Ring of Keys
Annie Wilkes, fashion icon. In the novel of Misery she sports pieces like: “old brown cowboy boots, blue-jeans with a keyring dangling from one of her belt loops,” and “a man’s tee-shirt now spotted with blood.” Later Stephen King notes that while she sometimes wears frumpy dresses to town, on the days she dons jeans, she leaves her purse behind and sticks her wallet in the jean pocket, “like a man.”
King, who famously writes in an intuitive manner, seems to have slipped at some point in the composition of this manuscript from thinking of Annie Wilkes as a kittens-and-doilies Christian nursy to a big dyke with a Jeep Cherokee. It’s not that granny dress Wilkes and overalls Wilkes couldn’t naturally co-exist in a real woman. I myself have been partial to both at different times; granny dresses, in fact, though I’m sure King didn’t know this, have a certain lesbian cachet of their own. But as far as I can tell Wilkes’s overt mannishness is only introduced later in the text, as if, by natural law, a woman with so much physical power must soon begin wearing a carabiner.
I’m being inappropriately presumptuous about King’s process here, so perhaps I will state as an apology-cum-excuse that my longform writing processes are extremely similar to the ones he’s described in the public eye. For this reason, I feel sometimes I catch movements in the structure of his projects that closely echo movements I’ve experienced from the inside on projects of my own. At a certain height of a writer’s fame, people will lose their normal polite reservations about disclosing their imagined special insights into another’s mind. I’m going to continue to write in the rest of this essay as if I have any idea what King is thinking, and I obviously don’t. My interest in expressing the idea this way is mainly in efficiency. I think it is important to explaining Annie Wilkes that we remember that there are specific emotional impulses behind her held by a specific man. But it could be anybody–it didn’t have to be Stephen King.
I have read a lot of his work, though, and the similarities in our processes are not coincidence. Like most weird adolescents of a certain generation, between the ages of 9 and 19 I probably read everything Stephen King had ever published up until Under the Dome. On Writing inevitably influenced me deeply at a formative age because as far as I was concerned at the time Stephen King was the best writer to ever live.
I loved The Stand growing up, for instance. I loved Dayna Jurgens. Things that now bother me about this character didn’t bother me at age eleven. Jurgens, a survivor of post-apocalyptic sex slavery, switches over from assumed lesbian to sexy bisexual presumably so she can give a main character a sexy goodbye kiss, and then sexily infiltrate evil Las Vegas, and then sexily kill herself on a shard of glass. (In all fairness, I still enjoy this last sequence. Even the banana thing is in-your-face goofy in a way that exemplifies what I admire about Stephen King at his best.) At the time, I didn’t explicitly connect my sexuality or gender to Jurgens’s at all, and I didn’t experience what happens to Jurgens as a message about what would or could or should happen to me.
Nor do I recall making these connections around Annie Wilkes. My attachment to her arose as I aged. I hadn’t reread the book in a long while by the time I first remember loving Annie Wilkes. In fact, I don’t recall connecting myself to any fictional characters in particular as a teen. I never thought, Annie and I are so alike. I suppose I didn’t have a strong sense of what I was like at all. I certainly took in ideas on gender and sexuality from somewhere, but the convictions I acquired about myself in relation to those ideas seemed to arise supernaturally, randomly, and suddenly, the way medieval naturalists believed maggots appeared in rotting meat.
(The same slow love-in-hindsight has occurred for me with Carrie White, who was really my closest analogue at the time I was reading a lot of King. I have seen the de Palma film several times but don’t exactly plan to reread the book, out of, frankly, fear that it will hurt too much to come to terms with the contempt on the page I have erased from my memory.)
Annie Wilkes has a dark radiance. She has an uncontainable power. This is different from the power that a male writer would try and fail to give a female character under other circumstances. He would fail by giving her only the power that he can envision her having. The power of being so extremely sexy for instance: Bev from IT, if it’s not in too poor taste to say so. The power of being so extremely pregnant: Fran from The Stand (and let’s not even talk about Nadine).
But as soon as the male writer requires a truly monstrous female figure, he loses control over her power. She can’t be sexy or feminine anymore, because making her a licit object of attraction would make her comprehensible within his frame of reference and thus diminish her. If he wants a woman to be successfully frightening, he cannot patronize her, and a mainstream male attraction is almost always patronizing. So her power results from the almost unconscious-seeming intensity of the male disgust and fear she provokes. He creates a woman that his imagination can’t encompass the way he would control other women—if it did she would be domesticated, unsuccessful as a monster.
Kristeva writes in Powers of Horror that in the sex-stratified society, the male sex, “apparently victorious, confesses through its very relentlessness against the other, the feminine, that it is threatened by an asymmetrical, irrational, wily, uncontrollable power.” I like this phrasing, “confesses through its very relentlessness”. Something you confess is always something you’d rather not say. In the male writer’s reaction against the monster, she squeezes something out of him, she dominates him.
