When one thinks of horror, often one thinks of horror movies.
These movies are fantastical in some ways. We all know that someone cannot possibly be shot 23,889,209 times and still get up to chase sexually precocious teenagers and kill them in inventive ways (although that is a good way to burn that free 100 or so minutes you may have that day. More if you watch the cut scenes on the “extras” menu.)
But often, real life can contain plenty of horror…
But seriously, just turn on the news any given night, and tell me that man’s inhumanity to man is not the most horrific thing out there?
And there is one guy who understands this very well, and who has written some compelling literature on the subject, as a matter of fact…
You guessed it, we are talking about Stephen King!
*insert shocked look right about here*
King has been called The Master of Modern Horror (but you can call him The Master for short), and for good reason.
A rabid St. Bernard that makes you want to avoid car trouble at all costs?
Check and mate!
While most of the above horrors are not actually “real horrors,” one of King’s greatest strengths as a writer is his ability to include elements of realism in his writing.
So we associate The Shining the famous phrase “Redrum” (spell it backwards, for the uninitiated), along with a haunted hotel and a scary lady who is a permanent residence of a room with a famous number
There is also the matter of the guy in the dog costume…
Well, back to my point.
Which is that King can insert reality into his works. The Shining is a great example of this, because it deals with alcoholism, unemployment, child abuse and the list goes on.
In other words, we can relate the above list, since we have all experienced at least one of those things in our lifetime.
And that is what makes the story so terrifying: since we can relate to those topics, it is not that far out of left field that there may be a haunted hotel somewhere out there, where we avoid room 217 (or 237), along with the hedge animals and fire extinguishers, because if it can happen to the seemingly normal Torrance family, it sure can happen to us.
King writes about people. These people may be placed into extraordinary situations, but they are still people, who could, at least theoretically, be any one of us.
And these people do not always fight supernatural monsters, Often, humans are the monsters, and what a human can do to a fellow human is far worse than what a haunted hotel or even a rabid St. Bernard can do to us.
One of King’s books that deals with man’s inhumanity to man (or, more appropriately, woman) is Gerald’s Game.
Gerald’s Game contains hardly any elements of the supernatural, but it is still a frightening read. The monsters in this book are human, so the scenario is one that is plausible for anyone.
So strap in (but don’t handcuff yourself), and get ready for the ride that is Gerald’s Game.
The books begins by introducing us to a woman by the name of Jessie Burlingame. Jessie married to man named Gerald, who is a corporate attorney.
Jessie and Gerald decide to spend some time in their summer home, despite the fact that it is October. They decide to have sex, but Gerald demands that their encounter be spiced up a bit, and chains Jessie to the bed with a pair of handcuffs.
Jessie then grows tired of the game, and asks Gerald to remove the cuffs. Gerald refuses, and mocks his wife. This upsets Jessie, and she kicks her husband, hitting his penis and testicles.
Right away, Jessie notices that something has gone amiss. Gerald appears to have lost consciousness, and falls off their bed. He does not respond to her when she calls out to him, demanding that he free her from the handcuffs, leaving her still chained to the bed.
Jessie realizes that Gerald is not breathing and is actually dead. She becomes terrified, as she is still chained to the bed, and wonders how she will free herself.
She calls out, hoping that someone will hear her. However, the only living creature nearby is a stray dog. The stray dog wanders into the summer home, as Gerald left the door open. The dog then begins to lick up Gerald’s blood from the floor, much to Jessie’s disgust.
Jessie throws an ashtray at the dog, in an attempt to make it leave. The dog leaves, but drags a part of Gerald’s arm with it, and dines on it.
After the dog leaves, Jessie hears voices in her head that speak to her about a painful incident from her past. Jessie also begins to realize how thirsty she is, and wonders how she will be able to reach a glass of water that is nearby.
Finally, Jessie is able to reach the glass of water, with much effort. She is finally able to drink from the glass, after she finds a card nearby and uses it as a straw. In the meantime, Jessie continues to hear the voices in her sub-conscious mind. One of these voices is the voice of her college roommate, Ruth. Many years ago, Jessie nearly confessed a secret from her childhood to Ruth, but backed out of the confession at the last minute, even moving out of their shared apartment to avoid speaking about the subject ever again.
