Gerald's Game by Stephen King

Gerald's Game book cover
Rating 8.1/10
Unchain my heart

Gerald’s game was a book I consciously avoided as a teenager, even going as far as returning it back to the library unread. Partly this was because the premise sounded disturbingly like Misery, my least favourite King novel, and partly it was because I was suffering extreme genophobia (fear of sex), at the time and the very premise Gerald’s Game is built on was one that I simply couldn’t deal with then.

Like Rose Madder however, Gerald’s Game is another of my lady’s favourites and so with my genophobia in abeyance, thanks entirely to my lady, we embarked on the book for another of our cooperative reading adventures.

Jessie Burlingame has just gone along with so much in her life, especially in her marriage to successful lawyer Gerald. That is how she finds herself handcuffed to their bed in an isolated country cabin, playing out Gerald’s domination fantasies. When she realises that her pleas for Gerald to release her are falling on deaf ears and he is preparing to rape her, a sudden impulse causes her to kick him where it hurts. This kick however has quite unexpected consequences, since the coronary heart attack it triggers not only kills Gerald, but leaves Jessie alone, trapped by Gerald’s handcuffs, facing death by dehydration and the agony of muscle cramps. Jessie’s only hope are the voices in her head, from the submissive but practical good wife Burlingame, to the memory of her sassy college roommate Ruth, since the key to Jessie’s survival might just lie in her past, a past she’s been spending her life trying to forget.

Far from reminding me of Misery, one odd thing about Gerald’s Game is that it most resembled The Long Walk. One thing which makes King such a master of horror, is that his horror isn’t just one note, it is not just the monsters, nor the unknown, nor even the tension of murders or deaths that can be horrifying, sometimes it can be just thinking about our own bodies under stress. Just as with Garrity’s increasing agony in The Long Walk, here King deals with Jessie’s experiences in excruciating detail. I particularly liked the way her physical condition affected her mind and visa-versa, meaning that the effort to pick up an object, screwing her bound hands into different torturous positions, praying that her fingers wouldn’t slip takes a major amount of pain and mental fortitude, indeed as in The Long Walk, there are sections here that are almost literally agonising to read.

On paper, the idea of a novel where the protagonist spends most of the time immobile and chained up sounds absolutely ridiculous, yet rarely have I found a static situation so completely compelling. Not only Jessie’s memories of her past, but the voices in her head, voices which take on different personalities and have actual debates become almost characters in their own right. King also is careful not to have Jessie quite physically alone either, since she is also visited by a stray dog eager to feed on Gerald’s remains. Here, King shifts from Jessie’s perspective to give us an intimate look at the experiences of a starving, desperate creature. On the one hand as a dog lover myself I can completely see why so many people (including my lady), dislike this plotline, some readers have apparently abandoned the book when they encounter it. On the other hand, King could’ve easily made the stray dog just a rabid monster, something which is quite happy eating corpses and might just fancy a serving of lady garnished with handcuffs into the bargain, so while I didn’t exactly “like” this plotline myself, I did at least appreciate the way King handled it. The only thing I did not like in the dog’s perspective, is the way King decided to refer to Jessie as “the bitch master”. Given that we already got a lot of nastiness directed at her thanks to Gerald, not to mention some events remembered in Jessie’s past, this specifically insulting description seemed a little gratuitous, especially from a dog who certainly would not know the offensive connotations of “bitch”.

Speaking of sympathy, where the title character of Rose Madder is an entirely pleasant woman pursued by her psychotic husband, the characters here both feel more real, and are slightly less easy to like. While we’re predisposed to be on Jessie’s side, due to the harrowing circumstances of the book, as well as her past trauma and her marriage to the less than likable Gerald, at the same time she is not entirely an angel. at times spoiled, angry or unkind, indeed my lady commented that while she still sympathised with Jessie’s position, she found her less pleasant company reading now, than she did when she first read the book in her twenties. 
In keeping with this realism, Gerald (and other abusive types Jessie encounters), are not pantomime villains but have a realistic, grubby cast to them, perhaps not those who would kill without conscience, but certainly those who wouldn’t consider the feelings or distress of others as particularly important. This is likely why, in a time when the effects of abuse are far more understood, Gerald’s Game is seeing something of a resurgence in popularity.

