Nine years ago (almost to this very date, in fact), I began a journey.
For seven years, I was trapped in a prison. Sometimes this was only a metaphorical prison. However, sometimes it was also a literal prison.
I had gotten married at the relatively young age of 22. I had thought that I was lucky to find love at a young age, and figured I was set for life.
But I was wrong on that. Very wrong.
Somehow, I found myself in an abusive relationship. No, I did not grow up with parents who abused me in any way. In fact, I had a pretty good family life. Nor do I consider myself to be stupid. In fact, I have been told I am quite intelligent. I also consider myself to be resourceful, even scrappy. And I consider myself to be strong and independent.
For nearly seven years, I endured abuse. The abuse was both emotional and physical. I was choked. I received black eyes. I was called “fat”, “worthless,” “stupid,” “bitch,” and probably lots of other names that I now choose to forget.
Ostensibly, I left because my ex had cheated on me. However, this was finally a way out for me, as I was unable to leave prior to this. I blamed myself for the abuse, assuming that I had brought this on myself, due to my poor decision making skills. I also blamed myself for not leaving the situation much sooner than I did.
In short, I did everything but face what had actually happened to me.
When I finally left this awful situation, I felt alone much of the time. Sure, I had family…700 miles away. I had a couple of friends help me move into my own apartment, but I felt no one would understand my situation, or even worse, pass more judgment on me.
So I did what I have done my entire life: I turned to books (like a good nerd).
More specifically, I turned to Stephen King books (don’t forget what blog you are reading).
As I have stated countless times, Stephen King is not just a good horror writer, he is a good writer. Period. While he may be known for homicidal clowns, rabid dogs and possessed vehicles, he also writes about “real life” horrors, and those real life horrors are often more frightening than his fantastical monsters. They are frightening because they are plausible, and we can relate to them.
One theme that is prevalent in King’s work is the theme of abuse. Many characters in the King universe endure some sort of abuse. Beverly Marsh, a character in the book It, is abused by her father, and later on by her husband. Danny Torrance endures abuse at the hands of his alcoholic father, Jack, in the book The Shining. Abuse is even mentioned in the book Insomnia, a fantasy novel that is closely connected to the world of The Dark Tower series.
The novel Rose Madder is also a book that deals with domestic abuse. However, this book does not just mention abuse. Rather, domestic abuse is the main, underlying theme in the book. The book can also be considered a fantasy novel, with elements of Greek mythology and perhaps even Christianity, but spousal abuse is still the main theme in the book. The book is also slightly different from most of King’s other work in that fact that is told from the perspective of the abused woman, Rose McClendon. However, make no mistake about it: we are reminded many times that we are reading a novel set squarely in the Stephen King universe.
This is a book that has a lot of personal meaning to me, as it was a guide when I began my journey to get away from my marriage and find myself again. Unlike Rosie, I did not travel across the country. But I felt that the journey may as well have been a bus ride across the country, as it was long and even scenic at times. In fact, this book reminded me that I was not alone, but facing what countless survivors of an abusive relationship face: a journey to free myself from the demons, and find my true self again.
So, without further ado, here is my recap and review of Rose Madder.
And, as always:
The book begins with an introduction to a young woman named Rose, who is married to Norman Daniels, who is a cop. Norman is also abusive to Rose, both physically and emotionally. One evening, Norman comes home and finds Rose reading a book. For some reason, this enrages Rose, and Norman beats her quite badly. Rose is pregnant with the couple’s first child, and the beating causes her to have a miscarriage. Rose is heartbroken, but endures another nine years of abuse from Norman.
One day, nine years later, Rose is cleaning the house while Norman is at work, and notices a drop of blood on the sheets. Something awakens in Rose, and she flees her marriage. Before she flees, Rose takes Norman’s bank card, and uses it to obtain money so that she can escape. Rose catches a bus that takes her to a city 800 miles away, and throws the bank card in the trash before she leaves the city for good. All the while, Rose is terrified that Norman will still find her and hurt her, but decides that if she stays, she will risk at least her sanity and maybe even her life.
