Gerald's Game by Stephen King
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
I'll be honest: I dismissed Gerald's Game for years as a weird BDSM entry in Stephen King's long and winding career. It wasn't until recently, when I watched Mike Flanagan's 2017 film adaptation, that I realized just how wrong I had been. At first glance, it's easy to jump to the same conclusions that I did: as the blurb explains, this novel is about a woman, Jessie Burlingame, who ends up stranded in the countryside and handcuffed to a bedpost during a sexual escapade gone wrong - very wrong. On the surface, this seems like classic King, with an edgy topic and the hovering specter of death on the horizon. However, Gerald's Game isn't about risqué sexual encounters as much as it is about trauma, rape, misogyny, and sexual abuse. Beneath the spooky exterior, this is actually one of King's most straightforward examinations of suffering and the psychological aftermath of trauma. Color me surprised.
The basic gist of Gerald's Game is as follows: Jessie Burlingame and her husband, the eponymous Gerald, escape for a brief romantic getaway to their rustic lake house in Maine. During an intimate encounter that quickly goes off the rails, Gerald suffers a heart attack and dies, leaving Jessie alone and chained up - with nary a soul in sight to help. While she's trapped and cuffed to her bed, Jessie faces two challenges: the physical task of freeing herself from her metal restraints, and the psychological journey of coming to grips with a traumatic childhood event. During flashback sequences, King uses the astronomical phenomenon of an eclipse to mirror a horrific personal experience that casts a long shadow over the rest of Jessie's life. That darkness, unlike the brief blackout of the sun that ten-year-old Jessie witnesses, is not so easily dismissed.
It's impressive that Stephen King takes such a seemingly simplistic core of a story and expands upon it for hundreds of pages, delving into a wide variety of psychological hurdles. Over the course of the novel, the reader watches Jessie use MacGyver-esque creativity to survive, which in itself is a surprisingly engaging aspect of the book. The most vital part of Jessie's story arc, however, is embedded within her mental acrobatics as she lies imprisoned in her bed.
Of course, it wouldn't be a Stephen King novel without a little extra "creep factor" thrown in, so things inevitably get even worse for our poor protagonist. The book hits some familiar macabre notes when Jessie is inevitably haunted by a mysterious "Moonlight Man" (a.k.a. the "Space Cowboy") who hides in the shadows of the Burlingames' bedroom. This misshapen specter visits Jessie at nighttime, inciting her to ponder whether he is a figment of her imagination or something even more sinister. While this might seem like an unnecessary addition to the story - one that initially seems to detract from the 127 Hours: Between a Rock and a Hard Place vibe of the novel - this plot point ultimately complements Jessie's story arc and growth as a character, as she comes to grips with her own childhood monsters.
Although this is a very tidy, constricting setup for a 400-page novel, Gerald's Game delves into the fathomless depths of the human mind to flesh out the story. King is a master writer, a word-dancer who utilizes a limited stage setting to foster hours and hours of thought-provoking conversations. In the first hundred pages of the novel, King bluntly addresses rape (even seemingly consensual date rape), deconstructs the "male gaze," and discusses the dehumanizing way that women are viewed by men. This is not just a two-dimensional horror story with a supernatural antagonist. Rather, much of the villainy we see is from mundane, everyday folks - characters not unlike the people we interact with on a daily basis in the real world.
What's so surprising now, thirty years after its publication, is how ahead of its time - perhaps even prophetic - Gerald's Game actually is. King, despite all his obsessions with the dark, dirty, and demonic, is a champion of the underdog and the underrepresented. King's masterpiece, It , confronts a variety of topics: racism, sexism, child abuse, bullying, neuroses, molestation, and many other subtle (and not-so-subtle) issues. For several members of the "Loser's Club," Pennywise is the least horrific of their worries. Likewise, Jessie Burlingame is a character whose woes stretch much further than a deformed, moonlight-clad killer. For Jessie, darkness has been a constant, haunting companion throughout adolescence and adulthood. And sometimes those childhood shadows are much harder to shake.
In the end, Gerald's Game is a proto-#MeToo story that illustrates how much the world has changed over the last three decades. Though not nearly as well known as Wendy Torrance, Beverly Marsh, Annie Wilkes, or Carrie White, Jessie Burlingame is a heroine worthy of recognition. This novel is undoubtedly a timestamped tale from the King of Horror, but it's also a gentle reminder of how timeless trauma and heroism can be.
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Mild-mannered librarian by day… and a mild-mannered rock & roller by night.