"Gerald’s Game" is one of my favourite Stephen King novels. To summarise the plot, Jessie is left handcuffed to a bed after her husband dies during some kinky bondage sex. What’s more, the bed is in a remote cabin far removed from civilisation, a peaceful retreat that now leaves Jessie with little chance of rescue. Pretty much the rest of the novel is her trying to save herself. It’s a simple idea wonderfully executed, and it even manages to include a crossover with "Dolores Claiborne", packing a lot into its 400 pages or so (not many, compared to King’s usual these days). And that’s pretty much my review.
Now let me go all armchair Freudian to explain why I like "Gerald’s Game" so much. “Everybody wants to psychoanalyse horror” Stephen King once complained but it’s kinda hard not to, especially with a novel like this one. You may respond to the following with TL,DR and that’s fair enough – it comes in at around 2500 words after all and, unlike Jessie, you’re free to go. But if you want to know why I think "Gerald’s Game" is one of King’s best, keep reading…
(BEWARE: SPOILERS FOLLOW)
Let’s start with the setting.
Suburban people visiting the country is popular in the horror genre. According to Douglas Winter, the country is “unshadowed by the daily crime and claustrophobic fears of urban areas”, suggesting a safe haven and, for Jessie and Gerald, a space for privacy. Yet somewhat paradoxically, urban areas also symbolise civilisation and order, so to be removed from it also suggests a lawlessness susceptible to chaos - which is probably why the horror genre loves it. The move from city to country is similar to that from village to forest in old fairy tales, a move to a darker, poorer, more primitive place, peopled with monsters.
So, we’re in the country, and we’re in a cabin. Not your most typical haunted house setting, perhaps, not your traditional gothic mansion or crumbling ruin, but things have changed a lot in horror over the years. In fact, its evolution is crucial if it’s to remain an effective genre. Just as the castles of the Romantic Gothic were modified by the Victorians to become houses, contemporary horror literature has adapted to make what King calls “the Bad Place” any domestic space in which the family and its fear can be contained. "The Shining" uses a hotel, "Cujo" a car, and "Gerald’s Game" a cabin in the woods. In fact, a single room in a cabin in the woods.
Clive Barker claims that whether it be “a neighbourhood, an old dark house, or your own body, horror thrives on environments” referring to boundaries as “those carefully contrived markers that reassure us that our bodies or minds are safe”. But instead of providing a protective fortification, King often uses this domestic space as a prison enclosure: the hotel is snowed in, or the car is besieged by a rabid dog, while in "Gerald’s Game" Jessie is quite literally held in bondage, handcuffed to a bed. As King remarks, “the good horror story about the Bad Place whispers that we are not locking the world out; we are locking ourselves in”.
In "Gerald’s Game", and for almost the entire novel, Jessie’s world is reduced to not only a single cabin or even a single room in that cabin, but the bed. Handcuffed to this bed, she is trapped in a sexual role, her physical state reflecting her psychological condition. Jessie is trapped with only her thoughts to keep her company (well, she has another visitor, we’ll get to him) and her forced introspection leads to a resurfacing of repressed sexual memories. As a result, Jessie recognises that, as both a wife and as a daughter, her role has always been sexual.
King knows sex and death are “psychological pressure points” and uses the bedroom to address these in "Gerald’s Game". The bed is a place for sex, of course (“a momentary extinction” according to Freud, sometimes known as la petite mort or ‘the little death’) but other connotations are also appropriate. Sleeping is something Jessie has done metaphorically for too long, and as an absence of consciousness it can be likened to death in the same way as that “momentary extinction”. There is a real risk that the bed will become Jessie’s coffin, quite literally her deathbed.