Over the next month, Rose works on re-building her life. When she arrives in her new city, she meets a man named Peter Slowik at the Traveler’s Aid Booth. Peter directs her to a shelter of sorts for battered women, called Daughters and Sisters. There, Rose meets a woman named Anna, who tells her that she can stay for at least eight weeks, and also finds Rose a job as a chambermaid at a nearby hotel. Rose gradually begins to adjust to her new life and form friendships, but still wonders about her future, as she knows that she will need something other than her life than not having Norman in it.
In the meantime, Norman is angered that Rose has left him. After Rose threw away his bank card, a young man stole it and attempted to use it. Norman brutally beats the information out of the man, and learns that Rose caught a bus out of town, and what time that bus may have left. This information is enough for Norman to begin to track Rosie down, and he does just that.
One day, after finishing her shift at the hotel, Rose decides that she wants to sell her engagement ring. Norman has told her that this ring is valuable, and Rose has believed this statement over the years. Rose finds a nearby pawnshop, and meets a man named Bill Steiner. Bill appraises Rose’s ring, and Rose learns that the diamond is not a real diamond. She is actually not surprised, due to the fact that Norman has deceived her many other times. Rose nearly leaves the pawnshop, to spare her dignity. However, she catches a glimpse of a painting and becomes entranced. The painting depicts a temple, with a woman whose back is turned, but holding her hands out to the sky. Rose decides that she must have this painting, and trades her engagement ring for it (as the ring itself is real gold). Right after she obtains the painting, an elderly man named Robbie Lefferts stops her, and requests that she read a paragraph from a book. Rose is apprehensive, but humors the man. The man tells Rose that her reading voice is fantastic, and offers Rose a job at his company as a reader of audio books.
In the meantime, Norman is still obsessed with Rose and her whereabouts. He has obtained a promotion at his job after a large drug bust, but is unable to let Rose go. He has used some information from the bus station to attempt to find Rose, but his lead did not pan out. However, Norman’s luck changes when he receives a call from the man who sold Rose the bus ticket. With this break, Norman is able to deduce what city Rose had fled to and resumes his hunt for her.
Rosie starts her new job the next day. She is apprehensive, but manages to make it through the day by thinking of her painting and the woman in it. That night, Bill unexpectedly shows up at her apartment, and takes Rosie out to dinner. Rosie feels an attraction towards Bill, and also accepts a date with him for the following weekend.
In the meantime, Norman arrives in the city where Rosie now resides. He is able to track down Peter Slowik, the man who assisted her in finding shelter upon her arrival. Norman then murders the man, and vows to track Rosie down and do the same to her, along with whoever else who may stand in his way.
Rose impresses the people at her new job, and realizes that her boss will likely offer her a contract. She begins to feel hopeful for her future and grateful for her new friends. Rose always dyes her hair blonde, to match the hair of the woman in her painting. That night, both Rose and Norman go to sleep and remember a woman named Wendy Yarrow, a prostitute who Norman murdered several years ago. Norman and his partner beat the woman in order to try to extract some information from her, and the woman threatened to sue the police department before she was murdered by Norman in order to keep her quiet.
Rose also comes to realize that the painting she purchased has taken on a life of its own, as she finds crickets in her second floor apartment, along with other items that should not be there. However, Rose’s investigation of her painting is interrupted when she receives a call from Anna Stevenson, the founder of Daughters and Sisters. Anna tells Rose of the murder of Peter Slowik, and that Norman is the prime suspect. Rose becomes upset and even calls Bill, telling him to stay away from her, for his own protection.
The next day, Rosie flounders at her new job. However, she receives a visit from Bill during her lunch hour, and tells him of the abuse she endured under Norman, and also of the prostitute Wendy Yarrow, who was likely killed by Norman. Bill tells Rose that he will not run, and that she cannot be held responsible for Norman’s actions, as it is not her fault.
That night, Rose notices more odd behavior from her. In fact, the painting opens up, and allows her to step into another world. There, Rose meets the woman in the painting, along with a woman named Dorcas who resembles Wendy Yarrow, the prostitute murdered by Norman. Rose dubs the woman in the painting Rose Madder. Rose Madder appears to be Rose’s mirror image, except that she is suffering from a disease that has driven her insane, and also altered her appearance, as she has several red blotches on her skin.
