Gerald's Game (Novel) - Adults Only - Pre-Halloween Review
I’m gradually becoming quite a Stephen King fan, aren’t I? From It and its adaptations to Misery and its adaptation, I’m starting to respect Stephen King as one of the most prolific, talented authors alive, as well as admire the way he writes with such seamless exposition; that always drew me in every time.
For Halloween, this time, I decided to give his work another spin with Gerald’s Game, published in 1992.
On the surface, the story feels very simplistic. But once you dive into it, you’ll find it super compelling on the inside.
In Kashwakamak Lake, Maine, a husband and wife, Jessie and Gerald Burlingame, drove out to their summer home by the lake in September; at this time of year, the neighborhood was uninhabited, making these two the only ones around in this neck of the woods. They ventured into their summer house to engage in a round of their sex games, except this time, Gerald decided to step it up by handcuffing Jesse into the bed. Once he put his moves on her more and more, Jessie quietly and then vocally protested, until out of instinct, she kicked Gerald in the stomach and groin, leaving him in a state of shock. However, the next thing she knew, Gerald suffered a fatal heart attack, which ultimately killed him. Now, there’s nothing in this room, this house, or even the ghost town of a neighborhood…nothing but Jessie, lying on the bed and still handcuffed to it.
So, now, for the rest of the story, the question is, can she break free? And if so, how?
On the surface, this is not unfamiliar territory; we’ve seen Stephen King work his magic with a main character being trapped in a bed before, as we saw with Misery. But for me, this story reminded me more of 127 Hours than it did something like Silence of the Lambs, but still with a psychological edge. The idea was that this time, the main character found herself physically stuck in a position that seemed almost impossible to get out of. So, she had to rely on all her willpower and knowhow to wriggle her way out of the hole in which she was confined.
Nevertheless, this story was not without its fair share of the trademark horror that only Stephen King can provide. The novel explored some of the worst possible situations that a person trapped in a bed like Jessie can encounter, many of them dealing with something or someone that could wander towards you and potentially harm you. The first among them was a stray dog who wandered into the summer house physically decrepit and starving. Jessie was petrified, feeling like it was about to come after her, only to grow exasperated and angry when the dog’s idea for dinner was Gerald’s contorted corpse. There’s nothing more gnarly or surreal than the idea of Man’s best friend feasting on Man himself. But Jessie’s next uninvited guest was what really wigged me out: a black hooded figure that seemed to be there and yet not be there at the same time. It had a white face with thick lips and a thin nose, arms long enough to reach down to his knees, and a briefcase filled with dismembered bony limbs and body parts, some of them wearing rings and jewelry. Jessie was at a total loss over who or what this figure might’ve been: she thought more than once that it might’ve been her long-deceased father, but other times, she thought it was Death himself awaiting her demise.
In the meantime, when she wasn’t busy concocting potential solutions to help her out of bed and the handcuffs or putting up with her uninvited guests, she kept herself mentally stable by undergoing two things. One, she communicated with voices wandering inside her head. Although they were all fragments of Jessie’s personality, most of them resembled people Jessie knew in her lifetime, including one modeled after her college roommate Ruth Neary and another after her therapist Nora Callighan.
And two, she spent some of her time reflecting on several of her life choices and her most important life events to understand them better. The intentions in this scenario felt therapeutically confrontational. Her most egregious one occurred in July 1963 at her family’s summer house in Dark Score Lake, Maine. Jessie asked her father to stay together outside the house while Jessie’s mother, older sister, and brother went away toward the nearest mountain for a better view. The occasion for the entire family was the total eclipse of the sun, one that Jessie and her father knew they would never have had the chance to experience again in their lifetimes. So, Jessie geared up to watch the eclipse with her father, excited but also nervous at the same time. But in the middle of that eclipse, parts of Jessie’s body felt some slight squeezes and her underpants even felt wet on the back. She reacted to this with uncertainty and concern, as did her father, to a point where they both agreed to keep this a secret. Her father’s moves, which she described as him ‘goosing’ her, undeniably scarred Jessie for life, and she was still at a loss over whether to forgive him or not.
Jessie recalled another memory where she played croquet at her brother Will’s birthday party when she stood in a position that exposed more of her rear end to Will and their peers than she bargained for. So, when Will got too close to her comfort zone, and in that exact area, no less, Jessie instinctively reacted by punching Will in the mouth. Jessie also remembered not being entirely on the best of terms with her mother. For instance, for all the love she had for her children and the best intentions she had, she also threw a vase at her in a fit of rage once upon a time. And during a heated argument that she had with her father, her mother also dismissed Jessie as a greasy wheel to be shined up by him. At first, Jessie was appalled by her mother having this much vitriol against her. But once she experienced that horrifying event with her father the following day, she realized that her mother was ultimately not wrong about some things.
While not being directly connected with her family, one of the other major events of Jessie’s life as she got older still dealt with the family trauma she harbored. She remembered engaging in a group meeting in college with her roommate, Ruth, and the members were all sharing stories about the misdeeds they suffered from. Unfortunately, Jessie instead got more unnerved, not finding it in herself to confess about the misdeeds she suffered from at Dark Shot Lake. On top of that, although Ruth tried doing what she could’ve to help her, Jessie dismissed her out of hesitation, and ultimately left her and college life behind forever.
At this rate, it might leave us asking the real million-dollar question: what’s restricting Jessie more? The handcuffs or her repressions?
