I’ve always really liked Stephen King, but, to be honest, I haven’t read a ton of his stuff. Well, to be fair to myself, that statement is more or less relative to his output, I guess. I’ve probably read 10-15 of his books, more if you count his novella sized short stories, but when it comes to King, well, that’s just kind of a drop in the old bucket, really. The man is nothing if not prolific, absurdly so, I’d say. The reason I bring all this up? Well, I’ll tell you: I’ve recently gained access to a large portion of his work, and I’ve always wanted to read more of him. So here we are.
Over the past few days, I kept hearing about a new film adaptation of his novel Gerald’s Game, a book I didn’t know much about outside of its central conceit; A woman is left handcuffed to a bed, stranded, after her husband has a heart attack right before some kinky sex. I believe it was marketed as an “adult thriller,” and was known as a somewhat controversial entry in his oeuvre (Haha, yeah, I used that word, and you just read it). I found that intriguing, to be honest Not necessarily the synopsis but the fact that people found it controversial.
Stephen King has written some really crazy, hard to swallow, uncomfortable shit in his day, so the idea that he would have something out there that was called out specifically for that seemed odd. And maybe that was by design, maybe it was something cooked up at a marketing “think tank mixer,” or wherever those types congregate. Maybe it was to play into the popular “adult” stories of the era. It came out in 1992, which was a few years after Fatal Attraction and about two months after Basic Instinct, so I suppose it’s possible (The fact that both of these sexy, sexy, sexy movies stars Michael Douglas is just a coincidence, I assure you. I don’t have any weird fetish, I don’t want to have Michael Douglas’ babies, so stop thinking it). It also marked the beginning of a period in which King edged away from his more supernaturally tinged horror novels and entered into a more, well, “adult” storytelling phase. He was in a state of evolution, I guess you could say, so rebranding as a “writer of grow-up stories” makes sense. These days it seems he’s struck a good balance of both, in my humble opinion.
So with the imminent release of the movie, September 29th on Netflix, I decided to dive in. The movie had been getting good notices out of Fantastic Fest, and it had been awhile since I’d watched an adapted movie that I was familiar with. As much as we book reading folk complain about the things we’ve read being “ruined” by the things we watched, I think we can all admit we kind of like that feeling. There’s a little masochism inside of every nerd, dearest reader, and it’s better that it manifests itself in that way sometimes… Sometimes.
Gerald’s Game finds King in one of his more indulgent moods; It’s not one of his better qualities as a writer, and as I turned the last page, a feeling of mild frustration came over me. This should have been a novella, in my opinion. It’s got an interesting concept, well considered, and although bluntly, well-executed subtext, it’s just too damn laboriously long, and frankly, it’s incredibly overwritten. As someone who often overwrites, myself, trust me, I know it when I see it.
There’s just not enough narrative meat on these bones, and King doesn’t even try to fluff anything out with his usual overly descriptive tricks. No, he has a basic structure that, almost exclusively, revolves around one character and not only her literal, physical struggles but also her psychological disposition, and not just because of her immediate circumstance, no, but of her past traumas.
Now, King does some really good work with that stuff. It’s simultaneously heart-wrenching, morbid and appalling, he makes you feel how you should feel when reading about child abuse and he pulls no punches. The problem is that, like I said, there’s just not a lot there, so we go over the same events, part of the same events, fragments of the before and after, and dreams about the events over and over. This is all in service of putting you in the protagonist’s shoes; He wants to pull you into her mental state. All she has are her thoughts, and those thoughts are disturbing. If you thought you might die, I don’t know, maybe you would dwell on the worst bits, especially if you had never confronted them before. This isn’t just a story about a woman handcuffed to a bed, this is a story about a person coming to terms with her own existence, the entirety of her life, and how one thing can ripple through time and throw even the heaviest of ships off course. But King just beats you over the head with it, so much so that you don’t only get ahead of the character -which usually happens in stories, you have to set things up- but of King himself.
Everything just felt drawn out to its breaking point. Seriously, there are entire chapters from the point of view of a hungry, feral dog. No, they’re not all that long, but they’re completely superfluous. As a reader there is no confusion as to what the dog is all about, there’s no need for further clarification. In light of the redundant nature of some of the other stuff, it’s a minor quibble though, but I felt it was worth mentioning, as the book is probably 30 pages shorter without that stuff.