Eventually, Jessie falls asleep, and dreams about her past, while the stray dog continues to dine on the body of her husband.
Jessie awakens after a short time and is disoriented. She soon becomes frightened, as she believes she sees a man standing in the room with her. The man appears to be hideously deformed, and does not speak. He also wields a chainsaw. Jessie calls out to him, but the man does not respond, and seems to leave the house.
Again, Jessie falls asleep. She then begins to dream of the day she witnessed a solar eclipse, in the company of her father at the family’s summer home, when she was 10 years old.
However, the total darkness of the eclipse was not the only thing witnessed by Jessie. She was also molested by her father that afternoon. Jessie immediately feels ashamed and blames herself, and attempts to cover up the incident, fearing that she will be blamed for it.
Jessie is confronted by her father after the incident, and she begs not to tell her mother, as she blames herself for the incident. Her father agrees, but Jessie is still filled with shame, and believes that if she were to tell anyone about the incident, it would tear her family apart.
When Jessie wakes up again in the present, she again believes that she sees the same intruder she spotted before, and he appears to be armed with a chainsaw. She realizes that she must escape, as the man will likely return the next night.
Jessie also comes to the realization that the molestation was no “accident,” and that her father likely made plans so that he could be alone with his daughter, and take advantage of her love for him. Jessie also comes to the realization that she must stop blaming herself for her father’s perverse urges, and figure out a way to escape her current situation, before she perishes.
Jessie attempts to reach a bottle of hand lotion, in the hopes that she can use the lubrication to free herself of the handcuffs. However, the hand lotion escapes her grasp, much to her despair, and she fears that she will soon die.
Soon, Jessie finds an inventive way to escape her prison: she obtains a piece of broken glass, and cuts her own wrists. She then uses the blood as a lubricant, and is able to escape from the handcuffs. She attempts to use the phone to call for help, but it appears as if the phone lines in the house have been cut.
Jessie begins to make her way out of the house. Much to her horror, she sees the man she saw before, and he appears to be attempting to attack her. She throws her jewelry at the man, and tells him he can have it. However, he chases her out of the house. Jessie is able to make it to her vehicle and drives away.
When she is driving, Jessie believes that she sees the man in the backseat of the vehicle. She is overcome with terror, and crashes her vehicle into a tree.
The story then skips to several months after Jessie’s ordeal. Jessie has survived, even though she required extensive hospitalization, and still suffers from nightmares. Also, the police do not believe her story that there was someone else in the house with her.
However, Jessie realizes that her story that there was someone else in the house with her was actually correct, courtesy of some newspaper articles.
It turns out that the police catch a serial killer by the name of Andrew Ray Joubert. Joubert suffers from a congenital defect, which causes his face, along with his arms and neck, to look odd. Joubert was also a grave robber, and has a sexual fetish for dead body parts, to which he commits unspeakable acts. Joubert has spent his life in and out of mental institutions, and targeted people in small towns, as the police were less likely to catch him, due to budgetary cuts. He is finally apprehended and put in prison.
Jessie knows that she in on her way to recovery, as she writes a letter to her friend Ruth, detailing her ordeal. She is finally at peace when she confronts Joubert in court, and spits in his face, which provides her with closure.
So, Gerald’s Game.
One of the few books that this Constant Constant Reader had not read, until now.
*Hangs head in shame, begs for Constant Constant Reader card to not be taken away and fed to Cujo.*
And I don’t know what I was waiting for, as this was an amazing read.
So, where do I begin?
As I stated before, Gerald’s Game is a departure from the “standard” King fare, as it is not “horror.” It is a story in regards to surviving trauma, and moving on with life in the wake of that trauma.
However, this is a King book. And we are reminded many times that this is, in fact, a book written by The King of Horror.
Yes, I am talking about Andrew Ray Joubert.
