Stephen King has published fifty-four books and over two hundred short stories. Many people would review one of his better known stories such as The Shining, Carrie, or IT. I’ve grown quite the collection of his works, but there is only one that continually strikes terror into my heart. It’s not a book about a haunted hotel, a telekinetic girl, or a demonic clown that scared me into staying up for three nights after I read it the first time. It’s just a story about a woman handcuffed to a bed.
Gerald’s Game begins with an almost picturesque scene of a cabin by a lake in Maine, where Jessie and her husband, Gerald, are spending the weekend trying to bring new life into their marriage. Unfortunately, this doesn’t work out as Gerald—in the process of violating Jessie’s consent after handcuffing her to the bed for some light bondage—gets knocked off the bed, hits his head, suffers a heart attack, and dies. Now Jessie’s trapped, all alone and essentially helpless, in a pre-cell phone world with no help on the way.
With nothing to do but wait, Jessie suffers through different events throughout the book. There’s Prince, a stray dog who wanders in and begins to eat Gerald’s body. There are the voices in her head that begin to extract a painful childhood memory. Then there’s the “Space Cowboy”, a terrifying specter who stands in the corner of the room and watches her and may or may not be real. Desperate to escape, she begins to concoct multiple plans that range from breaking the headboard to mutilating her wrist. The shocking, edge-of-your-seat climax cannot be simply summarized so I’ll leave you to experience it.
It’s amazing what King can do with such a simple premise as woman-stuck-in-bed. It’s also one of his more basic plots action-wise as most of the dialogue and scenes take place in Jessie’s head and memories. The horror of a situation without escape works here as Jessie’s escalating desperateness hits well with readers who cannot imagine what they would do if they were in her handcuffs. While the first half of the book is enjoyable, the second half is where it’s almost impossible to put the book down. My heart pounded as I finished the last page and I looked up and half expected the Space Cowboy to be standing in the corner.
Trust me when I saw that one of my biggest, primal fears is someone standing in a corner, watching me, and slowly getting closer with every blink.
While it may not be as symbolically deep as The Shining or Carrie, there are still bigger pictures issues at play here including childhood trauma, the goals of marriage, the pursuit of happiness, and man vs. nature. Situational horror has taken more of a backseat recently as ghost stories, serial killers, and parodies become the norm, but Gerald’s Game is where the genre really shines. The fear of the darkness—the unknown—can resonate with every reader.
The style and voice are characteristically King, and I’m sure many people could enjoy a rousing drinking game with it, but people don’t read one of his novels for poetic prose. They read a Stephen King novel because they want to be scared, and this will work if you’re looking for a good fright before Halloween. While it doesn’t change or innovate the horror genre in any way, it’s a large character study with little action and plenty of thought. Some people like their horror with blood and guts, others with a little more class and mystery, but I think King does a decent job of mixing the two in this novel.
Gerald’s Game is a suspenseful, taut horror novel that will need to be read with the lights on. I recommend it to most Stephen King fans, those who enjoy horror without a necessary supernatural element, and for people looking for a lip-biting book to read before Halloween. If you’re looking for a Stephen King novel to read in October then it should be this one. Grab a copy and you might be stuck to your bed for a couple of hours…or days.