As long as she’s monstrous she gets to be free. Free of the constraints of sexiness: big (“but not generous”), strange, shameless about it; she gets to eat with vigour, she gets to lift a grown man like he’s a sack of flour. And free of all male impositions. One of the first monstrous things that Paul Sheldon notes about Annie Wilkes is that she gives off a feeling of “clots and roadblocks rather than welcoming orifices.” She’s too solid. She can’t be penetrated. She can’t even be surveilled. She seems hollow to him, he can’t see inside, he doesn’t understand her.
But this can’t last, either. Misery is in its essence a novel about a man who is forced into a victimized, helpless position by a woman—a feminized position—who finally attempts to reassert his virility by raping and killing her. I’m not playing psychoanalysis. One of the first events in the novel is Annie giving Paul mouth to mouth. The oral violation is construed as “the way a man might force a part of himself into an unwilling woman.” Then at the end, Paul Sheldon turns the tables. He is described as advancing on Annie “like a man who means to commit rape”, and thinks to himself as he shoves paper down Annie’s throat: “I’m gonna rape you all right, Annie . . . Suck on it until you fucking choke.” So don’t blame me.
There are perfectly legitimate craft reasons why the first comparison might have been phrased in such dainty language while its later converse rises to call things by their name. I suspect that to outright name rape in the first few pages of the book would have seemed too brash and lurid, whereas by the end of the story the heightened circumstances warrant shock. However, the contrast between what Annie is allowed to do to Paul and what Paul is allowed to do to Annie is worth noting in light of the following:
Misery has difficulty imagining a man truly, completely, dominated by a woman. In the depths of Paul’s degradation, he always retains enough snide humour to think about how attractive or unattractive Annie is to him, including at one point a baffling description of a happy Annie as “like a widow who just got fucked after a ten-year dry spell.” This is a man who’s supposed to be frightened for his life. Talk about one-track mind. He’s terrified of her, but by virtue of his maleness, he retains a sliver of self-superiority over her. His misogyny extends nearly to the point of stupidity: he’s constantly surprised when Annie, who has regularly been one step ahead of him, remains one step ahead of him. Even amazed at her strength, the best compliment he can give a strong woman is that she might beat him even if he were at full strength. This is a woman who at one point crushes a live rat in her fist.
Sheldon locates his hatred of his novels completely within the female person of his protagonist Misery. When he ends the series by killing her: “The silly bitch finally bought the farm.” Writing Misery feminized him, made him a “whore.” In a bizarre premonition of incel race-paranoia, he remembers at one point manifesting his frustration with his career by writing a pastiche in which his white woman fucks a dog.
Annie does the same in reverse, by the way: when she’s set off by reading the unpublished novel containing Misery’s demise, it’s the death of the person Misery herself, “brave, beautiful” Misery, that specifically triggers her. One reason I find this interesting is that, after years of participating in fan communities online, I find it much more likely that the type of fan Paul believes Annie to be would fixate on one of the men–or both of the men if you see what I’m saying–with Misery herself, if she’s present at all, serving only as a kind of placeholder required to incarnate the fantasized relationship. Who gives a fuck about Anastasia Steele? Most of the women who interest themselves in women in fiction are, well, lesbians.
(Women fans care so little about women protagonists that there are of course huge swathes of fan culture where it’s more common to write about two minor male side characters falling in love than about the female protagonist doing anything. If I’m derisive, it’s only out of my own complex feelings about growing up as a girl who, for many years, simply could not identify imaginatively with women at all. There is such a wide and invisible alienation represented by this fact. Even in the online spaces where no cis man has set digital foot in decades, the enormous majority of women are interested only in men. Of course there’s a sexual component here, but the reverse seems rarer—cis straight men are imaginatively interested more in themselves more than anybody else.)
I give King enough grace that I think we are sometimes meant to read the misogyny in the book as ironic. But there are some lines that the book itself doesn’t dare to cross—violations that would be irreversibly emasculating. This shyness underlines Paul’s seeming bottom-line conviction: no matter what Annie does to him, at least he’s a man. Although both Annie and Paul contemplate the possibility that Annie will literally castrate Paul (“cut off his man-gland”) King never actually approaches the scene with any seriousness. Annie also cannot pose him any serious sexual peril, at least as far as most male writers could imagine a sexual peril posed by a woman at all. King has written men and boys in sexual peril and even explicit rape scenes at this point in his career, such as the one that would be re-included in the expanded edition of The Stand. But this time he won’t go there. Annie repeatedly insists her love of Paul is only “fan-love” and she restrains herself to kissing him chastely on the cheek. She is consistently framed as maternal, which further dismantles or at least confuses any possibility of sexual threat.