Victor Sage notes that “the horror tradition draws strongly upon the metaphor of the isolated house” and considering Jessie’s view of the cabin as a deathly skull (“the door its mouth, the windows are its eyes, the shadows of the trees are its hair”) it seems there is certainly some symbolism here, but whatever the cabin’s significance in "Gerald’s Game", the ghosts here are Jessie’s. As Emily Dickinson so eloquently puts it:
One need not be a chamber to be haunted,
One need not be a house;
The brain has corridors surpassing
King tends to use isolated locations of imprisonment to externalise the repression of those within, the haunted house overshadowed by the haunted individual. Psychoanalysis may be “the most popular avenue for explaining horror” according to Noël Carroll but not only does the contemporary horror make Freudian rhetoric a means by which to discuss its narrative, it incorporates it, making Freudian observations a part of the narrative subject matter. King may be dismissive of what he calls “Freudian huggermugger” but much of his work seems to welcome it, even exploit it. In "Gerald’s Game", when Jessie remarks that “people who underwent serious physical and mental trauma often blocked out the memories of what had happened”, she’s rephrasing Freudian terms for repression. Her dreams (there’s that bed significance again) reveal the troubling truths of her unconscious. "Gerald’s Game" is not only a horror story about being physically entrapped, it’s a psychological horror story of repressed childhood trauma. Her inability to move emphasises the significance of her psyche and she can only escape once “everything that was intended to remain secret, hidden away…has come into the open” (as Freud would put it).
At first Jessie’s memories are little more than bad, demeaning, dreams that follow every sexual use of the handcuffs. According to William Day, “the dynamics of sadomasochism [are] the result of Oedipal anxieties” and Jessie’s moments of powerlessness in sexual bondage remind her, unconsciously, of similar moments of childhood sexual powerlessness. It’s the submissive sexual posture of this that leads to her bad dreams, and when she begins to feel that these dreams have a greater significance, that they are recollective, she smothers the thought. Just as a veil of suburban normality often conceals a residual evil in King’s small towns, so his characters are similarly multi-layered - Jessie has constructed a veil of her own to hide the memories of a incestuous father. “And you’re still spooked all these years later?” he says. “How absolutely Freudian”.
James Twitchell maintains that in horror fiction, particularly the gothic, “the ultimate violation, death, is always present, but sexual violation lurks in the shadows and plays a much more important part”. "Gerald’s Game" adheres to this precisely, threatening Jessie with death throughout but always with sexual menace in the foreground. Her role as ‘game’, be it sport or food, is established by the title, and she passes from Daddy to Gerald to Joubert (or from Gerald to Daddy to Joubert regarding the narrative structure). “It’s that stuff in his balls that’s making him crazy” Jessie says, “it makes them all crazy”. She even dreams of a hybrid figure that combines the three men, something Freud would call “a process of condensation”, and this monster ejaculates maggots onto Jessie. It’s a disgusting but appropriately symbolic image that unites the natural with the unnatural and sex with death.
Sex as monstrous is the pervading evil in "Gerald’s Game", first depicted as such via Gerald. His penis is emphasised no less than five times in four pages, his sexual role very clear, and when Jessie protests against sex, he becomes all the more aroused. Chronologically, though, Jessie’s father is the first monster of the text. Father-daughter incest is the most prevalent form and it’s worth noting that the Freudian importance of the Oedipal dynamic is something that applies to the female sex as well. Jessie is daddy’s little girl (“You behave as if she were your girlfriend instead of your daughter” Jessie’s mother accuses him) and the satisfaction Jessie feels at her mother’s defeat in an argument together with her mother’s jealous hatred suggests something of an Oedipal conflict. Oedipal desires are a natural phase of development (apparently), repressed and overcome, but if physically actualised the result is traumatic. The right answer to her father’s question - do you love me? - becomes the wrong one after a carefully planned abuse of power. Jessie is her father’s “sweet little Punkin”, the use of food preparing us for her role in sating his hunger, and she likens their relationship at one point to “ice cream and gravy”, an unusual combination of food that emphasises the unnaturalness of her father’s sexual appetite. His love is acceptable, as is his sexual role in the family, but the two together aimed at Jessie make for something unpalatable.
In the horror genre desires for food, power, or sex are often combined into one unhealthy appetite, something King notes in Danse Macabre, while Freud claims that the early stages of sexual development do not differentiate between sexual activity and the ingestion of food (he also notes that primitive belief links eating with power, the consumer bestowed with the qualities possessed by that which is devoured). Even a kiss employs the entrance to the digestive tract rather than any sexual apparatus, as many studies of vampire fiction have highlighted. And come on, consider fairy tales – there’s often a sexual element to the more predatory stories, the devouring of flesh linked to the erotic pleasures sought from it. But where am I going with all of this? Well, as a development of that food imagery regarding the father-daughter incest I just mentioned, we also have Raymond Joubert.