Rose Madder requests that Rose help her by rescuing her baby, which is being held captive by Enryies the bull in The Temple of The Bull. Rose Madder also tells Rose that she will repay the favor when needed. Dorcas helps Rose get ready for the quest, telling her not to eat the fruit or drink the water, no matter how tempted she may be. Dorcas also soaks a piece of of Rose’s nightgown with her blood, as Enryies is blind and relies on his sense of smell, meaning it is possible to trick him.
Rose sets off on her quest, and uses the sound of the babies cries to guide. She encounters several ruses on her way, but is able to reach the baby (whom she names Caroline). Rose tricks Enryies with the nightgown, and rescues baby Caroline, bringing her back to Dorcas and Rose Madder. Reluctantly, Rose surrenders the baby to the two women, and is again reminded by Rose Madder that she “repays.” Rose exits the world of the painting and returns to her apartment, falling asleep almost immediately.
The next day, Rose awakens. She is in pain from her previous night’s excursion and notices that the painting has changed again, but still dismisses the experience as a dream. Rose goes to work, and loses herself in her day’s routine. She is also offered a contract by her boss, Robbie Lefferts. When Rose returns home that evening, she finds the missing gold armlet worn by Rose Madder in the painting, along with a piece of her nightgown, and realizes that her experience was not a dream.
Rose and Bill then go on their date the following day. Bill takes Rose on a motorcycle ride and they have a picnic in a woodsy area. Bill and Rose also see a mother fox with her babies. Rose worries about the fox, but Bill tells her they should be fine as long as they are not infected with rabies. Rose also begins to realize how attracted she is to Bill, and Bill tells her that he loves her. They then head back to town, to attend the benefit concert for Daughters and Sisters.
While Rose is on her date with Bill, Norman has disguised himself as a veteran in a wheelchair, and managed to slip into the all day fair that will proceed the benefit concert for Daughters and Sisters. Norman waits for Rose for most of the day, and is uneasy when he can’t find her.
Norman then attacks one of Rose’s friends, Cynthia, in the restroom. However, he is interrupted by Gert Kinshaw, another member of Daughters and Sisters, who fights off Norman. Cynthia and Gert are both severely injured in the fight and end up at the hospital. Norman is able to escape and continues his hunt for Rose.
Rose and Bill meet Gert and Cynthia at the hospital and get a recap of what happened that afternoon. Rose is upset, and talks to the police, who try to reassure that they want to catch Norman and bring him to justice. After the interview with the police, Rosie and Bill head back to Rosie’s apartment.
While Rosie speaks to the police, Norman continues on his rampage. He has found a mask in the shape of a bull that seems to speak to him, although even he understands that he has gone completely insane. Norman kills Rose’s friend Pam at the hotel where she works, to try to obtain information from her. He then heads to the shelter owned by Daughters and Sisters, encountering Anna Stevenson and murdering her after he obtains the address to Rose’s apartment.
When Bill and Rosie come back to Rosie’s apartment, the encounter Norman, who has killed the two police officers who were supposed to be the police protection for Rose. Norman attacks both Rose and Bill, but they escape to her apartment and hide in the close where Rose has stored the painting. Once again, Rose escapes into the world of the painting, bringing Bill with her.
Rose changes into the same clothes worn by Rose Madder, and tricks Norman into chasing her to the Temple of the Bull. Rose Madder then attacks Norman and kills him. Rose and Bill then escape back into their world. Dorcas gives Rose a small vial of water from the river, and tells her to give it to Bill as necessary. Rose Madder also gives Rose a cryptic message, telling her to “remember the tree.”
After she and Bill return to their world, Rose speaks to the cops and tells them that Norman has disappeared. She also gives Bill a bit of the water from the river, in order to retain his sanity. Rose dyes her hair back to its natural color and destroys the painting. Eventually, the questioning in regards to Norman stops, and Rosie is able to obtain a divorce from him.
