Rose Madder by Stephen King

Rating 9.0/10
Roses aren't read enough

Whereas some of Stephen King’s works like The Stand, It and Under the Dome seem to have earned if not quite universal, at least intergalactic acclaim, opinion seems oddly polarised about Rose Madder. Some people love it, but many do not. Many regard it simply with that dismissive middle of the road “meh it was okay” which is almost more damning than if they’d hated it. King himself apparently thought of it as one of his worst books. Of course as anyone will gather who’s read these reviews, the opinion of the wonderful lady I’m married to holds considerable weight with me and as she falls firmly into the “loved it” camp I had to give it a go myself.

The story begins with one of the most truly horrific scenes King has ever written, 23 year old Rose Daniels suffering a miscarriage after being brutally beaten by her husband Norman. The main story begins nine years later, when the sight of a spot of her own blood on the sheets of a bed she’s making wakes Rose up to the fourteen years of abuse that has made up her marriage. Terrified, she flees from the house (before she can change her mind), and catches a bus to another city where a kindly man directs her to a women’s shelter.

Fortunately, despite her constant fear of Norman and her continual struggle with her own doubts, things start to slowly improve for Rose. She makes friends among the women at the shelter, finds herself a job thanks to a hitherto unsuspected talent for reading audiobooks, and even runs into a seemingly decent, gentleman who seems interested in her.

More unsettling though is the painting Rose finds in an old pawn shop, a painting of a blonde woman overlooking a temple that seems to call to her, a painting with no artist’s signature other than the name “Rose Madder”.

The vengeful Norman however is not far behind, not just a police officer but a psychopath with a talent for predicting others movements, Norman will stop at nothing; including murder, to track Rose down and exact a brutal and bloody revenge.

One astounding thing about Rose Madder, particularly for the frequently verbose King, is just how focused the book is. For the most part, the action is immediate, and we cut between only a couple of viewpoints throughout the narrative. King uses all his talents as a horror writer to put us first in the centre of Rose’s experiences, her sense of helplessness, confusion, fear and disconnection from reality as she flees to another city, and then straight into the viewpoint of the vile Norman in pursuit.

Seeing Rose’s faltering steps away from the hellish life she’s had with Norman, seeing her make friends, slowly get back on her feet and begin to actually see a life for herself is both genuinely heart-warming and absolutely compelling; particularly because Norman is still out there so we are all too aware that the good times can’t last.

Indeed, though we know simply by virtue of this being a novel that King will have Rose confront Norman at the end, the way King interweaves Norman’s pursuit of Rose, with near misses, misdirection and disguise gives the narrative a wonderful driving pace with some real edge of the seat moments.

I am a little surprised that some reviewers apparently disliked the fantasy element here, true King spends less time on the uncanny painting than he spends on Rose’s recovery, on the other hand, at the point when the painting becomes a concern, Rose has apparently got her life back together, met a nice man and is doing okay, indeed I admire the way that just as the threatening and hopefully to most of us alien world of Rose’s abusive marriage seems to be fading into the background, King gives us another threatening and alien world to explore. While it is true that at first the painting itself isn’t exactly anything to write home about, neither on the surface is a wardrobe full of fur coats, it’s what is inside that makes the objects unique.

In terms of characters, King succeeded admirably with Rose, indeed whatever issues I might have with King’s female characters elsewhere, Rose is wonderfully three dimensional. In particular, many of her feelings as a victim of abuse, the conflicts within herself she deals with, even the loss of time have a worryingly realistic cast to them, indeed I was not surprised to learn that some people have woken up to realise they’re in abusive relationships as a direct result of reading this book.

To stop the novel being too dour however, King’s supporting characters here are some of the most likable and entertaining he’s ever created, from enthusiastic punk rocker Cynthia, to the women’s shelter’s self-defence instructor, the formidable Gert Kinshaw. In particular I admire that King managed to write Rose a male love interest who is simply a nice guy and yet one who never upstages her, an everyday hero for the way he supports Rose, but never one who gets in the way of her conflict with Norman or threatens to be the solution to her problems in anything but an emotional sense.

It is thanks to its wonderful cast of secondary characters that Norman feels such a major and looming threat, since these are people we genuinely don’t want to lose.

There is only one serious issue in the book in terms of character, and that is Norman himself. Sometimes, just as with Rose, King writes Norman with a realism that is truly frightening, such as in the prologue when we see him eating a sandwich with one hand while he mops up his wife’s blood with the other. Similarly, when Norman is predicting Rose’s actions by thinking like her even down to knowing what sort of breakfast she would have had, or noting that he’d himself instilled such a phobia of the police in Rose he did not worry about her going to the authorities, Norman is a disturbingly believable figure. The problem however is that King couldn’t seem to stop at making Norman a believable, if loathsome character, he had to embody every negative stereotype of American white males and dial it up to 11. It’s not too surprising that a man who beats his wife is quite literally a raging misogynist, but Norman has to take it further, describe any woman he meets as a whore or a lesbian and casually murder prostitutes on a whim. It’s not just women, Norman also hates homosexuals, black people, Jews, disabled people etc. Indeed, if you’re not a Caucasian male Norman probably hates you, and odds are if you are a Caucasian male he probably hates you anyway; really he’s quite egalitarian.