(Is there a perverse Oedipal theory in which sons who hate their mother’s control finally attain manhood by punishing her through sexual violence? Many women have recollections of moments in adolescence when their younger male cousins, or the baby brothers of family friends, or the boys they were babysitting, gleefully flexed their nascent sexual power in the face of female authority by groping them, making lurid comments about their bodies or pushing porn in their faces. Carol F. Karlsen’s The Devil In The Shape of a Woman briefly connects patterns of witchcraft accusations in New England to the resentment of adult sons whose widowed mothers persisted in being alive on inherited lands and resources that they perceived as due to them.)
Misery does ultimately undercut Paul’s re-assertment of the gender cline: other than giving him the short hot splurt of pleasure in vengeance, raping Annie doesn’t really work for him at all. He’s destroyed by her; he sees her everywhere, he can’t exorcise her, that crazy bitch. This persistence of Annie beyond the grave is obligated structurally because a horror novel with a really happy ending is a bit dishonest. However, for all that her psychic resurrection flows from that obligation, it also demonstrates the supernatural impenetrability that causes Paul to refer to her as a stone idol, a chthonic goddess. Annie rises back to her feet, bloody axe in hand; ugly, shameless, angry, and huge.
Black Moon Lilith
In corners of the world where astrology is much-discussed, I think it’s gained ground because it serves several useful social purposes. One of these purposes: disclosure and acceptance of ego-threatening knowledge about the self. Talking about our flaws, or worse, being told about our flaws by another, can be terrible. We need something to bandage the narcissistic injury of it all. And if your personal flaws are caused by the stars, they aren’t your fault. Your faultlessness reduces your shame long enough for you to admit to unflattering qualities. You might say, “My moon is in Gemini, so sometimes I can be needy,” whether or not you literally believe it. Astrology is just the shared structure of signification that allows for this type of self-disclosure.
Women’s attachment to Annie Wilkes serves a similar purpose in some cases, I think. Similarly with Carrie of Carrie, or Gone Girl of Gone Girl, or any of the other evil-pathetic-repulsive women in fiction who carry that strange dark power. The proxy image of a woman with socially undesirable characteristics that are similar to ours allows us to admit that women with these characteristics exist at all, and to admit to others that we have them. Rather than saying, “I am big, strange, have poor social skills and worse taste, and would like to live alone in the woods in Colorado,” one says, “Annie Wilkes is literally me.”
(I’m not as heavy anymore as I once was, in the days that I first developed my crush on Annie, and I’m much better at pretending not to be strange. But it takes a long time for your sense of your own embodiment to go away as your body changes, and you always retain the memories and the formative experiences that were given to you in, because of, that body. I hope that people who might think what the hell is she complaining about? if they ever meet me will give me a little leeway for this reason.)
I commonly see this reclamation of the bad image lauded as triumphant. “Queer-coded villains” &c. But the relationship with the bad image is more complex than this. The movement of so-called reclamation is rarely complete or clean. There is a self-punishing quality to it and an abstract bitterness. You can tell this is how people really see you. At the end of the world, when nobody has to be polite, they will resort to this template to treat with you. You will become a licit target for the types of harm that are implied in the hatred toward the bad image.
Because, after all, in one sense the purpose the images serve is not to represent the real world, but to create a target that legitimizes feelings that are already present. Effeminate villains exist because certain men are frightened of male effeminacy and want to see it punished, and they wish they had a good reason, say, he was trying to torture them with lasers. Annie Wilkes exists because certain men want to shove paper down the throats of big ugly dykey women with bad taste, and they know it isn’t acceptable, but through a byzantine set of counterfactuals, they can make it acceptable.
One of the ways to defend against this insult and the fear it provokes at the bottom is to admit it and make a defiant joke out of it or even a figure of quasi-revolutionary potential. But the insult still lies at the heart of the joke and of the defiance. They wouldn’t exist otherwise.
Here is the urge when you look at this figure who is drawn to be hated: You’re right. That’s just what I’m like. Depending who you are: I’m fat, I wear men’s clothing, I’m poor, I have little education, I have bad taste, I have something going on in my head, I have irrational beliefs, I hurt myself when I get upset, I talk strangely. Despite the fact that you find it disgusting for a woman like me to even think of sex, I indulge myself in quasi-erotic fantasy. Much more embarrassing of course than men’s pornographic fantasies, which in fact many boys understand at a young age contain so much power to contort reality that they can be used to bludgeon girls into submission merely by moaning at them on the playground. I’m big, I’m strong, I’m a crazy bitch.
Anyways, I don’t mean to absolve Annie Wilkes, who is obviously, like, a bad person. But the unconscious power of her monstrousness does give her other uses. However castrated (ha-ha) she might be by the inhibitions of the fearful male imagination, because she’s a monster, the idea has to persist that Annie could win. And maybe that’s why we continue to venerate her image. She suggests the bare possibility of triumph. She suggests that at the end of the world, even if a big ugly dykey woman with bad taste was alone, as she so often is–if she sheltered her strength, if she kept gas in the Cherokee and an axe at hand, she’d have a chance. Or at least she’d take some of the motherfuckers down with her.