As Jessie reflected on those experiences in her life, they collectively played a part in her reexamination of her current situations and how and where she ended up. Whether it pertained to her current dilemmas or not, it also helped her think long and hard about what she intended to do with her future, now that she was on the verge of finding any semblance of self-peace and resolution with what shaped her up into the Jessie she became.
The little scenarios in which Jessie devised methods to either get something she wanted or attempt to slip herself free of the handcuffs ranged from clever to suspenseful. One of her significant moments involved her using her hands to lift the shelf beside her to catch a glass of iced water that Gerald left there shortly before he died. Yet another moment dealt with Jessie finding an ad that she found in a mail pile scattered beside her on the desk – the same one as the glass of water, of course – and folding it until it became a makeshift straw for Jessie to drink water from. Her desperations, yearning, and clever tactics all heightened the stakes accompanying Jessie and her predicament.
Now, as for the characters, what do I think of them? Well, for starters, Jessie was truly fascinating as the main character. She started as just a regular wife with a husband and a decent lifestyle–or so she thought. Once Gerald made his way towards Jessie, the way she had acted out of instinct, even if that was what got her in this mess in the first place, told her that there may still have been something wrong that’s still gnawing at her. As frightened as she’s ever been in her life, both by what she experienced in the past and by what she was experiencing in the moment, there’s still a part of Jessie that always pressured her never to give up, no matter how much she wanted to do that. This made her more compelling and worth paying attention to, not just to see if she could make it out of the handcuffs.
The rest of the characters didn’t leave as much of an impact on the story. Gerald just came across as a sleazy, uptight lawyer who may not always have had Jessie’s best interests at heart. Jessie’s parents felt unorthodox as people; after all, her father, Will, made sexual advancements on her when they had the summer house to themselves. And the mother, Sally, didn’t demonstrate her parenting skills in the most appropriate of ways. However, she was not unjustified in being suspicious of Will over Jessie, considering what Jessie eventually dealt with shortly afterward.
Brandon Milheron, one of Gerald’s closest friends from the law firm, had a respectable demeanor to him. And unlike Gerald, he did have Jessie’s best interests at heart, especially when she was down on her luck.
And if we were to judge this character based on what the voice modeled after her inside Jessie’s head implied, Jessie’s college roommate, Ruth Neary, was a pretty sassy, no-nonsense lady. But at the same time, she always reacted underneath her brash realism as if she wanted to help in any way possible.
Normally, I wouldn’t have felt comfortable with the supporting characters not getting enough of a fleshed-out personality. But in the case of Gerald’s Game, I didn’t mind too much, and the amount of attention they got in the narrative felt just right. The reason for that was that this was Jessie’s story, anyway. It was all about her struggles and the inner demons she had to battle. And sometimes, that’s all you need to tell a good, compelling story.
One of the other more impressive parts of this story was the atmosphere. Granted, most of the story occurred in just this one bedroom. Nevertheless, Jessie’s dilemmas, her ways of assessing them, and the possibilities of what could’ve been out there for her added heaps of dread into the scene. And, it always kept you at the edge of your seat as Jessie tried to face any unwanted intrusion with dignity and also tried to find any clever tactic imaginable that would’ve helped her escape her summer house-turned-prison.
Frankly, however, the only thing I can’t quite seem to recollect was how Jessie met and married Gerald in the first place. How did these two meet? What did she see in him? Outside of his complexion and his somewhat irresistible grin? Either I’m missing something, or this is quite a glaring oversight on King‘s part. A good portion of the story pertained to the most traumatic experiences in Jessie’s life, which was super important, anyway. But I think some discussion on what made Gerald draw Jessie to him and how she sustained her marriage with him for over twenty years would’ve been welcomed. The closest thing I can think of correlating to that was that Jessie originally wanted to be a schoolteacher but had to give it up shortly after marrying Gerald.
I will not give away what happens at the ending, but let’s say it included a legitimately surreal connection with the hooded figure Jessie saw in the bedroom. It still played with the minds as to what Jessie witnessed and whether it was real or all just her imagination. I’ve heard plenty of people call the ending plenty of things because of this, from powerful, to meaningful, to deep. Personally, as much as I agree that it fits all those descriptions, another word I would throw in there is ‘ballsy.’ I found the ending pretty ballsy. As soon as you reach the ending if you decide to check the book out for yourself, I think you’ll see that all four of those words are easily applicable here.
All in all, this was a nerve-wracking experience, as can be expected from good old Stephen King. It unfurled in its expositions of the psyche, whether it be that of a woman or anyone stuck in a nearly hopeless situation, and it uncovered the inner workings and even the outer workings that went with this dreary situation in equal fluency. I was also in awe with how much of a roller coaster ride this story was, despite it having occurred within the confinements of just that one bedroom and that one series of memories that would’ve tested Jessie from all angles.
Once you dive into Jessie’s head and explore things from her point of view, it’ll make you want to live life to the fullest more. I would just advise you not to read this at night.
My Rating: A low A-
You know, one thing I never would’ve guessed about Gerald’s Game was that it shared a concise connection with another one of Stephen King’s books, Dolores Claiborne. Not only did the two books share the same publishing year of 1992, but from what little I understood about it, Dolores Claiborne also had a total eclipse of the sun as a primary plot point. It may also have dealt with one of the main female characters affected by it, just like Jessie. That goes to show you how some works of fiction written by the same author can share more in common than you’d think.