Bill proposes to Rose and they get married in a simple ceremony. Rose gives him the last of the water from the river, so that he forgets the experience in the world of the painting entirely. Shortly after their honeymoon, Rose finds out she is pregnant, and gives birth to a baby girl named Pamela Gertrude Steiner.
Over the years, all appears to be going well for Rose. However, Rose begins to experience bouts of irrational anger, where she imagines seriously injuring her friends and even her husband. Eventually, Rose remembers what Rose Madder told her about the tree, and finds the seed that is left. Rose then plants the tree, praying that her rages will stop and she can live out her life like a normal person. Her wish is granted, as the rages soon depart.
Every year, Rose returns to the spot where she planted the tree, and gives thanks for her blessings, knowing that she is strong and a survivor.
Here, we have Rose Madder. And I consider this one to be one of my favorite King books of all time, for a few different reasons.
However, Rose Madder also seems to be bit polarizing. Well, a lot polarizing, actually. People are divided (well, at least in Internet-land): some love the book, some detest the book.
Obviously, I am on #teamlove, but I can understand how this book may be off-putting to some. Not only is the main character a woman (big departure from most King books), along with the fact that the book is not “traditional horror,” there is also a lot of symbolism that may be difficult to understand. I have read this book many, many times and I am not sure if I understand all the symbolism, but I will definitely give it my best shot.
For example, there is the title character. Rose Madder. Just who is she, and how does she relate to Rosie Real? And what does the “madder” part mean? Anger? Insanity? Or maybe both? And how does all this tie into that weird color that keeps getting mentioned?
Truthfully, I don’t really have the answers to those questions. What I do believe is that Rose Madder is indeed a reflection of Rosie Real, or perhaps even a Twinner. Rose Madder is shown to be suffering from sort of disease. Is this Rosie’s repressed anger towards Norman? I actually think that I may be on to something with this thought, that Rose Madder is actually Rosie (maybe on another level of the Tower, or something even deeper) but the manifestation of anger, which can eventually lead to insanity, unless something is done. And the color rose madder somehow ties into all this, I believe. That color is pretty close to the color of blood (the book alludes to this several times). And blood is associated with anger, along with madness. The color could also be associated with simply being female, as blood is associated with menstruation and childbirth (oh, the fun imagery on that one…you are welcome). So, there may be many ways to interpret Rose Madder. Are all of them right? Possibly. Are all of them wrong? Could be as well, such is the mind of The Master…
And the world of the painting…how surreal is that? Well, a lot. Enter the fantasy element. Was the fantasy element necessary to the story? Probably not, the story of Rosie’s escape from Norman was a good stand alone story. Did it ruin the book? Absolutely not, especially since a nod to our friendly neighborhood gunslinger was given by mentioning the city of Lud, along with a possible reference to Randall Flagg and company. The Temple of the Bull and the river that had water you couldn’t drink unless you wanted your memory wiped clean were also nice touches, and made me think of the days I spent reading Greek mythology, which is also loaded with symbolism. The hero has to accomplish some task so he (or she in this case) can move forward in his life. And that is exactly what Rose had to do: she had to rescue a baby (which possibly symbolizes something too, like Rose’s true self, which is fragile like a baby) so that she could move past the “Norman stage” (or is that bullshit?) of her life and finally grow into her true self. And that is not a bad metaphor at all.
Another thing that I loved about this book was the characters. You had the two main ones: Rosie and Norman, along with all the minor characters that may not have been a huge part of the book (Peter Slowik aka Thumper-stein is one of many examples). King can create memorable characters, and it shows. I was rooting for Rosie right from the beginning. I cried with her, when she lost her baby, thanks to Norman’s actions. I was nervous for her, when she started over in a new city, with a new job and a new boyfriend. I was afraid for her, when Norman finally tracked her down. And I cheered with her, when she was finally rid of Norman for good. Not only can King write the Every Man character really well (Jack Torrance, Johnny Smith), he can also write the Every Woman character. And that is just what Rose is: an Every Woman. There is nothing special about Rosie, but that is exactly why she is so special: we can all relate to her, because we could so easily become her at any time. And most of what Rosie accomplishes is accomplished through hard work, pluckiness and even a little of luck. Definitely the Every Woman we can all identify with.
