During the Nineties, there was a phase Stephen King went through. It might have been a convergence of various factors, it could have just been that certain dangerous habits were instead replaced by a certain amount of mysticism and an interest in telling stories about abused women after he'd essentially put his wife through the emotional wringer with said dangerous habits. Either way, it resulted in a series of loosely-connected novels involving abusive and just asshole husbands known colloquially as "The Abused Wife Trilogy". The first two of these books were more closely connected, with Gerald's Game having a strange empathic link with Dolores Claiborne. The third, Rose Madder, is more closely linked in theme than in any other way, and doesn't appear to have anything to do with the solar eclipse. At best, it's a Lifetime movie someone devised whilst on hallucinogens,
Rose Madder is also Stephen King's weakest book, barring maybe The Tommyknockers.
Certainly one of the weakest I've ever read. This may be under bias, as I had the damn thing for well over nine years without reading it (I picked it up with a few others, including Christine, the fate of which is still left merely to my imagination. I think I gave it away)
Now, this is not to say it's a bad book. King can still tell a good story even on a bad day. Needful Things proved that just last week. But it's weak. Compared to the literary canon of King, including books that made me think more about the world I lived in and the interconnectedness of everything in the universe (Yes, The Dark Tower is what first got me interested in Taoism. Shut up.), made me afraid of bathrooms for the duration of my reading (It), and swear off reading any of his short stories ever again (Night Shift, and it didn't last, because Skeleton Crew and Nightmares and Dreamscapes are full of awesome shorts), Rose Madder comes up surprisingly short. If this is your introduction to King, it might be worth a read. If it's something you get out of the library on a whim, sure. Go ahead. If you want my copy of the book, and have something to trade, I might consider it, though I'd feel like you were being robbed. But honestly? Borrow this. Please don't buy it. It's a good book, but there are better out there.
More, as always, below.
- Rose Madder
Rose Daniels is a woman in trouble. The prologue of Rose Madder begins with her getting beaten into a miscarriage by her husband Norman, a brute who took offense to the romance novel she was reading and the thought of IA breathing down her neck. She later gets her lungs punctured by broken ribs when Norman decides later that year he's had a bad day at work. The story then jumps forward to years later when Rose, now a weak-willed, weak-in-the-kidneys home mouse, is cleaning up the house. It is then that she notices a single spot of blood on the pillowcase. After staring at that single spot for a few moments, she suddenly has a realization, something that unlocks her head, and the walls slowly come tumbling down.
Within moments, she steals her abusive husband's bank card and heads to the bus station with nothing more than the clothes on her back. From there, she loses herself in a Midwestern city where she finds a shelter, friends, and several new jobs. She also discovers a painting in a pawnshop when she goes to pawn her ring, a painting with no frame, a not particularly good-looking painting with the words "Rose Madder" written on the back.
And then things get weird.
While Norman, the serial-killing monster of a homicide detective (he kills at least two women even before he goes nuts) spirals into an insane rage while trying to find his wife, Rose discovers that the painting contains another world, a more dangerous, stranger world. A world where a strange and terrifying woman named Rose Madder wants her to do a favor for her, to steal something very precious from the bull-god Erinyes, and she promises, above all else, to repay...
Rose Daniels is about to have a head-on collision with some very dark forces. One of them is Norman. One of them lives in her painting. And all of it has to do with what Rose Madder wants, and what she's willing to do to achieve her strange ends...but Rose Daniels will become something even more dangerous, just to try to survive.
I'd like to talk to you all for a moment about monsters. Immediately, I'm sure images of horrifying creatures came to mind, and that's quite all right. But monsters don't have to be supernatural. There doesn't need to be any kind of supernatural cause behind monsters. Sometimes these monsters are people. Sometimes these monsters can be so ordinary, so charming that you can believe them. Sometimes they're just beasts, horrid creatures. But it's that human element-- the idea that monsters can be human-- that makes some of the scariest stories truly scary. Sometimes there doesn't need to be a supernatural element. Misery, for example, was about a perfectly human woman torturing the bejesus out of a writer while making ridiculous demands of him. There were the barest glimpses and speculations as to what could be going on in the story when Annie Wilkes infamously rises up after a savage beating*, and those bare glimpses actually worked in the book's favor.
