King's Highway pt. 38: Rose Madder

The title of this one put the theme from the old Roadrunner cartoon in mind every time I picked it up:

Rose Madder (meep meep!) It's fun to beat your wife!
Rose Madder (meep meep!) But it might cost you your life!

And so on. Sorry if that gets stuck in your head. (Welcome to my world, and if you come up with any fun variations, please share.)

NOTE: Don't beat your wife, or anyone, please. Thank you.

The plot: Rose Daniels née McClendon escapes the torture of an abusive marriage and with the help of a battered woman's shelter, begins life anew in a city far away. Her husband, Norman Daniels (a villain that I can only describe as Henry Bowers (from It) on steroids and armed with (from the description on the back cover) "a cop's training, a cop's technology, and a cop's bloodhound instincts") gives chase, determined to teach her a lesson she'll never forget. (In the parlance of the novel: 'talk to her Up Close.')

In the pawn shop where she hocks her diamond (fake, of course) engagement ring, she meets Bill, a new (and non-abusive) love interest, and she is mesmerized by a painting identified only by a single name on the back: Rose Madder. From the New York Times review: "After hanging it on the wall of her room, she notices that it (begins) to change in peculiar ways. Soon she finds herself able to enter the world it depicts.... She gets caught in an eerie play of mythic forces that reflect and eventually resolve the conflict between her and her husband."

Rose Madder by chaniilame from Deviant-Art. 
The bits leading up to her physical immersion in the painting are well-handled. First she hears crickets, then she opens the back of the painting and grass and dead bugs fall out, then she hears the storm from within, sees the glow of the moon, etc. I quite enjoyed the build-up.

King separates this story into several sections: Sinister Kisses (the prologue), One Drop of Blood, The Kindness of Strangers, Providence, The Manta Ray, Crickets, The Temple of the Bull, Picnickers, Viva Ze Bool, I Repay, Rosie Real, and the epilogue, The Fox Woman. I'm not always enamored with King's chapter/section titles, but I love these.

Got this from here - great picture.
So, beginning with Gerald's Game and Dolores Claiborne, King began a five book spree exploring the psychology of sexual and domestic abuse. It's tempting to guess at his motivation here, but I think he was simply coming into a different phase of his art, one where he was more earnestly exploring horror genre tropes. Perhaps some of the feminist criticism of his female characters (such as Adrienne Barbeau in Creepshow) got him thinking? I don't know; ask him, not me.

I don't, for the record, consider his earlier work misogynist. True, there are a lot of raging-bitch-queens and ingenues, but he's employing certain genre tropes (more on that below). I'd argue King's work displays quite a strong (and consistent) feminist sensibility. But, for whatever reason, he decided to explore these concepts more directly in the early-to-late 1990s. (To the chagrin of some fans.)

(That link mentions "Before Gerald’s Game, every book King wrote was certain to be a best seller. After Gerald’s Game, his books struggled to make the best seller list." That strikes me as way off... I did some looking myself; according to Ms. Mod, the caretaker/ King-confidante at the Stephen King forum, "No one has such a list that I'm aware of. I even checked with his business agent at one time, but they don't keep a running list. It would be a daunting task to keep track of, considering how many sources would have to be reporting that information, if you added in all the foreign translation sales, etc.")

The horror genre certainly has its fair share of misogynistic tropes, as true (if not truer) today as it was back then. What started as an effective way of eliciting the strongest emotional response in an audience (thus ensuring bigger box office/ book sales) i.e. "show a woman or a baby being terrorized, and the audience is more emotionally involved" turned, by the 70s, into a cottage industry of violence-against-women. Horror became synonymous with nubile co-eds menaced by faceless male killers, until saved (usually) by men. As with anything, success begot repetition and intensification. This is a one-size-fits-all description, you understand; many books and documentaries go into much greater detail and I encourage you to seek them out.

Not that it started with Hollywood, of course; it can be traced all the way back to the Greeks, Judeo-Vedic myths, you name it. Something on which I believe King to be explicitly commenting, here.

Theseus kills the Minotaur
Athenian black-figure vase, ca. 550 BC
Now speaking of the Dark Tower, let's check in with our road map and see where we're at:

"I may as well tell you: I'm not a fan of this novel.  However, it does feature some mild connections to The Dark Tower (specifically, to Book III), and some concepts that feature into the series.  Also, Stephen King includes it on his official list of books related to the main series.... Who am I to dispute Stephen King?"

Indeed. I mean, I don't like it is fine; King shouldn't mix fantasy with gritty realism is not. Not because I say so, but again, because it's what King does. And while I liked it better than our Trail guide did, it's not one of my favorites. There are some moments where he could've been a bit more subtle (particularly the line wrapping up Norman's character arc), but I rolled with it. I'd like to see what someone like Jane Campion would do with it. (Although I find her work to be pretty erratic, she might make a kick-ass film out of it.)

