annie as an example of both. So, let’s do this.
Misery, as a brief synopsis, is about esteemed romantic novel writer Paul Sheldon who drinks too much, gets in a car, and ends up crashing the car in the middle of a Colorado winter. (I will provide spoilers in this review, so be ready for those.) When Annie Wilkes finds Paul Sheldon, he’s unconscious and presumably not breathing. She resuscitates him and brings him back to her home, where she hides him from authorities and uses her nursing knowledge to care for him – often in a sickening, sadistic way. Paul’s legs are particularly mangled, and he becomes addicted to the painkillers she gives him because of the pain he experiences. While Paul’s under Annie’s care – or “care” – she reads his most recent Misery novel and realizes that protagonist Misery Chastain dies. Infuriated, she throws one of her frequent virulent temper tantrums and forces Paul to re-write the book. So he does re-write the book, but with the tempestuous, unpredictable Annie always lurking over his shoulders, often acting erratically and harming Paul. While he does live by the end of the story (and Annie, the monster, dies), Paul is left with an amputated leg and thumb, courtesy of Annie’s ghoulish antics.
What I notice almost immediately about Annie’s portrayal in the film is that she’s associated with the abject. In her book, Powers of Horror, Julia Kristeva defines the abject as that which is disgusting, that which we wish to expel or push away. She describes the process of abjection as: “Loathing an item of food, a piece of filth, waste or dung,” (2) but I take those to be examples of a general accumulation of “gross stuff” that falls under the abjection umbrella. In the beginning of the book, when Annie’s resuscitating Paul after his car accident, King makes a special effort to describe her breath, a description which marks Paul’s first, semi-conscious encounter with Annie. Paul describes her breath as a “dreadful mixed stench of vanilla cookies and chocolate ice cream and chicken gravy and peanut-butter fudge” (5). King’s string of food descriptors has such impact that I started to gag as I typed the above line. Annie – who is a large woman, often associated with food and binging – is here metonymically represented by her breath, an unappealing bit of abjection that encompasses the abjection that culture often deems particular to women, and that is especially prevalent in depictions of the mad-monster-woman.
What makes this scene particularly unsettling is that the reeking breath is going into Paul’s body. If Kristeva says that we usually want to expel that abject – it is the “Not-I,” that which we deem not a part of us – then here we witness the abject being inserted, vis a vis breath, into someone instead of being ejected. The consumption of the abject, our tendency to imagine the abject entering us as we read this passage, makes it especially nauseating. King at least intuitively realizes this, because he uses the word “rape” to describe Annie’s attempt to resuscitate Paul. The word “rape” implies – true to that which is abject – that what is entering the subject is something unwanted, even formidable. King writes: “The first real memory: stopping and being raped back into life by the woman’s stinking breath” (7). King, then, capitalizes on our disgust at the thought of the abject entering the “I” by emphasizing that entrance as something violent and forced; the word “rape” makes Paul’s resuscitation seem like strangulation.
Significantly, Kristeva says, of the abject: “It is thus not lack of cleanliness or health that causes abjection, but what disturbs identity, system, order. What does not respect borders, positions, rules. The in-between, the ambiguous, the composite,” (4). While Kristeva explains that the abject itself isn’t an object, abjection can certainly be embodied in an object—or a person. In Misery, Annie Wilkes is a subject of desire, a human with desires like we all have, but she is also an object of abjection who occasionally lapses into pure Lacanian drive with no intervening demand or desire. At times, she seems to lose all semblances that make her human and to become a person driven to achieving an outlandish objective – like removing Paul’s leg to keep him from leaving the bedroom. The complexity of Annie Wilkes thus reveals that the monster-woman can be both things—a subject of desire and an object of abjection. True to Kristeva’s description, she is an “in-between,” an “ambiguous” that does not respect “borders, positions, rules” (4). Not only does her “stinking breath,” invade Paul, but her entire psyche and being does, in a sense, when she kidnaps him and keeps him locked up in her house, injured and without access to medical attention. Her intrusiveness—her inability to respect borders—and her overall abjection are emphasized with a description of her body, a physicality that deviates significantly from what culture deems desirable in a woman. Her body is descried as “big” with “no feminine curves” and a bosom with an “unwelcoming swell” (page 9). Annie’s “unwelcoming” breast that juts out without any accompanying sexuality further underscores her position as a monster-woman who intrudes – intrudes Paul’s mouth, intrudes Paul’s life, intrudes the air around her with her large and unforgiving body. The abject is unwanted; Annie’s large, undesirable body is, to Paul Sheldon’s eyes, abject in that sense.