Incest and cannibalism are pretty much universal horrors and Joubert embodies both. He, too, has suffered incestuous abuse - at the hands of his father and his step-father – becoming, it is suggested, a cannibalistic necrophiliac as a result. Linked by a shared history of child abuse, Joubert is a shadow of Jessie, a shadow made up of leftovers from her nightmare, and represents the monstrosity Jessie risks becoming should her past defeat her. He is less the monster under the bed and more the one parallel to it, standing opposite her in the darkness. Watching. Waiting.
Yet despite his physical presence in the room, Joubert is not the monster of this story (at least, not the main one). Instead we have a monstrous patriarchal figure, a leftover from the gothic tradition. King uses the monstrous father most memorably in "The Shining", perhaps, but we also have one as villain in "Gerald’s Game", this time pursuing a virginal daughter through the corridors of her adult mind. Joubert may be the closer, more physical, danger but Jessie fears her father, so much so she even mistakes Joubert for him, thinking he has come back from the dead. It is a telling moment that reveals the true monster of the text. “Who did this to you?” she is later asked, and though Gerald is the man who put the cuffs on her and Joubert is a threat all of his own, Jessie answers, “My father”. It is both inaccurate and entirely correct.
It’s a truth that has taken Jessie a long time to admit. In this respect, the solar eclipse King uses for the moment of Jessie’s sexual abuse is loaded with metaphor. It’s a striking symbol for the idea of veiling things, hiding a truth (often referred to as the light, right?) and it provides the darkness so loved by the horror genre because it hides things or allows bad things to happen unseen. Also, in being an eclipse, it’s a strange time when the natural world seems unnatural or wrong, just like the incestuous behaviour of Jessie’s father. “It was a crazy day” Jessie says, “even the sun was going to do something crazy” and her comment about staring at the sun, “You can burn your retinas and not even know you’ve done it until later”, becomes a metaphor for the long-reaching effects of the trauma she experiences.
What happened during the eclipse is something Jessie cannot reveal concisely or coherently because, as Steven Bruhm puts it, with survivors of childhood sexual abuse “trauma collapses the ability to render experience in a narrative”. Instead, Jessie’s recollections are fragmented: to face the memory directly would be like staring unprotected at the sun. Jessie’s self is fragmented too. Multiple voices that began after “the dark day” represent different aspects of her psyche (“we’re all you” one of the voices tells her) and each eclipses the other in the narration. Jessie’s father has made her body, her mind, a Bad Place in which multiple fragments of herself reside. She’s trapped in the present because she is trapped in her past. The unconscious is, according to Freud, “timeless”, and the bedside clock in Jessie’s cabin flashes “as if time had stopped forever at midnight”, 00.00, that most timeless of times. A borderland between night and day, old and new.
James Twitchell says the gothic “is not sex and violence” but rather “repressed sex and therefore violence” but with modern horror we often see a reversal in which violence occurs due to a lack of repression, a willingness to ignore social prohibitions. When sexual urges are given sustenance, horror and violence ensues. Taken at its most simplistic we get promiscuous teenagers slashed up in bad films, but with "Gerald’s Game" King shows us that the issue can be far more complex. If Jessie is to repair herself she has to face her memories. Just as the moon only hides the sun briefly during a solar eclipse, so Jessie can only temporarily hide her trauma and eventually she manages to release herself from bondage using what she holds inside to break free - her blood frees her physical self while mastering her memories frees her mind. For Jessie, defeating her past is achieved by better loving herself and re-evaluating the familial love allocated to her father. Only then can she break free. Jessie is not rescued, she saves herself from death-like stasis, as represented by the car she flees to from the cabin. She may never escape the “big black haunted house” of her memory but at the end of "Gerald’s Game" she’s at least able to move on. And there’s victory in that.
Many books were useful in the writing of this analysis. Those quoted directly have been asterisked.
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* Twitchell, James B. (1987). Forbidden Partners: The Incest Taboo in Modern Culture. New York: Columbia University Press.
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* Winter, Douglas E. (1984). Stephen King: The Art of Darkness. New York and Scarborough: New American Library.
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Ray Cluley’s short stories have been published in various magazines and anthologies and he won the British Fantasy Award for Best Short Story with "Shark! Shark!" in 2013. His more recent work includes "Water For Drowning", from This Is Horror, "Within the Wind, Beneath the Snow", from Spectral Press, and "Bone Dry (aka Curse of the Zombie)" from Hersham Horror. His collection "Probably Monsters" is available now from ChiZine. For more information, he blogs occasionally at www.probablymonsters.wordpress.com