Stephen King is one of my favourite authors and I have read a lot of his books. Until just recently, however, I had steered clear of his lesser known and less favoured works (for example Gerald’s Game, Delores Claiborne, The Girl who Loved Tom Gordon) in favour of his more famous, universally adored horror classics such as The Shining and It. But since I more or less exhausted the list of King’s ‘better’ works, I thought it was about time that I tried out some his less famous tales, and that’s how I came to read Gerald’s Game.
Even from the most committed Stephen King fans, I had heard little praise for this particular work, and the novel is often dubbed ‘King’s worst book’. Nevertheless the premise intrigued me immensely: after years of marriage, Gerald’s dwindling libido is kept alive by forcing his wife - Jessie - to play sex games, ignorant of her distaste for bondage. One weekend they visit their remote holiday cottage, and while Jessie is handcuffed to the bed, Gerald suffers a fatal heart attack, leaving Jessie stuck half-naked in the middle of nowhere and with no-one around for miles. I for one really wanted to know how or if she manages to escape, and knowing that Stephen King’s mind is quite dark, what might happen to her while she is trapped; immobile and helpless.
Let’s start off with the negatives. First off, the protagonist, Jessie, is quite unlikeable. At the beginning of the novel, when Gerald is making an attempt at giving her a sexy smile, she says that she thinks the grin “looked stupid. No...retarded.” I thought that was pretty harsh, so from the off I didn’t really like her. Furthermore, once he is lying dead on the floor she seems to feel no remorse, sadness or guilt whatsoever about the situation; even if she didn’t actually love him, which I think may be the case, she would surely feel something. She also has annoying ‘inner voices’, one of which cannot finish a sentence without tacking “toots” onto the end of it which I found very irritating. The voices’ purpose is to help her to confront a trauma from her past; if Jessie can face the emotional shackles of her childhood and overcome her subsequent misery and self-loathing, then she can find the willpower to escape the physical bonds of the handcuffs. To be honest I find childhood trauma and multiple personalities in novels to be a bit trite, so I didn't really like this aspect of the novel.
Secondly, the book was way too long for the events which occurred. My Kindle version has 417 pages, which is much too long when you consider that the majority of the book revolves around a woman handcuffed to a bed, arguing with her interior personalities, not doing much except remembering ‘the bad thing’ and trying to figure out how to escape. As a consequence, the novel dragged in places; for example, Jessie spends pages and pages trying to reach a glass of water - this was supposed to be suspenseful, but it really wasn’t. I can’t help but think that King wanted his audience to feel like they were trapped with the protagonist, for whom time must have dragged. If this is the case then it didn’t work as the scene did not make for good entertainment and would have benefited from being much shorter. Thanks to occasions such as this, my attention waned at times.
From what I have written so far, it probably seems like I really didn’t enjoy Gerald’s Game, but I did, and there were several positive aspects to the book. I genuinely found this novel to be quite scary. King manages to capture the feelings of isolation and helplessness that this situation would inspire in a person; the impending darkness as night-time slowly approaches adds to this, and is further exacerbated by the noises Jessie can hear outside which highlight her distress, such as a dog barking, a chainsaw whirring and the howling sounds of what she presumes to be a madman. Furthermore, for reasons I won’t elaborate on due to spoilers, I am now terrified of shadowy corners at night!
Aside from the slow parts which I have already mentioned Gerald’s Game does succeed in keeping the reader interested. As the story progressed I found I really wanted to know exactly what had happened in Jessie’s past to traumatise her so, and King constantly switches between chapters, alternating between the story of her childhood with what is currently happening to her chained to the bed.
When compared with King’s other novels, Gerald’s Game is definitely one of the weaker ones, but for me it still outshines Insomnia, Cujo, `Salem’s Lot, Bag of Bones and the truly terrible Cell. Furthermore, although it probably takes itself a little too seriously, it is still a lot better than much of the dross that is currently sitting on book shop shelves and I enjoyed it a lot; I think this novel receives such a bad press simply because it doesn’t live up to King’s most famous books, not novels in general. If you are interested in reading some psychological rather than blood-and-guts horror then I think you would enjoy Gerald’s Game.