King's Highway pt. 63: Gerald's Game

THE PLOT: At their secluded Lake Kashwakamak cabin, Jessie is handcuffed to the bedposts as part of a bondage game with her husband Gerald. She changes her mind about said game, but as Gerald pretends not to believe her and proceeds accordingly, she kicks him, hard, and he has a heart attack and dies. This leaves her bound to the bedposts with the keys across the room, trapped with only the voices in her head and a starving-dog with a taste for her husband's corpse for company (and perhaps a horrible man-monster who may or may not exist), the novel is about her struggle to escape. SPOILER: She does, and the epilogue is a letter to her friend, describing the events afterward.

This was published the year I graduated high school. (Or the year The Lawnmower Man came out, take your pick.) I remember reading the review of it (GG, not Lawnmower) in the Providence Sunday Journal at that time and thinking Wow, that doesn't seem like King's usual stuff. Then, I more or less forgot about it until starting this project last year.

This time around, and with hindsight/ context, I thought most of it was very much in keeping with King's “usual stuff.” But this is one of the few times where I agree with Entertainment Weekly, which described this novel as an unsuccessful mix of “the two Stephen Kings,” one of them “in rip-roaring form” and the other “caught up in the tidal wave of pop psychology about sexual abuse, incest, and multiple personality.

The rip-roaring-form parts are charged with a terror and dread as well-described as anything he's written. The scenes dealing with the man-monster-who-may-or-may-not-be-there are just perfect. Creepy as hell, to boot. As are the flashbacks to the lake-house of Jessie's childhood, where her child abuse took place. (You know what's coming and are slowly moved there paragraph by paragraph, unable to look away.)

But the other parts (the “stick-on feminism” parts, as EW describes them) don't congeal all that well with them. All in all, I'd say this is one of the few entries in the “unsuccessful” column for King. Most people seem to agree. It's probably the most commonly nominated title for “worst King book.”

Part of it has to do with this man-monster. In the novel, as Jessie slowly confronts the child abuse she suffered as a child, the timing of the appearance of this ghoulish man by the bed (who is described almost like one of King's Low Men from the Dark Tower verse) made me think he didn't actually exist, that he was simply an externalization of the “bad man” (i.e. her father) in her head. King plays with this idea very well; you're never quite sure if he's actually there, and neither is Jessie.

This uncertainty adds a dimension to her struggles to escape.
Then, in one of those epistolary sections that King is never-quite-successful at conveying (ever notice the voice given to whomever-is-writing-these-fake-letters is always exactly the same? see Audrey's letters/ diaries in The Regulators, King's journal entries at the end of Song of Susannah, etc) that terror is unsatisfactorily diluted by firmly establishing him as an actual boogeyman (And how! the derangements given the man-monster are well and truly over the top.) 

As per usual here's Constant Reviewer Kev to put it into clearer perspective:

Gerald's Game eventually becomes consumed by its agenda. After freeing herself from the handcuffs (as gory and thrilling a sequence as King has ever attempted), Jessie comes to the conclusion that all men are bad. Unfortunately, the book also comes to that conclusion and during the last seventy pages or so, that message is hammered home again and again... she is still allowing herself to be defined by the things that happened to her, rather than by the ways she has shaped herself.

The novel's epilogue, in the form of a letter Jessie writes to an old friend... goes on far too long, explicating motivations and details that seemed apparent throughout the text. This letter also explains the mysterious figure at Jessie's door, in such meticulous - almost mundane - detail that it renders those previous thrilling sequences almost inert.”

There are some things I enjoyed, though. At one point (pg. 44) “panic” is described as “an emotional blank spot that leaves you feeling as if you've been sucking on a mouthful of pennies.” Nice.

Here are some things I wrote down as I was reading:

Pg. 61: Dark Score Lake! Nice. Of the 3400 lakes in Maine, I think I know King's two fictional ones better than any of them. (There is a real Kashwakamak, but it's Ontario, Canada. Anyway.) Any other Bag of Bones connections? I know this novel is linked to Dolores Claiborne via the eclipse, which didn't seem necessary or all that interesting, really. Apparently, the two books were initially one long novel titled In the Path of the Eclipse.

Pg. 65: “...and then the steel bracelets wedged firmly against the junctions of bone and cartilage where the wrists made their complex and marvelous alliances with her hands.” That is an enjoyable turn of phrase. A good example of the sort of writing that the non-King-reader would be surprised to discover was authored by him, I'd wager.