And we have Norman. Norman is on the list of King bad guys that I love to hate. Actually, I just hate. With every fiber of my being, as a matter of fact. With some of King’s bad guys, I can think of something good to say about them. Eldred Jonas does have good hair, after all. But I cannot think of a single good thing to say about Norman Daniels. He is racist. He is sexist. He has no regard for other human beings in the slightest, and will use them and then dispose of them (in grisly ways) when they have served out their purpose. Oh, and he beats the shit out of his wife. And kids aren’t safe from him, since he literally beats the baby out of Rosie, causing her to miscarry their only child. His view of the world is so skewed that it isn’t even funny (well, it is in kind of disturbed way). Norman makes assumptions about EVERYONE that turn out to have very little, if any, basis in actual fact (makes me wonder if he would be supporting Donald Trump, I am sure Norman would have ideas about making America great again and would fit right in at a Trump rally). But most frightening of all, guys like Norman Daniels actually exist. Norman is not a clown from the sewers or an evil wizard. He is a human being (at least in appearance). To boot, he is a human being in authority who abuses his power to hurt others. This is something that occurs quite often in the “real world.” Once again, King has proven himself to be the master of real life horror, along with made-up horror. And a character like Norman Daniels is proof that the real world will suffice just fine for horrifying us and giving us a sleepless night or two.
I was bruised and battered, I couldn’t tell what I felt.
I was unrecognizable to myself.
I saw my reflection in a window, I didn’t know my own face.
Bruce Springsteen, The Streets of Philadelphia
I constantly thought of the above lines when reading Rose Madder. This book may be a fantasy novel with a tie-in to the world of Roland Deschain himself, but at its heart, it is a book about abuse, and what it takes to overcome the abuse and become a healed, whole person.
Towards the end of the book, Rosie refers to the items she still had left from her life (her purse, a grocery, etc) as the items she brought “out of Egypt.” And the phrase “out of Egypt” is not a bad description of fleeing from an abusive marriage. In fact, it is a pretty good description.
Like Rosie, it was a journey fleeing from my own abusive marriage. Like the lines in the song, I was unrecognizable to myself, and did not recognize the person in the mirror who looked back at me. And like Rosie, I brought a ton of baggage out of Egypt that I did not know what to do with. Baggage such as memories of the time he tried to strangle at a hotel in Tennessee. Baggage such as the black eyes that I had to explain away. Baggage such as the thought that I would not live to see my 30th birthday. Baggage such as the humiliation, and feeling about two inches tall, as I was told what a worthless human I was on a regular basis. Even the strongest of us can only carry so much, and like Rosie, I feared that my anger and pain would poison the new life I had managed to build, unless I could find an outlet for it, where it could be tended and harm no one else.
Eventually, I did find that outlet. I still have the memories, but to paraphrase a quote in the book, I have become ruthless with the past. Again, to paraphrase the book, it is better to have bad dreams than bad wakings. Unlike the wakings, the dreams will fade upon awakening, and I am left with only the blessings that have become my life.
So that’s it for Rose Madder. Join me next month for another sleepless night in Derry, as I review and dissect Insomnia. Although I am seriously considering taking a detour to a certain “sour ground” in the King universe in the meantime…
Tune in next month…same bat time, same bat channel!
All of King’s work is inter-connected in some way, and Rose Madder is no different. Here are some of the connections I have found:
-Rose reads a book written by Paul Sheldon. Paul Sheldon is the main character in the novel Misery.
-Cynthia Smith is a minor character in Rose Madder, but plays a more prominent role in the books Desperation and The Regulators.
-Rose Madder makes reference to “ka.” The word “ka” is one used many times in the Dark Tower series.
-Dorcas speaks of the city of Lud and some other events that have occurred in her world. The city of Lud is featured in The Wastelands, the third book in the Dark Tower series.
-There is a picture of Susan Day in Anna Stevenson’s office. Susan Day is a character in the novel Insomnia.