All of these hates are discussed in Norman’s perspective at length with an almost gleeful amount of nasty, indeed if there’s an offensive term for pretty much anyone you can expect to hear it. Of course, insults and offensive language are par for the course with an offensive character, however Norman’s offensive beliefs are so all pervasive that they cease to be offensive at all and feel more like vitriol for the sake of vitriol. Of course, to an extent King was attempting to show Norman going, well Madder, as the book goes on, however since in only his second appearance Norman is already telling us how he should be allowed to torture a homosexual if he wants to, Norman didn’t so much descend into madness as take the last step down. This is a shame, since the Norman who accurately predicts his wife’s movements by almost a telepathic understanding of her personality is a lot more frightening than the Norman who explains at length how he believes his lazy wife must be working as a prostitute, since according to Norman logic all women who aren’t housewives must be prostitute’s. Of course, Norman does commit a few murders in the book, and nobody does the old maul ‘n’ mangle quite like Stephen King, still, while monster Norman is just as scary as Freddy Krueger or Jason, realistic Norman is the one who’s truly terrifying, and it’s a shame he departed so early.

That being said, while Norman as a character has his issues, like King’s best bad guys, Norman is not infallible, and despite some shocking and unpleasant encounters with people we know and like he is thwarted and evaded on several occasions before the final confrontation. Indeed, in one altercation with Norman King manages something I wouldn’t have thought possible, and uses crude toilet humour in a surprisingly satisfying, and deeply effective way in a true punch the air moment of awesome; it’s one of Mrs Dark’s favourite scenes.

When Rose enters the world of the painting, she encounters an immortal being who asks her to retrieve a baby from a ruined temple. This section was beautifully done. Nobody writes surreal and disturbing landscapes like Stephen King, and his take on the Greek mythology inspired landscape is a unique one. My only issue with the fantastic world here, is that King was a little too vague on explanations. Mystery in fantasy is always a good thing, but any fantasy world needs at least a little logic and consistency to glue its elements together and here King slightly slips up. For example, while I love the sequence of Rose rescuing the baby, the dangers she faces and how these dangers intersect with her own life with Norman. We don’t exactly learn how the baby got lost in the first place, particularly since though the world of the Dark Tower receives a namecheck, this temple seems rather different to the Mid World we know. Not of course that everything should be explained, I’m quite content for an immortal mysterious being to be just that, however a word or two to put Rose’s quest in context might have helped make the fantasy element feel a little more grounded, particularly given a later revelation of said immortal being’s nature which implies a similarity to a definitely unpleasant being in King’s universe (certainly not one anyone would want to leave a baby with).

The book’s climax was particularly well done. I admire King for having Rose’s love interest present, and yet not having him as a major part of the action, indeed it’s interesting that King almost makes him a damsel so that the action is focused on Rose, her growth as a character, the strange world of the painting and various motifs and themes King developed throughout the story such as the colour Rose Madder (a dark reddish purple), and the symbology of the bull are woven together perfectly here. However, King was again a trifle too stingy with consistency. This first happened when Rose received a painful injury in a fight with Norman early in the climax which is never mentioned again (even by an observant police officer). Secondly, while Rose’s part leading Norman to his doom was quite fitting, I did find myself wondering why said doom wasn’t a little closer given that it involved something which had been just on the other side of the painting from the very beginning. For the record my lady disagrees with me here and is content that Norman’s comeuppance had to be as it had to be just because, however for myself I would’ve liked a little reason for the necessity of Rose’s actions, even if said reason had just boiled down to fate or prophecy or the like.

All that being said, Norman’s end was indeed wonderfully apt and I appreciated that the story didn’t finish there. King is careful enough to show that the years of abuse had their consequences, and for all that Rose does receive some supernatural aid in living with those consequences, there are still scars.

Despite some consistency gaps and a villain who is all too offensive, there is a lot to like in Rose Madder. One of the best and most three dimensional female characters King has ever written as well as a genuinely appealing secondary cast. Some subtly introduced motifs, a mysterious fantasy world with a few links to the larger King cosmology and above all the chance to see that abuse, pain and loss don’t last forever. Indeed, in many ways Rose Madder represents my personal ideal of any work of speculative fiction, an ordinary person in an extraordinary situation doing the best they could against the darkness. As such I have to agree with Mrs Dark - this is one King classic which gets sadly overlooked.

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