There’s that old saw among writers for books, film, and television: Put your main character through hell, so that when they fight through and out of hell, the reader/viewer, is rooting for them all the more. I’m not sure I’ve read a Stephen King book that more epitomizes that old saw than his 1992 novel, Gerald’s Game. He puts Jessie Burlingame both in the present day, and in her childhood version, through hell, all greased up in order to slide through the other side, King might say.
The conceit of the book is perhaps King’s most basic, albeit richly mined, and interestingly, comes only five years after he put a male character through the same sort of hell in a similar situation (1987’s Misery, except this one was a more directly external hell): Jessie is handcuffed to the bed in what was ostensibly a way to spice up her love life with Gerald (his idea), but he took it took far (tried to rape her), suffered a heart attack and died, and thus, left her with a dead husband, but shackled to the bed in a remote lake house.
Well, how is she going to get out of that predicament? And how is King going to write nearly 400 words about her doing so? I think the immediate thought I had was the latter rather than the former, and I still think the book probably could have been a short story as part of a wider collection of short stories than a full-on book, but the book also reached depths I wasn’t expecting.
That is, King ends up taking us out of the bedroom and back to 1963 to a different lake (Dark Score Lake), and during a total solar eclipse (fun fact: there really was a total solar eclipse on July 20, 1963).
A lot of awfulness has happened in King books. Horrific awfulness. Some on the order of the supernatural, and some just plain human awfulness. Sometimes at the same time. Arguably, at least among the King books I’ve read, Gerald’s Game features two scenes that will stick with me as among the most horrific King has ever written.
First, a starved dog left to fend for itself named Princess wanders into the house, smelling the dead carcass of Gerald. What a buffet of meat for a hungry pooch! As Jessie helplessly watches on (remember, she’s handcuffed), the dog begins to lap at the blood of Gerald, due to him having bumped his head after his fatal heart attack (that noise), and then as Princess tears away the meat. The description of the poor, pathetic Princess and what led to her being desperate and hungry enough to consume human meat, and then the actual follow-through act, was disgusting, especially as a dog-lover! But imagine having to be witness to it, both with your eyes and ears.
Second, King ends up going into very specific detail, but from the ignorant eyes of a 10-year-old making it all the more horrible, of Jessie being sexually assaulted by her own father during their watching of the total solar eclipse. I don’t think I’ve ever read that many words while holding my breath before. Horrific in the most awful way you can imagine, and it didn’t need any of King’s trademark supernatural elements, only a depraved, sick father. Perhaps even worse than the act itself (and it was worse in Jessie’s recollection) was how her father manipulated Jessie to never telling anyone about it by making it seem like it was her idea to never disclose what he had done to her. Even all these years later to the present day Jessie, she’s still not fully realizing what her father had done to her; she’s still minimizing it, excusing it, rationalizing it, and so on.
But the reason we learn such a backstory about Jessie I think serves three purposes: 1.) The metaphorical; Jessie has been running from her trauma for her entire life, and now she literally can’t run anymore, finding herself chained to the bed; 2.) To get us to root for Jessie because of all that she’s been through; and 3.) For Jessie, the character, to realize she won’t allow herself to be controlled by a man any longer, and to rise up out of this damn bed and fight back against the hand dealt to her.
King gets our hopes up multiple times through out the book, and therefore, Jessie’s: What if she uses some hand cream to shimmy her hand through the handcuffs? Whoops, Princess scares her and she drops the sample jar of creamer off of the bed. What if she slices her wrists with a water glass on the bed shelf to use that as a lubricant to get out of the handcuffs? Okay, she does, and miraculously it works, but the phone isn’t working! And she’s barely clinging to life. Okay, she manages to keep moving eventually, and make it to the Mercedes in the garage; never mind, the Mercedes won’t start. Okay, it started now, but then she runs into a tree, falling unconscious.
Throughout these ordeals, Jessie is arguing with the voices in her head: Punkin, the childhood version of herself, and the nickname given to her by her dad; Ruth, a tough as nails version of herself, mimicking a friend of hers she’s lost contact with; the Goodwife version of herself that is meek and submissive; and then there are the UFO voices that pipe in from time to time, aka the unidentified voices.
And then there is Jessie’s voice: That’s the fourth element to learning about Jessie’s past and why King went into such detail. This is a book about Jessie finding her voice, and finding who she is, and thus, appropriately, once she is saved and on the mend, she writes a letter, in her words and voice, to Ruth, about everything.
Now, the other part of the book that one has to mention is the figure that Jessie sees come into her room at night with a wicker basket filled with bones. She thinks it’s the “space cowboy,” or more simply, Death. She thinks Death has come to claim her, and she’s utterly terrified of it (and that was another interesting element: only six years prior, King released 1986’s It, so I wonder if Jessie continually referring to this incarnation of Death as an “it” was intentional?).
As far as that goes, I actually was liking the emerging idea that Jessie, given all she has been through in a 24-hour period, would start to think she was seeing Death waiting to collect her, or if you want to interpret it literally since King does lean into the supernatural, that Death really was there ready to collect her. But then, as Jessie finds her will to live and survive, and later escapes, Death gives her a knowing grin, like, “Okay, maybe next time, then.” That would have been neat.
Instead, it turns out that this figure Jessie saw was a real person! A human being who was not only robbing graves, but having sex with the corpses. Raymond Joubert, who is not only a grave-robber, and a negrophiliac, but is also described as having a distorted face, hands, and freakishly long arms due to suffering from acromegaly (a hormonal disorder). In other words, the perfect specimen to cosplay as Death.
Part of me likes the addition of this because it results in Jessie using her voice again to call out Joubert, because he’s been the embodiment of her trauma (she originally figured it was her dad come back to life to torment her rather than Death), and she even ends up spitting on him.
But the other part of me was like, was this a necessary addition to the book? Maybe if we are to take Joubert as a stand-in for her death in the way Jessie confronts him at the end? I don’t know. I sort of think the book would have been better if we just were left to interpret the figure as either Jessie imagining death, or it actually being death.
In any event, I thought this was on the side of the scale of being one of King’s better books, and it must be said, a nice change of pace for him up to this point in terms of being a full-on female protagonist. It wasn’t the first time (obviously, Carrie comes to mind), but King went to different places than I can ever recall him going. It was very well-done.