A Very Grim Fairy Tale:
Defending Stephen King’s
I have really been led up the garden path as regards Stephen King’s 1996 offering Rose Madder.
No; that’s not really quite true. In fact, I appear to have allowed myself to be led up the garden path – a little like Rosie herself, perhaps. So– big difference. You see, I’ve always heard that this is one of King’s worst books, if not the very worst. I’ve even gotten the impression that he apologized himself for it at one stage and now I have no idea of the context that was in. Nor do I want to, because I’m happy with it just as it is. I’m just annoyed that I let the opinions of others put me off for so long.
Despite being a King fan I have somehow managed to avoid this strange, strange novel for almost two decades. And you know what? It’s been my loss. For I close it thinking that I’ve not just read a terrific book but what is actually one of the author’s very best ones. And with this guy, that’s saying something.
It opens with Rose Daniels in 1985, living through the worst year of what has been a horrendous married existence. Her husband Norman has just completed his latest of assaults that began on their honeymoon by beating her so badly that she has just miscarried. The reader could be forgiven for thinking that this will be her wake-up call, but in fact she puts up with this for another full decade before the turning point, which is something as simple and as terrible as a single drop of blood on the bedspread.
This is King’s way of approaching the psychology of domestic violence, which of course he has examined before – but this time it is an all-out assault, if I can use that term. And it seems all the worse for much of it happening ‘off-stage’ and reaching us through the filter of this brutalized woman’s memory.
She does escape, though, and attempts to begin a new life as Rosie McClendon. Norman, however, is a cop as well as six feet, three inches of pure unadulterated psychopath, so it doesn’t look good for her.
This character’s inner dialogues are so unhinged that we can be glad that King gets all of his inner weirdness down on paper or God knows what he would be like:
“If I had a gun, he thought, something heavy and fast like a Mac-10, I could make the world a much better place in just twenty seconds. Much better… Norman wondered how fast that stupid little I-brake-for-cripples smirk would disappear from her face if he bit off a couple of her fingers instead of giving her the low-five she was obviously expecting. It was her left hand she was holding out and Norman wasn’t surprised to see there was no wedding ring on it, although the rugrat with the cherry shit all over his face looked just like her.
“You slut, he thought. I look at you and I see everything that’s wrong with this fucked-up world. What did you do? Get one of your dyke friends to knock you up with a turkey-baster?”
Rosie herself is as sweet as Norman is appalling and when she meets nice-guy Bill I was absolutely rooting for the two of them the whole way. That’s another thing, despite all the moaning from the cynics: Rose Madder is a truly charming love story. What those self-same cynics seem to have held most of their ire for, however, is the fantasy element; and it must be said that this part is extreme. I feel lucky that I was able to buy into it effortlessly.
Rosie has come across a painting – a haunted one, for want of a better expression – that lets her enter a world which features a temple where the perspectives seem to be all wrong. That’s somehow appropriate, as the only perspective that we the reader has on Rosie’s physical appearance for the first 130 or so pages is what she has been conditioned to see courtesy of Stormin’ Norman – and that wouldn’t boost any young lady’s confidence. It’s actually a little jolt when we finally see her through Bill’s eyes and realise how beautiful she is.
In any case, I love the fantasy element, even though you would be hard pressed to have it make any kind of real sense. Have these mythic archetypes come to life through some untapped power of Rosie’s? Or are they using her –and will they later go on to use someone else? What is the significance of the baby –or the fox?
King is leaving it up to us and I’m happy with that. In fact, I’m happy with nearly all of Rose Madder which, despite the grim story in the background is as beautiful and life-affirming as anything he has ever written.