Abjection, then, is a key feature of Annie Wilkes’ position as a “mad monster” or a “monster woman” in Misery. But, if we are to turn to Misery to examine some characteristics of the monster woman, we’ll find even more to dissect. Interestingly, Stephen King seems to associate madness—at least, Annie Wilkes’ version of madness—with ontological displacement. If we use Jacques Lacan’s notion of the symbolic order as language-mediated culture, then Annie, in her bouts of catatonic madness, not-so-subtly slips out of the symbolic order at times and becomes displaced from her own body and the culture around her. In a sense, Annie has committed symbolic suicide prior to the book’s start; her multiple murders aren’t convicted in a court of law, but they mark her as a loathed outcast, and she is thus shunned from the Colorado community around her, ejected from language-mediated culture. But in her moments of complete madness, Annie is ejected not only from “language-mediated culture” but from language itself, and from her own body. Paul Sheldon observes her face and notes: “It was the face of a woman who has become momentarily untethered from all the vital positions and landmarks of her life, a woman who has forgotten not only the memory she was in the process of recounting but memory itself” (15). Annie is displaced not only from language and culture, but from her own psyche. In that way, the abject Annie becomes the true “hybrid” that Jeffrey Jerome Cohen talks about in Monster Theory. At times, she’s displaced from her own psyche, and so she essentially splits in half, becoming a self that has vacated its original ontological position.
Indeed, the madwoman, much like the specter I’ve discussed in other posts, seems, at her maddest points, like she’s outside of place and time. Not only does Annie become displaced from her body in moments of complete and utter madness, but she has a difficult relationship with time. Indeed, she can’t keep track of it. Paul notes that she’s kept the calendar turned to February long after February has passed, and her inability to track time makes her forget to pay the taxes on her house. King says of Paul Sheldon (and Annie): “He would come to know her grasp of time was not good” (22). But this phenomenon of the madwoman—at least as she appears to Stephen King—makes her, the madwoman or the mad monster, an interesting and noteworthy paradox. In her state of abjection, that which is most objectionable to Paul about Annie becomes invasively intrusive; if one is to believe the text, one can hardly escape Annie’s breath and bosom. At the same time, Annie is essentially absent, from the symbolic order and at times from her own body. In this sense, the abject Annie, far from being an example of the “Lacanian real”—which is described as “all presence” –is presence and absence simultaneously. She is at once completely gone, and not just present, but all too present. She is not there and too there simultaneously. It would be interesting to speculate whether or not this absent-present state were common among depictions of other mad individuals—in film, television, and literature.
Of course, perhaps predictably, madness is depicted as capricious and unpredictable in Misery. Paul becomes oddly attuned to Annie’s moods in this text, so that, despite the fact that he detests her, they are oddly connected on a startlingly intimate level. And despite this intimate connection, even he cannot guess what “hurricane Annie,” will do next. The mad monster, to that end, constantly keeps the person around her on edge. Furthermore, to spend time with the mad monster is to become a monster yourself. After Paul has spent enough time with Annie, he fantasizes over gouging her throat with a sharp piece of glass. Paul’s malice and hatred toward Annie morph him into someone who is at least partially monstrous, who dreams of violence because of his own anger.
Interestingly, with the mad monster—at least, the mad monster-woman as depicted by Stephen King in Misery—that which would typically be appealing is inverted to appear grotesque. Paul notes that Annie, at one point in the text, “grotesquely blew him a kiss” (30) thus turning a usually enticing gesture of affection into something monstrous. Monstrosity, to that end, becomes a sort of inherent inversion, a state of being that flips and upends everything. Care-giving, as a practice, is inverted in Misery to seem grotesque (as it also is in The Eyes of My Mother, which I wrote about a few weeks ago). Taking care of an individual is typically construed as an act of benevolence and, often, a gesture of love. Misery takes this notion of care-giving and inverts it completely. In some scenes, Annie takes care of the injured Paul the way any person would care for an injured person, but there is something vaguely unsettling and borderline grotesque about these moments. Far from being touching, they’re a bit sickening, a bit uncomfortable. There are also points in the book where Annie denies Paul his medication, starves him, makes him drink dirty water from a bucket—and all of this happens before she starts cutting off his appendages. Thus, while in “normal” scenes, her care-giving is a bit uncomfortable, as the mad monster, she turns into the care-giver from hell in other scenes. I would imagine that both caretaking (of a place) and caregiving (to a person) serve a variety of functions in different horror texts, but in Misery caregiving quite simply underscores Annie’s monstrosity and highlights the fact that mad monstrosity is a sort of inversion; monstrous madness takes what is good and makes it grotesque.
