Gerald's Game (1992)
By: Julian on January 31, 2011  |  Comments ()  |  Share 
Author: Stephen King
Publisher: Hodder & Stoughton
Pages: 342
Gerald's Game is one of two Stephen King novels (the other being Dolores Claiborne) published in 1992 that dealt with very different themes to what the author normally covers. Both novels are connected by an abhorrent event, perpetrated against the central character, which takes place on the date of a solar eclipse. Although the event may at first read as a distraction or an aside, it is integrally important to the novel and to the reader's understanding of the central character's psychology. Gerald's Game is a psychological thriller as opposed to a horror novel, and King moves out of his comfort zone to produce an (almost) excellent piece of work.

Gerald's Game tells the story of Gerald and Jessie Burlingame, a married couple who are stealing a weekend away at a lakeside cabin. Gerard and Jessie, at the former's initiative, have recently taken to playing bondage games in an attempt to liven up their marriage. The novel opens during one such game: Jessie handcuffed to the bed head as Gerald stands over her, drooling. The image triggers a memory in her past, and Jessie withdraws her consent, asking Gerald to unbind her. Gerald, thinking that Jessie is playing along, continues. Jessie lashes out, landing a strong blow to Gerald's crotch, and Gerald drops dead of a heart attack.

With the idyllic surrounds hosting no one but her, Jessie is placed in a spot of bother, her only company being the clashing voices in her head: 'Goodwife' Burlingame, Jessie's conservative, matronly persona; and Ruth, the voice of Jessie's radical feminist college friend. As Goodwife and Ruth have it out, Jessie is left with diminishing prospects of escape. Jessie's psychological state – made far worse when she watches a stray dog saunter into the cabin and chow down on the late Mr Burlingame – puts her in a state of constant near-hysteria.

As she rapidly tires, Goodwife and Ruth force Jessie to confront a past reality that she has spent all of her life justifying and brushing under the carpet – what happened on the date of the solar eclipse. Jessie is also forced to contend with the Space Cowboy, a figure that may or may not be stalking her as she is immobile on the bed.

Not a great deal can be said about Gerald's Game without giving the game away – the book gets into it from the word go, but those who have read many of King's more famous horror novels (It, The Shining, Misery, et al) will be stunned by the restraint that the author shows here. What makes Gerald's Game (and its companion piece, Dolores Claiborne) so unusual is that none of King's typical monsters haunt the protagonists: the substance of what's scary about the book involves no ghoul, spectre, psychopath, possession or the like. It is the fragile state of the human mind that King is most concerned with and readers in equal numbers would likely find this departure disappointing and refreshing. It should be said from the outset that I fit into the latter camp: sandwiched between a few bloated conventional horror narratives (The Tommyknockers and Needful Things on the left, and Insomnia and Rose Madder on the right), Gerald's Game is a lithe exercise in psychological horror that is made particularly effective by King's economical prose and his deft ability to engender suspense.

The differences between Gerald's Game and its predecessor, the aforementioned Needful Things, could not be greater. The latter is an 800-something page tome with an abundance of characters and a huge volume of plots and subplots. By contrast, Gerald's Game runs under 350 pages and, for about two-thirds of the novel, it centres solely on Jessie and the voices that occupy her mind.

However Gerald's Game still comes with a little bit of baggage, particularly in respect of the Space Cowboy. King may say that his prose is the product of Jessie's panicky hallucinations, but it reads in a manner that is inconsistent with clinical efficiency of the rest of the novel. Whilst I've said above that Gerald's Game is a picture of self-restraint compared with the bulk of Stephen King's output, it is probably also true that Gerald's Game is a short story concept that King chose to expand into a modestly sized novel. Even so, Gerald's Game is a pleasant surprise: it's something new for King, and the fact that this book, set in a room with (mainly) one character, works so well is a testament to the author's quality. Highly recommended.
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