When it comes right down to it, that’s my major issue with Gerald’s Game, it’s just too long for what it’s offering. This story, one certainly worth telling, would be twice as effective if it was half as long. King utilized a serial-like mystery structure to dole out information. Every few chapters ended on a cliffhanger esque note and it created the feeling of an episodic mystery show; We go back to Jessie, still chained up, she does something to try to free herself, she would fail, then we would be taken back into her mind for another tidbit, and then rinse and repeat. This goes on for the vast majority of the novel until, at some point in the middle, closer to the end, though, King just drops all pretense of that structure and gets on with it. He forces us to go through so much painstaking set-up that doesn’t add all that much to the experience. Like I said before, any adult with an average IQ is going to be at least 10 steps ahead of the story, and at some point, it just becomes frustrating waiting to get to what you already know.
Having said all that, it’s not all bad. I think King is, overall, a really great writer, so even reading middling King isn’t exactly torture. If any of his better qualities shine through in Gerald’s Game, it’s his humanity. King really cares about his characters, especially Jessie, and he can’t help but have that empathy inside him ooze out into the words when he wrote her. This is some fairly difficult material to navigate, although not as difficult as other valleys he’s sojourned through in his career -the ending of It comes to mind, which I’ve come to learn is deeply, deeply misread by most, but that’s for another day- so I was taken aback by its reputation. Difficult does not equal offensive. Representation does not equal endorsement. Sorry, but in 2017 this seems like an unfortunately necessary clarification. Just as an aside, I’ve seen plenty of people, “respected” bloggers, try to pin King as some “old pervert” because he writes stories with difficult subject matter. It’s maddening.
There’s a real deft touch when it comes to the passages concerning Jessie’s abuse at the hands of her father. It’s uncomfortable, it should be, but King never tips over into being exploitative. He wants you to sincerely feel the way an 8-year-old would feel when the ultimate in trust breaking occurs. It’s bewildering, it’s emotional, it’s a fucking sad thing to read, as a young girl has part of her innocence stolen from her. And while her trauma is used as a narrative device, of a sort, it never makes excuses for it. It never tries to give it the air of “everything happens for a reason” that a story that wants to be clever might do. No, she dealt with something, and now it’s going to work for her because it has to. Because, whether she wants to deal with it or not, it has made her who she is, and has framed all of her experiences and relationships without her even acknowledging it.
There’s some sincerely powerful stuff in here, as Jessie makes personal discoveries and digs deep to sort out her mind and find a way out of her current situation, it’s when the writing is at its best and King fires on all cylinders. It’s poignant without ever feeling saccharine, and its message of breaking free from not only one’s past traumas but also the patterns that manifest after the experience ring true in a universal sense. There was more than a few times that I felt a big old lump in my throat, as I cheered Jessie on. I really felt like I got to know her. All this makes the fact that the piece, as a whole, is so clunky and overwritten all the more of a bummer.
The last thing I want to mention is the extended epilogue. There’s a logical place that the story could have wrapped up, but in true King fashion, he decides to keep going. A lot of people don’t like this part of the book, but I found myself largely on board with it, and it seems like it’s almost essential to what the story is about. Jessie needs to face her fears, she has to go through a similar process of remembering. clarification, and then expulsion to be able to move on from her new trauma, which is something I feel like most critics miss. If the story ended with her getting over her past, in a way, and then just ended after her new ordeal, wouldn’t that kind of miss the point, the thesis of the piece. We have to be willing to face our demons, stare into the abyss, and dig through the muck of our pain to move past it. You won’t bother to wash something off that you don’t acknowledge being there.
There’s a lot to like here if you’re willing to wade through a lot of redundant, unnecessary stuff. I really wanted to love this one, but at the end of it all, it’s a middling work with some amazing moments. I’m hearing good stuff about the movie, though, and that was from some King fans. They say it’s one of the better adaptations of his work, and that it works better as a film than as a book. I’m assuming a lot of that has to do with pairing the material down into a more fluid narrative, so even though I found the book disappointing, I’m looking forward to it.