Rose Madder, by way of contrast, contains a completely unnecessary leap into mysticism that it didn't really need. The villain of the book, Norman Daniels, is enough of a villain for a horror novel, or even for a domestic drama. He's a brute, a beast, and a serial killer. There doesn't really need to be more added to that, nor does there need to be a plot about a haunted painting. If the painting was in some way used to escape Norman, that would be one thing. Or if the two plotlines really had much to do with each other, period. But when the entire painting section of the plot can be lifted out of the narrative safely with no real harm to anything going on, While it adds something to the plot, it adds an entirely superfluous element and kind of robs the main character of a little agency while at the same time adding more cosmic significance. And I'm not sure it's exactly a fair trade.
Granted, Rose Madder blows most domestic-horror fantasy novels out of the water**, and deserves credit for not using the "possessed husband" excuse even once. That alone elevates it against most other horror stories featuring domestic abuse. But when dealing with a monster like Norman Daniels, it makes it hard to reconcile the supernatural elements, when the book could be fine on its own. When your main villain for most of the book repeatedly stabs the heroine with a #2 pencil, bites people so hard he leaves scars, and repeatedly stabs a woman before cutting her leg and a breast off, he doesn't need a supernatural reason to speak to a bull mask like it's a separate entity and hear the voices of his dead parents. That's just psychopathic behavior. And King spends so much time building Norman up as some kind of monster that he doesn't really need the supernatural elements to make Norman worse.
That said, the supernatural elements could make up their own book, one equally as fascinating. The haunted painting that grows in size until it becomes a door is an interesting concept, as are the strange goings-on around the painting. The world Stephen King explores in Rose Madder's more fantastical parts is a vivid, verdant, vibrant, and dangerous world for all of the one hill and temple we see of it. It could almost be a short story about a fairy tale, or a cautionary fable about deals with elder gods and goddesses. The terrifying Rose Madder certainly applies, being part-statue or a mottled mess when we finally do see her, and her true form...
Well, that's best left to those who read the book. And Stephen King fans, because they know what the elder gods in King stories always are. They've known since the 1980s.
And Rosie is actually a pretty well thought out character. Her transition from mousy housewife to naive waif to pawn of Rose Madder, and finally to her own dangerous woman is actually entirely believable. Having been in situations with volatile people thankfully far removed from Norman Daniels but still slightly dangerous, I completely understand Rose's character arc, and Stephen King nails the beats pretty well. I have a feeling he spent a lot of time working through Rosie's head, and it actually feels pretty real. In fact, the only character that feels unbelievable, aside from the Temple of the Bull/painting sections is Norman. Because I while I know people can be that crazy-- lord knows Edmund Kemper was that nuts and then some-- I have a hard time processing all of that. It just seems too nuts.
But overall, the book suffers from too many weaknesses for me to suggest people read it. There are two very strong stories here, each fighting it out for control and page time. And neither one actually wins, leaving the book kind of noncommittal. While near the end, the two sides attempt to reconcile, and the climax of the book requires both to work in concert, overall, there just wasn't the feeling that this was a complete book. It felt like a book with a short-story coda woven in like a bacon mesh through a birthday cake, and the last thing a bacon mesh needs is to be stuffed into a...
Okay, that one got away from me. Much like the plot of Rose Madder got away from Stephen King.
In the end, Rose Madder is a curiosity, but not one that's really advisable to read. When you have a wealth of work by Big Steve King to get through, even things like Christine, admittedly not one of the better works of fiction ever written, start to shimmer. While it's an interesting insight into the forces driving us toward and away from each other, and what it takes for a person to finally be free of a monster, it just isn't worth the journey.
And always remember, Dear Readers:
The Eyes of the Dragon
From A Buick 8 concludes King Month
The Orange Eats Creeps by Grace Krilanovich
*Shit, did I spoil this for anyone? It's, like, the most well-known scene in a movie that has sadly become the codifier for American torture flicks. Wait, it's after the jump, I'm good.
**Yeah, that's actually a thing