Perhaps because this was King’s effort to write a novel about “real issues”, and be taken seriously as an author, Jessie also engages in a huge amount of angry comments against men. Given her history and current circumstances these are quite understandable, however King does have a tendency to over-egg the pudding, and he possibly goes a bit too far here, indeed my lady commented that were this book written by a woman, the author would probably come across as a pretty extreme man hater. I genuinely don’t know myself how much of this can be attributed to Jessie’s in character feelings, and how much king as author attempting to take on an overtly feminist perspective, though I confess I did not like the fact that the closest thing the book has to a nice guy is also condescending and dismissive of Jessie as a woman, though equally of course, how much of that is an accurate portrayal of even good-hearted rich American lawyers I am not sure. Again, this was one area where Rose Madder scored higher, since even though Norman is a much more monstrous character and Rose’s abuse at his hands more extreme, the first thing Rose finds upon arriving in a new city is a kindly man who directs her to a women’s shelter.

Even if the theme is a little overplayed however, King’s sheer realism regarding the effects of abuse is nothing short of frightening. From the way songs, touches or smells can cause memories to resurface and occasional fits of violent action, or the instantly triggering affects of hearing tangentially similar experiences, or the need to face something traumatic by putting it in writing.

In addition to the horrors of Jessie’s predicament and her past, King couldn’t help raising the bar a little more by including some possibly supernatural elements, these include visions Jessie has of another woman, (apparently from King’s novel Dolores Claiborn which I have not read), and a very freaky night time apparition.

This visitor is described in wonderfully grotesque detail, with the kind of reality bending horror which King is famous for, and provides yet another impetus for Jessie’s desperation to escape, as well as an extra touch of terror for the book’s climax. It is however with this apparition that Gerald’s game missteps.

Though the book is close to 14 hours long, the actual climax; and the resolution of Jessie’s situation occurs at the eleven hour mark. The remaining three hours are spent on Jessie’s life afterwards, the efforts of Gerald’s law firm to sweep the events under the rug, and eventually the explanation of the mysterious visitor. This explanation felt extremely clunky, not the least because the explanation took longer than the visitor was actually present.

Like the visions of Dolores Claiborn, I would’ve been quite happy for the identity of the apparition to remain a mystery, possibly linked to King’s larger cosmology. Indeed, Jessie’s visitor would be right at home hunching through Mid World with the slow mutants and Can-toi. It almost felt to me as if King came up with a usual horrific premise to up the tension of Jessie’s situation, then, perhaps because he was attempting to move away from horror and into more literary fiction, realised he needed to explain this element, which required a lot of fast writing.

It also did not help that the explanation was extremely trite, creating a villain out of horror clichés and stereotypes (King even references Silence of the Lambs).

Of course, it is also likely that I’m down on this final section simply because of its length. I absolutely devoured the book’s first eleven hours, often reading for several hours at a stretch since it was impossible to put down and leave Jessie hanging (no pun intended), yet, following the climax, the pace suddenly became a slog. I was just wanting matters to wrap up, and for some indication that Jessie would be able to start recovering, both physically and emotionally from her experiences. It was also in this final section that I felt the confusion over how much of Jessie’s hatred of men came from her history, and how much was generalised, particularly when she starts remarking that men are “cursed with penises”, and that even the nicest of men all have a hidden belief that women are irrationally hysterical.

That being said, the ending when it does come delivered all the closure we would need, as well as an extra chilly moment of confrontation just before Jessie’s story finishes.
It’s just a shame we had to wait so long for it to come.
 
Had the book finished at the 11 hour mark with Jessie escaping her predicament, having faced both her past and present traumatic experiences and her mysterious antagonist, I likely would be hailing this as a tightly plotted, extremely tense horror story, which is as terrifying for its human, as well as inhuman elements. But unfortunately, the over long ending and less than satisfying explanation caused me to knock a full mark off my rating, which shows just how good the rest of the book actually is, and while I don’t know if I’d personally class Gerald’s Game as up there with the best of King, it is still one I’d recommend.

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