Pg. throughout: Overkill on the misogyny. The recurring motifs of “Q: What is a woman? A: Life support system for a c**t and “You should've just let him shoot his squirt are distasteful and annoying. I get that they're not meant to be funny or anything, of course, but as with Henry Bowzer in It, a little of this goes a long way and what we get is way-too-much. 

Ditto for Bitchmaster. (Image from here.) I've complained elsewhere that I'm not a fan of switching to the dog's point of view. It's not handled so badly, here, but it's still kind of silly. Regardless, I could have done with a few hundred less references to the bitchmaster.
Pg. 110 “...the amazing Gingerbread Girl.” This of course comes back later as a title. It made me think, though, how much more successful King is pulling this story off there, or in “Big Driver.”

Pg. 180 - “But another part of her - a part which was perhaps the home of those few voices inside were the real UFOs, not just the wiretaps her subconscious had patched into her conscious mind at some point - insisted that there was a darker truth here, something that trailed from the heels of logic like an irrational (and perhaps supernatural) shadow.

Pg. 195 I like the 12-12-12 of the clock. There are some interesting comments on time and time-passing throughout. Such as:

Pg. 296: “Time was a cold sea through which her consciousness forged like a waddling, graceless icebreaker. Voices came and went like phantoms.” (pg. 296) and “Time passed but it wasn't time; it was a relentless, unchanging flow of information passing from her sleepless senses to her eerily lucid mind. There was only the bedroom, the scenery outside (the last few stage-flats, yet to be packed away by the propmaster in charge of this shitty little production), the buzz of flies turning Gerald into a late-season incubator, and the slow movement of the shadows along the floor as the sun made it way across a painted autumn sky.” (Pg. 297, perhaps a little repetitive, coming right after the other, but still lyrical.)

Pg. 363 - “lost in some deep stone gorge in Jessie's head. There were lots of gorges in there, she was discovering, and lots of dark, twisty canyons... places where the eclipse never ended... Interesting to find that a person's mind was really nothing but a graveyard built over a black hollow place with freakish reptiles like this crawling around the bottom.” Although this might be a little too on-the-nose, I enjoy it.

And while this might be a little out of place for Jessie to think while going through the events she is experiencing (though perhaps she thinks it ironically) Pg. 383 - “An attitude of gratitude was one of life's few reliable hedges against insanity.” That, as Chairman Mao once said, has the added benefit of being true.

The New York Times review has some interesting things to say on the linking-mechanisms King employs via sight and smell (some of which are fairly disgusting), but I'll leave you with this one bit, which I feel sums it all up pretty well:

The handcuffs are made of all the things that men have done to Jessie. Because Jessie's father tried to rape her, she submitted to her husband's demand that she be handcuffed; and by challenging those psychological handcuffs, she will extricate herself from the real handcuffs. Simple. 

This reductionist psychologizing is reminiscent of those old Hollywood psychodramas in which the heroine suddenly recalls a repressed episode, leaps out of her wheelchair and cries out: 'Oh, doctor! Look! I can walk again!' Jessie, bless her, protests against this psychobabble, but finally she succumbs.
This aspect of Mr. King's novel exploits the contemporary American obsession of those who define themselves as victims and orient the rest of their lives around their victimization. Jessie and Gerald mock 'the whining Cult-of-Selfers, the Live-in-the-Pasters,' but this mocking voice is then equated with the voice of denial and disregarded, for Mr. King relies upon the victimization scenario for the whole structure of his novel.”

Indeed. This is the beginning of King's “feminist phase,” (which continues with Dolores Claiborne, Insomnia, and Rose Madder) and it doesn't begin all that subtly or successfully. Thankfully, he gets better at it, and pretty much immediately.

One final note: the novel is dedicated to Tabitha King and her sisters. That kind of cracks me up. I mean, not that the person or persons to whom any book is dedicated have to embody anything from the text, but it's easy to imagine one of them reading this and then calling Tabitha to say Yeah, thanks and all, ... but...

Image from here
NEXT: (the original plan was to cover Dolores Claiborne next, but I don't think it'll happen that way. You'll be the first one I tell, though, if it does!)


  1. You can almost, if you squint and tilt your head, see this book as an alternate-universe take on Fifty Shades of Grey.

    1. I was rereading this just now and cracked up at this idea. Fifty Shades of REALLY Dark.

  2. I disliked everything about this novel. The multiple personalities, the feminist politics, the "tacked on" horror element that had to be explained at the end.