Seriously, where do I even begin with this character, who, in fact, is actually a minor character, as he only appears in such a small part of the book?
But boy, is he ever memorable!
First of all, his appearance.
Seriously, how does one think to include a congenital disorder that makes one have freakishly long arms and seriously enlarged lips?
Oh, right. This is Stephen King. His mind…well…we would also be so privileged to have a mind that could dream up someone like Joubert!
And Joubert carries around a chainsaw. Nope, this is not nightmare fodder…not at all!
He robs graves too.
And keeps souvenirs…shudder!
He referred to those “souvenirs” as his things, and made a necklace out of…er…certain parts of the male anatomy…even more shudder!
Referred to his stepmother and her husband as mommy-daddy, just like a small child…
And here’s the kicker: that “sandwich” that the cops found.
Yes, the tongue, slathered with mustard, between two pieces of Wonder Bread.
The Joubert got your tongue?
Ok, I quit now!
Well, now that we have the horror part out of the way, we can talk about the other parts of Gerald’s Game, which are worthy in their own right.
And one of these is the wife of the title character…
In other words, Jessie Burlingame.
Now, you wouldn’t think the guy who writes all the scary stories would be able to write a thoughtful, insightful novel exploring what it means to be a woman in the midst of the patriarchy, who has also survived horrific abuse abuse in her past. And to top it off, the abuse was committed by her father, who she was supposed to love and trust.
But, time and time again, King has proven himself to be more than a writer of “just” horror. Novels such as 11/22/63, Rose Madder, Lisey’s Story, The Eyes of the Dragon and The Talisman provide proof that King is able to write more than horror novels.
And we can add Gerald’s Game to that list as well, despite the fact that one of the characters in the novel is a serial killer who robs graves and makes sandwiches out of Wonder Bread and human tongues.
One of the reasons why Gerald’s Game works so well is because of Jessie Burlingame.
Jessie is a strong, well-realized character. King makes her sympathetic, but she is never pitiful, despite the fact that she is a battered woman.
Much of this book is inside Jessie’s mind, which is one of the reasons why it is so fascinating.
I loved the fact that Jessie heard several different “voices” during her ordeal: Goodwife, Punkin and Ruth, her college roommate.
This showed that Jessie, like many of us, has a complex past. Many people have obviously touched her life, for better or for worse.
In bringing in these people as voices and flashbacks, King is able to create more layers to Jessie’s past, and give us insight into her personality, and what makes her tick. This is important, as the book is almost a one act play, with Jessie being almost the only character in the story.
As I stated before, Gerald’s Game is not a “horror” story.
However, there is still much horror in this book. It is just not the supernatural kind of horror that King is known for.
That’s right, I am talking about human horrors.
In most of King’s work, human horrors play a part.
Bullying is a major theme in It. When I mention this novel, most people (rightfully) bring up the homicidal clown who terrorizes children.
However, It is more than a story about a homicidal clown with teef. It is a story about bullying, hate crimes, racism and intolerance of those who don’t fit our society’s mold of normal. Human horrors, in other words.
The Shining, too, is a book about human horrors. It may feature a haunted hotel and a child blessed (or cursed) with PSI abilities, but it also discusses alcoholism, domestic abuse and the struggle to provide for one’s family. These are all horrors that many of us have experienced at one point or another in our lives, and the inclusion of these in the story serves to make the story that much more effective.
And Gerald’s Game is another novel that consists almost entirely of human horrors.
There is Andrew Ray Joubert. Despite his appearance, he could be classified as a human horror, and his crimes are pretty horrific.
However, the major horror in this story is the sexual abuse that Jessie experienced as a child at the hands of her father.
King often writes about taboo topics. Bullying, rape, addiction, the death of a child…no subject is off limits for The Master.
And the sexual abuse of a child is something that would be considered taboo. We know that this (sadly) is not uncommon, but no one wants to think about it. It is horrible.
The metaphor of the eclipse is also perfect. The sun went out that day on the lake. And the sun went out for Jessie, as her father stole her innocence and placed her into the world of adults, long before before Jessie should have made that entrance.
