Book Review: Gerald’s Game by Stephen King

I’m writing this review right after my second full re-read.


Those who know me are aware that I have strong feelings about this book. I often cite it as not just my favorite King, but favorite novel of all time. I initially read it in 2018, which might surprise you to learn was very early on in my journey into horror novel fanaticism. I’d read a handful of King before then – full books or half – and was still in the process of “growing out of” the fantasy and dystopia fiction that defined my generation’s most popular reads, and wading more into horror fiction in literature than film. 


It wasn’t my first King book, but the first one that made me think “Oh – this is why he’s a household name.” Since then I have read every single novel the man has published, and not once did Gerald’s Game waver from its place at the top. Approaching it again in August 2021, I wasn’t afraid that it wouldn’t hold up to my fond memories of it. I just felt a pure, almost childlike excitement to be revisiting it. And I wasn’t disappointed. There’s a lot of King books I love, but this one still wears the crown.

 
Something I’ve always loved about King’s work is that he makes characters that feel real – whether you love them, dislike them, or despise them, for the most part they always come to life on the page and it doesn’t take long to get an immediate grasp on what kind of person they are, and what kind of decisions they’ll make. King knows this – and he enjoys plopping these realistic characters into outlandish situations and just seeing what they do. 


That’s why many of his novels – especially those that hit the shelves at the height of his popularity throughout the eighties and early nineties – are incredibly misleading. With Cujo, we didn’t get a cheap thriller about an evil dog stalking a trapped mother; we got a layered tale about two families on opposite ends of the income scale in Castle Rock, with the titular dog being the violent hurricane of destruction – the outsider, the cosmic stranger – that ties their narrative threads together. Similarly in Christine, it’s not just a car that comes to life with a taste for blood; it’s a story about growing up and growing apart.
Gerald’s Game fits this bill. Where a lesser author would have put out a 207 page “sexual thriller” about a naked woman tied to a bed, King instead gives us…well, I’ll just say it: his masterpiece. 


Jessie Burlingame – the woman who spends the entire novel from page one handcuffed to  a bed – carries the novel on her shoulders. Aside from the very beginning where Gerald is in the picture, and a couple key flashbacks, Jessie spends the novel completely alone or in the presence of only a dog. What’s brilliant about this is that it isn’t just an endless stream of inner monologue – I mean, it is, but King gives us the sense of dialogue by having Jessie interact with the various “voices” in her head. This is nothing sinister or supernatural, despite how it sounds. It’s actually pretty masterful how King recognizes that something we all do from time to time is have conversations in our head, pretending to be someone else on the other side (be it someone we know who would examine the conversation from another perspective or simply another type of person generally). Therefore, we get a rough sense of dialogue, but also a startling glimpse at how Jessie sees and treats herself. After all, the woman berating her for being a terrible wife isn’t actually someone called Goody, it’s just the meeker and more submissive side of her personality. After this second reading, I genuinely feel that we do not get closer to perhaps any character King has written in any of his books. There are some that come close – Jack Torrance, maybe, or Holly Gibney (though spread out across 5 books) – but the time we spend with Jessie as she faces, fears, and confronts death head-on is more intimate and emotional than anything we’ve read from King before. 


I won’t pretend for a second that King has a clean record when it comes to, well, many things, but most relevant here is writing women. Now, I’m not sure if this book was an apology for that or just how much assistance and guidance he had from the women in his life along the way, but this definitely feels like a conscious step toward doing better.

 
One more shallow example of this is the fact that Jessie spends the entirety of the novel wearing nothing at all but a pair of lace panties – yet nowhere in the novel does King fall back on some of his more lurid descriptions of a woman’s appearance that strips her down to either her weight or, casting back to ‘Salem’s Lot, her “jahoobies.” In fact, there’s only one sequence in the book where Jessie, assessing her own body in an attempt to stave off another panic attack, absentmindedly begins berating and thinking negatively about herself during a breathing exercise her therapist taught her. Midway through her inner monologue, she interrupts herself courageously: “Wait just one goddamn minute here! What kind of dumb game is this? …who turned Nora Callighan’s badly-rhymed little relaxation litany into a mantra of self-hate?” 


On a deeper level, though, Jessie’s situation forces her to confront the men in her life: her father, who shackled her, and her late husband, who almost literally threw away the key. (There’s another man in this equation as well, but of the much more classic King variety: a monstrous outsider, that cosmic wildcard.) Over the course of the novel, Jessie must come to a place where she recognizes what those men did to her – what they were going to do – is no one’s fault but theirs, and the one with the power to set her free of them forever was herself, the woman who spent so much time learning how to survive by finally – and at times unwillingly – listening to her inner self rather than stuffing it away. Along the way she wrestles with an overwhelming amount of self-doubt, commonly taking the form of a voice she calls the Good Wife, and a burgeoning, more confident voice that takes inspiration from the most outspoken women she’s ever known. 


And let’s talk about the man who was made of moonlight. Or, my new favorite expression, that cosmic wildcard. King has spoke often about how he enjoys the idea of outside evil – an Outsider, if you will, a term he’s used many times before the 2018 novel of the same name. It’s frightening, but also comforting, from a reader’s viewpoint: sometimes it’s nicer to imagine that the worst thing in the world isn’t the people we know or humanity in general, but something else, some Other that we couldn’t dream of. The novel is compelling enough already – swiftly, masterfully, King plunges us and Jessie into a nightmarish situation, one where there’s not only little hope of survival but a wealth of psychological demons to be confronted along the way. And then, quite literally, as though pasted from another novel, enter the outsider. A dark shape in the corner of the room. Some good old classic something-in-the-shadows King horror to complement the survival and psychological horror. 


This unexpected element elevates the novel from tense to terrifying. And I genuinely believe that here we have one of King’s most underrated villains, ever. Because this man, for the most part, remains entirely unknown, barely seen, only glimpsed. We don’t even know if he’s real or not, until the very end. He’s silent. He contains all the malevolence of a violent hurricane, less intentional than just wildly ripping apart everything in its path, including the story itself. This is a far cry from Randall Flagg and Greg Stillson, who use charisma and big talk to make us hate them. The Moonlight Man cannot be hated, only feared. 


This is long enough. If anything, I just hope to convey how special this book really is to me. I could go on about how inspiring, relatable, and hopeful I found Jessie’s arc, but I believe that one doesn’t need to have experienced trauma in order to sympathize with a traumatized character, that one needn’t relate to a character at all in order to feel for them. The day I read a novel that tops Gerald’s Game will be a great day indeed, because this one is still number one.  

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