    The only King book worse than Gerald's Game is Lisey's Story.

    1. Coincidentally, probably the one I'll be tackling next!

      Spoiler alert - I didn't like it, either.

  3. It's been a while since I read it, but I like "Gerald's Game" a lot. The crossover with "Dolores Claiborne" really doesn't work at all, though.

    1. I like Rose Madder more than most. It might not have any bearing on this, but I'd be curious to poll folks to see if there was any consistency of response: would those who like RM not like GG, or vice versa?

      If GG was a novella, I bet it'd have worked just fine.

      I'd like someone to evaluate King's epistolary segments to corroborate my charge, here, though; as soon as he writes in a fake-letter or fake-diary entry, it's like there's one letterwriting-voice he goes to, regardless of which character is writing. This is the sort of stuff his editor(s) should be pointing out, in my damn opinion, though it's entirely possible a) they already do, and b) it's all in my head.

    2. I'm not a fan of "Rose Madder" at all, mainly because I felt the fantasy elements detracted severely from what was basically a solid character drama. Admittedly, it's been a long time since I read it, so my opinion may change when I reread it.

      Without examining the epistolary material, I can't say for sure, but my sense of things is that when he uses that type of style well, King tends to use epistolary sections to put a capper on certain tales. What I mean by that is, by providing a perspective that the story would otherwise lack; in other words, by offering some outside perspective / proof. I'm thinking specifically of the letter that ends "Carrie" and the newspaper clipping that ends "1922"; both are trying to validate the happenings of the foregoing tales.

      In "Gerald's Game," you don't get a different person's perspective, but you do get a very different emotional perspective. The emotions of someone trapped alone (?) in the woods would by definition be very different from the emotions of that same person writing a letter from the comfort of her home. So maybe the point is to show how Jessie is (or isn't) different in two very different sets of circumstances.

      Whether that approach yields any meaningful results, I don't know. I don't remember the novel quite well enough to say.

    3. See, I quite liked the supernatural elements of Rose Madder. It's a deconstruction of misogynist Greek myths, so for me that was the whole story/ one worked well with the other. But, of course to each his/her own.

      Having just read The Regulators, I feel confident saying that the letter-writing voice of Jessie is pretty much the letter-writing voice of Audrey Wyler. I had a mental list I was thinking of earlier, thinking of some other stories, but I can't think of any other examples now. I wouldn't mind feeding all such moments in his books (only the diary entries and letters, not so much the invented news articles) into that computer that analyzes a paragraph of someone's work and tells you with 99% accuracy which author wrote it. Might not yield anything useful, but I'd be curious to see if they data "spiked" in similar spots.

    4. Admittedly, my memory of "Rose Madder" is extremely hazy. I read it as soon as it came out in '95, and then listened to the audio version two or three years later, during my great Acquire All Audiobooks phase.

      I wasn't impressed either time, but I can't lie: we're talking about me from fifteen years ago, and I don't trust a lot of my opinions once they get that elderly.

      So who knows? A more mature opinion may well find me clicking with the material better.

      You're probably onto something in regards to the sameness of voice in King's "writing a letter" segments. My guess is that King is using a similar style for no better reason than that he was going for a similar emotional effect from the scenes.

      Or maybe he was just being lazy. If so, lord knows he's earned it!

    5. Good point!

      As I've gone along with this project, I've mentioned the things I think an editor might mention to the guy, (too many "sugar"s for Susannah Dean, maybe a few too many times going to the kid-develops-psychic-touch well in the last act, this letters-writing thing, etc.) but at the end of the day, of course, I'm just some guy, and those making much better money than myself had these decisions to make and chose otherwise. There's probably a lesson for me to learn here, now that I put it that way.

    6. Researching some stuff for Needful Things and came across this quote from King's Paris Review interview, which cracked me up:

      "Going into that book, I remember thinking that Jessie would have been some sort of gymnast at school, and at the end of it she would simply put her feet back over her head, over the bedstead, and wind up standing up. About forty pages into writing it, I said to myself, I’d better see if this works. So I got my son—I think it was Joe because he’s the more limber of the two boys—and I took him into our bedroom. I tied him with scarves to the bedposts. My wife came in and said, What are you doing? And I said, I’m doing an experiment, never mind."

    7. This certainly explains certain elements of "Locke & Key"...

    8. I think crossover works perfectly. It is one of my favorite crossovers.