Anyway: the Dark Tower connections are pretty thin:

1) Rose Madder (i.e. the vengeful fury within the painting) says "Men are beasts... some can be gentled and then trained. Some cannot. When we come upon one who cannot be gentled and trained - a rogue - should we feel that we have been cursed or cheated? Should we sit by the side of the road... bewailing our fate? Should we rage against ka? No, for ka is the wheel the moves the world, and ther man or woman who rages against it will be crushed under its rim."
2) Dorcas (Rose Madder's aide) mentions having seen heads on spike in the city of Lud. (She does not mention having done the Velcro Fly.)

That's it, unless I missed something. Perhaps the story doesn't need these Dark Tower connections, but I'm a fan of the way King ties his work together, so, I dug it. Does it harm anything? Not in the slightest. If one is unfamiliar with Lud/ ka, it just deepens the sense of mystery and other-worldness of the world within the painting; no harm, no foul.

As with any King novel, there are some lovely turns of phrase:

Once you got started killing people it never seemed to stop; the first one spread like ripples in the pond.

and lyricism:

What had she expected from that face? Now that she was looking at it in the waning moonlight, she couldn't exactly say. Medusa, perhaps.  Gorgon. The woman before her was not that. Once... her face had been one of extraordinary beauty, perhaps a face to rival Helen of Troy's. Now her features were haggard and beginning to blur. One of those dark patches had overspread her left cheek and brushed across her brow like the underwing of a starling. The hot eye glittering out of that shadow seemed both furious and melancholy... Underneath that beauty was madness... but not just madness. It's a kind of a rabies (Rosie thought) - she's being eaten up with it, all her shapes and magics and glamours trembling at the outer edge of her control soon, soon it's all going to crumble...

Finally, King has said of the tree-symbolism of the epilogue: "Rosie discovers that rage doesn't go away just because a person no longer needs it... by planting the tree from the poison seed she is making an effort to externalize her anger and neutralize it. Think of it as symbolic of therapy, or confession."

Spoken like one who knows.


  1. Great post, Bryan!

    I am indeed not a fan of this novel, but I ought to admit that I don't remember it terribly well; I read it once and then listened to the audiobook once, and that was well over a decade ago. I'll get back to it again at some point, and it wouldn't surprise me at all if when I did I found that it's better than my memory of it wants me to believe. That happens.

    My memory, though, tells me that the fantasy elements didn't mix well with the non-fantasy elements. I've definitely got no objection to the two mixing in the first place, unlike those reviews you mention; what an odd thing to complain about.

    That suggestion the one reviewer made that "Gerald's Game" signaled some sort of moment at which King's novels stopped selling well is simply wrong. Even "Rose Madder" hit #1 on the charts, if the cover of the book is to be believed. Did it sell as many copies as "It"? Probably not, but the day you can say a #1 bestseller had trouble making the bestselling lists is the day you can say I am Jon Hamm-esque.

    Thanks for that Road Runner / Rose Madder theme song, by the way. Dontcha love it when your brain does weird stuff like that. For some reason, a few days ago, the Weird Al Yankovic theme song to "Spy Hard" (!) jumped into my brain, which promptly changed the words "spy hard" into "sky fall" and tried singing it in Adele's voice. And I've never heard an Adele song, which makes that an even weirder bit of weirdness.

    1. I am envious as hell that you have never heard an Adele song. Not that she's terrible, just I've had no choice in that regard, having heard that "Someone like you" song everyday for the past several months thanks to co-workers...

      Glad you enjoyed, thank you. (And I agree - what an odd thing to complain about. Especially with King! The tone of that DR review in general really ticked me off. Ah well.)

      In general, I felt like this one had its ups and downs and isn't knocking on the door of my top 20, but I thought for what it set out to accomplish, it seemed to do so pretty well. I thought maybe the love story between Bill and Rosie, if anything, seemed a little weak or forced, but I rather enjoyed the mythological elements. I also wonder what King was reading at the time, with the Furies in Insomnia and then the Minotaur, here.


      Agreed! Hell, if that's a failure, let me fail everyday please!

    2. Oh, it didn't quote properly... let me try again: "the day you can say a #1 bestseller had trouble making the bestselling lists is the day you can say I am Jon Hamm-esque."

      Agreed! Hell, if that's a failure, let me fail everyday please!

  2. For years, decades actually, I have heard the lyrics to the kid's song "Peas Porridge Hot" in "The Lido Shuffle" by Boz Scaggs: "Peas porridge hot, peas porridge cold, peas porridge in the pot nine days oo-old - Lido oOoOOooOo"

    1. Oh, we could have a whole separate post about songs stuck in head for many years. Mine would include "Tarzan Boy" by Baltimore.

  3. Oh, I forgot to mention; could "Lud" be a reference to Lud-in-the-Mist?


    Or the Welsh mythological hero?


    1. Could be. I've never heard him mention either of these things, but it wouldn't surprise me on either count. He's a pretty well-read guy. (One gets the impression that since quitting drinking the guy reads like a book a day... nice gig if you can get it!) And moreover, the nature of All-World is just that: it includes all worlds, both fantasy and otherwise, so anything fits.

      One of these days I need to pick up Bev Vincent's Road to the Dark Tower. There's another one that either just came out or is coming out, as well, another Dark Tower reference book... can't recall the name offhand.