Creeps and chills! Horror upon horror! By now, surely, King fans know what to expect. But even the most stalwart may recoil from Gerald's Game.
Consider...we begin with Jessie Burlingame handcuffed to a bed in a back-country Maine vacation house, about to submit to the kinky sex desired by Gerald, her loathsome attorney husband. Jessie changes her mind; Gerald won't release her; she kicks him you-know-where; he—gulp—drops dead of a heart attack. We're now on page 20. Three hundred-plus pages later we learn if, when, how and after what additional trials (such as watching a stray dog nosh on various bits of Gerald) Jessie frees herself from the bed.
Is there any relief from this grim account of Jessie's dehydrating, flesh-rending struggle with the cuffs? There is. But it comes from sharing her emerging memories of a sexual molestation by her father when she was 10. (Many readers will recall a similar episode in Nabokov's Lolita. King's version is far less stylish, but he offers—does he ever!—far more detail.)
Through all this, is Jessie truly alone in that creepy house? Maybe. Perhaps she only imagines a ghastly figure watching her. This apparition is explained in the concluding chapters, making what has gone before seem like a day at the playground.
Nobody tells creepy tales better than King. But Gerald's Game must succeed also as a character study, and its probings of Jessie Burlingame's tormented psyche don't measure up. Her thoughts and emotions are too often King's, too flip, too windy: "Trying to fix what she had done to herself with a Band-Aid would be like trying to prop up the Leaning Tower of Pisa with a Toyota bumper-jack." We pity poor Jessie, but it's hard to care for her.
So, alas, Gerald's Game is not first-rate Stephen King. Probably won't sell more than a few million copies. (Viking, $23.50)