There are two Stephen Kings at work in Gerald’s Game, and one of them is in rip-roaring form. This is the King who wrote The Shining, Misery, and Cujo — the guy who probably knows more about scary goings-on in confined, isolated places than anybody since Edgar Allan Poe. And you don’t get much more confined and isolated than the bedroom of a summer house in woodsy western Maine on a Wednesday afternoon in October. Not if both your wrists are handcuffed to the bedposts, you’re splayed out near-naked, and your husband is lying dead on the floor.
How, one might ask, did Jessie Mahout Burlingame, 39-year-old wife of one of Portland’s toniest lawyers, wind up in such an awkward position? Well, hubby Gerald has been using bondage games lately to rev up his sluggish libido, and Jessie has been willing to go along with them…until now. This time, having changed her mind midway through, she demands that Gerald unshackle her — and gives him a couple of good kicks (one in the stomach, one lower down) when she realizes that he seems intent on rape for real. Which triggers the heart attack that Gerald’s excess eating, drinking, and smoking have pretty much made inevitable.
So there’s poor Jessie, with no one around for miles — and King zooms in on every moment of her ordeal with his unique brand of fierce, jokey, in-your-face realism. She can’t reach the phone, the handcuff keys, or the nearby ) glass of water that might save her from dying of thirst. She can’t do anything but scream when a starving stray dog wanders in and turns Gerald’s corpse into ”its own personal McDonald’s Drive-Thru.” Awash in cramps, shakes, and nightmares, she can’t even tell for sure whether she’s hallucinating when a grotesque figure appears, and reappears, in the corner of the bedroom. I won’t tell you how — or if — Jessie gets free, but her struggle produces about 150 of the most excruciating, exhilarating pages in recent thriller fiction.
Unfortunately, however, Gerald’s Game is more than 300 pages long. This is the curse of the other Stephen King — the one who’d like to be taken more seriously, the one who (like Mary Higgins Clark and so many others) has been caught up in the tidal wave of pop psychology about sexual abuse, incest, and multiple personality. Jessie, you see, needs more than guts and ingenuity to break out of those handcuffs. She first needs to liberate herself inside — by confronting old secrets and lies, by dealing head-on with her anger and self-hatred, by remembering in precise detail the summer day in 1963 when 10-year-old Jessie was molested, emotionally as well as sexually, by someone she adored.
This gimmick — instant self-therapy for survival — has a certain simplistic appeal. But King handles it clumsily, giving Jessie a handful of unconvincing ”interior voices” and ”phantom companions” (her angry self, her prudish self, the child inside, etc.) who carry on interminable panel discussions about her past and present predicaments. And the book’s stick-on feminism — Jessie believes that men are ”not so much gifted with penises as cursed with them” — is only slightly more persuasive. Still, even gunked up by its pretensions, King’s latest story-machine plows along unstoppably, turning one woman’s agony into wicked — yet, to his credit, never quite cruel — entertainment.