However, if one has experienced abuse, it is at the forefront of his/her mind. I can speak from personal experience in regards to this, as I am survivor of domestic abuse. My ex husband did horrible things to me, and while it has been over 10 years since I removed myself from that situation, I would be lying if I were to tell that I don’t still think about the abuse, even though I have done much in the way of healing. And I imagine that I will be carrying those scars with me until the day I die.
Certain places, smells, sights and so forth can trigger memories of abuse. When I was 13 years old, I was harassed by a group of boys at the neighborhood swimming pool. It was two years before I could return to that pool on my own. Just the thought of that pool was nightmare fodder, in much the same way that Jessie’s summer home became nightmare fodder for her, after her father abused her there. Again, the scar of abuse is one that is hard to carry. It can ruin a swimming pool, a summer home and all kinds of things, great and small. And this is something only other survivors of abuse can ever understand.
And it is the same for Jessie. She may have experienced her own personal eclipse in her mind, as she repressed the memories and tried to live a normal life.
But, as with a solar eclipse, we all know that the sun never really disappears, but is simply obscured. Just because you can’t see it, doesn’t mean it’s not there.
Just because the horrible memory is not visible does not mean that it’s not there.
And it was always there for Jessie, and it influenced everything in her life.
In as sense, Jessie married her father. Gerald was a brute. Like her father, he had no boundaries.
Jessie’s father demanded that she wear a too tight fitting sundress. Gerald demanded that she quit her teaching job, that she enjoyed and was good at.
Gerald handcuffed his wife to the bed and demanded submission from her, so that she would be at his beck and call. Jessie’s father also handcuffed her in a manner, as he attacked her and assaulted a trusting child, and later blamed the incident on Jessie.
Both men gaslight Jessie, telling her that she is irrational and that she is the one with issues, when it was the men who committed the terrible acts.
In fact, the gaslighting continues even after Jessie escapes her predicament, as no one believes that there may have been someone else in the house with her. It takes some reading and research on the part of Jessie in order to convince people that she was, in fact, an intended victim of Andrew Ray Joubert, who eluded capture from the authorities for far too long, in much the same way that her father was able to elude any type of punishment for his crime against his daughter.
When Jessie “de-gloves,” it is gruesome. But “de-gloving” was necessary for Jessie, in both a literal sense, and a metaphorical sense.
But “de-gloving,” or peeling away the past so that one can escape the torture, is something that is gruesome by nature.
For Jessie, it came at a cost, as she spent months recuperating from that injury.
But sometimes, the pain is necessary.
Sometimes, we need to experience that pain, so that we can become free again, and resume our lives in the present, instead of being handcuffed to the past.
Well, that’s it for Gerald’s Game!
Join me next month, as we continue on the path of the eclipse.
In other words, we will be reading and dissecting Dolores Claiborne.
Tune in next month…
Same bat time, same bat channel!
Despite the fact that Gerald’s Game takes place in a limited setting, it is still squarely set in King’s universe. Here are the connections I found:
-The most obvious connection is to the novel Dolores Claiborne. The title character in the latter and Jessie Burlingame experience some kind of telepathic connection when the eclipse occurs, as the occurrence of the eclipse is tied to major events in the lives of both characters.
-Mention is made of Norris Ridgewick. Norris is also a character in the novel Needful Things.
-Alan Pangborn is also mentioned. Pangborn is a character in the novel The Dark Half and in the novel Needful Things.
-The town of Castle Rock is mentioned. Castle Rock is the setting for several King novels and short stories, including Needful Things, The Dead Zone and The Body (part of the collection Different Seasons.)
-Harlow is also mentioned. Harlow is another town that is part of the King Universe, and is the setting for the novel Revival.
-Jessie’s childhood summer home was located on Dark Score Lake. Dark Score Lake is the setting for the novel Bag of Bones.
-Ralph Roberts, a character in the novel Insomnia, makes mention of Andrew Ray Joubert, a few years after the events in Gerald’s Game.