If you were to take a room full of Stephen King fans, hose them down, and ask them what they consider to be the worst Stephen King novel, many if not most of them would probably pick Gerald’s Game. And I can see why, though this book about a woman who is handcuffed to her bed (kinky sex game and all that) when her husband dies of a heart attack has its moments.
Jessie Burlingame, the book’s ensnared heroine, spends almost the whole time handcuffed to a bed. Geralyn says she once tried to read the book, but decided to quit when she peeked ahead a few hundred pages and found that Jessie was still handcuffed and still hadn’t left the bed, much less the room the story starts in. Indeed, King moves things along at the rate of a peppy glacier, making generous use of flashbacks to explore Jessie’s shall we say “problems.” The funny thing is that I listened to this on audiobook, a good chunk of it while sitting in Mandy’s nursery and rocking her to sleep. I would often drift off myself, awaking to find that half an hour had passed while I dozed in the glider with headphones on, but I wouldn’t need to rewind the audiobook because next to nothing had happened. King is obviously in page count padding mode throughout this entire book. Such padding isn’t unusual for him, but here it’s so egregious as to butt up against ridiculous.
The other major facet of this book to criticize is the sharp left turn King takes in the last quarter of the volume, wrapping things up by narrating a letter from Jessie to an old college roommate. This chunk of the novel is completely incongruous with the part that precedes it, to the point where it seems like a separate story tacked on to –you guessed it– pad out the page count. I’m not sure why King decided to take this route, but it totally didn’t work for me.
That all said, there are some genuinely creepy and horrible scenes in Gerald’s Game –the kind that make its place in the “Horror” section of the bookstore appropriate. At one point late in the still night while chained to the bed Jessie wakes up to find some tall, silent figure standing in the corner. She’s scared out of her mind (almost literally) and tries to plead with the figure, but it just stands there, watching her. I think most of us have woken up in the middle of the night to see some assembly of shadows that we mistake for an intruder, and even when our rational mind identifies it for what it is –a piece of furniture, a coat hanging from a peg, whatever– another part of our mind refuses to believe it. What made this scene particularly effective for me was that I was sitting in Mandy’s nursery with the lights completely out when I listened to it, and I could look in the corner and almost see what King was describing. For me, this scene even rivaled his penultimate scary scene: the lady in the bathtub from The Shining.
And then don’t even get me started about how Jessie makes her final, desperate attempt at escaping the handcuffs. I was literally squirming the whole time I listened to that. I thought I was going to have to fast forward.
So on balance, while there’s a few genuinely effective scenes in this whole affair, its super slow pacing and bizarre change of structure towards the end make it hard for me to recommend to anyone not trying to assemble a complete Stephen King library. There’s lots to choose from that’s better.