Not surprisingly, King spends a lot of time describing Annie’s often unusual affect. This is predictable enough, because the “mad monster” in horror movies is often affectively abnormal, which I also discussed in my piece about The Eyes of My Mother. The mad monster makes weird faces or has big googly eyes or, if she’s Annie, has a vacant expression at times that indicates she’s disappeared completely. No matter what the affective idiosyncratic tendency is, rest-assured that the mad-monster is often marked by his or her affective abnormalities, her inability to just “look normal.” That which is on the inside seeps into the outside, at least in literary and cinematic depictions, and unapologetically taints the face of the so-called mad monster. And in this text, our affectively abnormal mad monster also devours. In her depressive phases, Annie’s described as a compulsive binger who eats incessantly, plowing through near-unthinkable amounts of food. She is further associated with the abject when Paul leaves his room and finds the piles of stinking, rotting garbage she’s left behind from her binges, not to mention the dirty dishes. Annie becomes, then, not just her bad breath and her unappealing bosom, but the trash that she leaves behind when she binges. In that way, she spreads her abjection; it multiplies, manifests, and re-manifests like a contagion.
Lest I imply that Annie is depicted as unabashedly monstrous, it’s important to note that Paul Sheldon, at points in the book, both sees her as a human being, so-called, and treats her accordingly. When Annie makes a suggestion intended to fuel the plot of the novel that Paul is re-writing for her, Paul initially rejects Annie’s suggestion. Nevertheless, he can’t bring himself to nix it outright, because he knows it would hurt Annie in a very particular way, and despite all the pain and degradation she’s forced on him, he can’t hurt her feelings in that particular way. In another scene, he looks at Annie and sees a glimpse of the person she might have been if her upbringing and the chemicals in her brain were different. Annie is certainly a monster in this text. She’s a serial killer who’s killed not just adults, but babies, and King uses literary devices like synecdoche and metonymy to equate her with bad breath and garbage, making her seem abject and heightening her monstrosity. Still, he demonstrates, in his text, a certain respect for the humanity of even his character, Annie, by depicting her as a subject deserving, if not respect, at least a degree of understanding, in other scenes.
In his text, Monster Theory, Jeffrey Jerome Cohen states that monsters stand at the threshold of becoming. He muses: “Monsters are our children. They can be pushed to the farthest margins of geography and discourse, hidden away at the edges of the world and in the forbidden recesses of our mind, but they always return. And when they come back, they bring not just fuller knowledge of our place in history and the history of knowing our place, but they bear self-knowledge, human knowledge” (20). Interestingly, Annie returns in Misery even after she’s dead; Paul’s psyche conjures her up incessantly, despite the fact that he’s killed her. Indeed, we predict a sort of eternal return with Annie; she will never really leave Paul, which is part of the reason why the ending of Misery isn’t really a happy ending.
But Annie, I think, has also returned outside the text. Could we argue that Annie is, in some weird, distorted way, the extrabiblical character Lilith, or Grendel’s Mother in Grendel? If Lilith was a female demon who gave birth to evil spawns that go bump in the night and was considered a chief enemy of babies according to midrash, commentary on Jewish scripture, thousands of years later, Annie Wilkes, a new sort of monster, the mad monster, is still wielding power over men and killing babies. I haven’t really reached any answers that are sufficient when reading Annie Wilkes, because I think that the answers I would most quickly arrive at greatly simplify what King was trying to do. Was Annie just a metaphor for King’s alcoholism and addiction? Does she suggest that we’re afraid of big women, women who aren’t feminine, that we still associate women with abjection and all that is gross and abysmal? Does she reflect a society that’s afraid of mental illness and automatically overlaps manic-depression (King’s terminology in the text) with violence and malice? Does she suggest that we’re afraid of women who are powerful, that we think that dangerous women are still too wily and tumultuous? It’s significant to note that Annie committed most of her monstrous acts before she met Paul, before she stood trial for murder and was labeled a monster by the rest of the symbolic order. To that end, maybe we’re afraid that the monster woman is always hiding, waiting to kill our children while she disguises herself as one of society’s chief nurturers—a nurse. Annie certainly tells us we’re afraid of something, but what exactly we’re afraid of is certainly up for debate. In any case, I’d love to hear your thoughts about it. What do we learn from a “mad monster” like Annie Wilkes?