Fantasy magazine

From Modern Mythcraft to Magical Surrealism

All the King’s Women: Annie Wilkes is the Mother Goddess of Cocaine

Annie Wilkes is standing at the foot of the bed, sledgehammer in her hand. From certain angles, the hammer looks like an axe. From certain angles, she reminds you of your mother. When she speaks, you hear the voice of your dealer. When she looks down at you, she’s every undeniable mouth-breather who’s ever trapped you in a conversation you could not escape. She’s the best kind of villain: the kind you know you’ve met before in real life. Stephen King is an author who has given us robot bears and sewer clowns, mystic talking turtles and tall men; his villains are immortal, and you can hear their voices coming up from the drain anytime your mind wants to spook itself. His female villains are few and far between, and Misery’s Annie Wilkes is the queen of that small court. In this 1987 winner of the inaugural Bram Stoker Award, King wrote Annie Wilkes almost too well; he breathed so much life into her, and Kathy Bates portrayed her to such perfection on screen, that Annie the Goddess can never die. She stands above the rest of his female characters by about the height of a severed foot, plus a thumb.

For the reader and for the protagonist, Annie’s villainy starts in her voice. While bestselling novelist Paul Sheldon is unconscious following a catastrophic motor vehicle accident, recovering from injuries in a haze of opiates that registered nurse Annie Wilkes has given him, he hears her identity herself as his number one fan, saying she’s read everything. The sound of her voice is distorted, drawn out like the droptuned voice of a rapper describing being whacked-out of their mind on lean: “fayunnnn . . . red everrrrrythinggg . . . umberrrrr whunnnn.” Paul can’t escape the sound her any more than he can escape the coming and going of his pain; these things become the inexorable constants of his universe.

Villainy continues in Annie’s body. The body of our antagonist is unruly, defying both the expectations of a female body and the inroads of injury common to the same, despite a male protagonist who should be able to take her. Confined to a bed in her house as she both cares for him and keeps him captive, Paul is totally at her mercy. He’s her victim, and King has to manipulate both their bodies to keep him that way. The body of Paul Sheldon is battered and diminished: he’s broken his pelvis, both legs, and one arm before the story begins. In response to that diminishment, the body of Annie Wilkes is amplified, enlarged, and frighteningly unsexed. King takes pains to make clear that although she’s a woman, she’s not fragile or weak or even penetrable in the way that a woman should be:

She was a big woman who, other than the large but unwelcoming swell of her bosom under the gray cardigan sweater she always wore, seemed to have no feminine curves at all—there was no defined roundness of hip or buttock or even calf below the endless succession of wool skirts she wore in the house (she retired to her unseen bedroom to put on jeans before doing her outside chores). Her body was big but not generous. There was a feeling about her of clots and roadblocks rather than welcoming orifices or even open spaces, areas of hiatus. Most of all she gave him a disturbing sense of solidity, as if she might not have any blood vessels or even internal organs; as if she might be only solid Annie Wilkes from side to side and top to bottom. [ . . . ] It seemed to him that if he made the first two fingers of his hand into a V and attempted to poke them up her nostrils, they might go less than an eighth of an inch before encountering a solid (if slightly yielding) obstruction; that even her gray cardigan and frumpy house skirts and faded outside-work jeans were part of that solid fibrous unchannelled body.”

King’s monstrous body is complete, and the unkillable villain is conceived in his imagination, but born in ours. We ask: Male, female, or something else? The answer is intentionally obscured. He writes Annie as mannish, strong, solid, and unbeatable. In inverse proportion, he makes Sheldon broken, helpless, and infantilized. He does not put forth the effort to make Paul effeminate, even as he unsexes Annie to make her more formidable, but Paul is certainly emasculated. After she’s amputated his foot, Annie mentions that she could have done worse: “You’re lucky I didn’t cut off your man-gland. I thought of it, you know.” The reader is thinking it, too. His manhood is as forbidden to him as if she had.

Immediately following the inciting accident, Paul stops breathing. He comes to understand later that her medication dosage practices are inexact, and she probably put him into a deep respiratory depression with too much codeine. However, in the moment, he understands only that she is forcing her way into his body. Unlike Annie’s solid, fibrous mass, Paul remains penetrable: “ . . . she had forced into him the way a man might force a part of himself into an unwilling woman. Her lips were clamped over his again, lips as dry and dead as strips of salted leather, and she raped him full of her air again.”

Framing CPR as rape is vivid and shocking, and it reverses the typical arrangement to the point where King says it flat out: Annie does to Paul what a man might do to a woman when he commits rape. This is to impress upon the reader how helpless he is to stop her, and to set us up for the reversal of gender norms and expectations of violence. By the end of the novel, Paul has recovered from his injuries and worked up some muscle tone by lifting the antique typewriter she gives him to write on when he’s unmonitored. When his strength returns to him, he has to reclaim his sexual supremacy by finding a way to penetrate the impenetrable body: he forces charred handfuls of manuscript pages down Annie’s throat.

“I’m gonna rape you, all right, Annie. I’m gonna rape you because all I can do is the worst I can do. So suck my book. Suck my book. Suck on it until you fucking CHOKE. He crumpled the wet paper with a convulsive closing jerk of his fist and slammed it into her mouth, driving the half-charred first bunch farther down.”

Many readers absorb Annie Wilkes and Misery as a text as an extended metaphor for addiction. King himself characterizes it that way in 2000’s memoir and craft book, On Writing. Thirteen years after putting Annie Wilkes on the page, King wrote that part of his mind recognized the depth of his addiction and “began to scream for help in the only way it knew how, through my fiction and through my monsters,” referencing Misery in particular as an example of a character held hostage and tortured as an expression of his own struggles with substance abuse. In a 2014 interview with Rolling Stone, King said plainly that Annie Wilkes is cocaine.

This is one reading of Misery, and far be it for me to argue with King himself. However, Paul Sheldon is literally and explicitly addicted to Novril on the page in the book; a fictional codeine-derived pain medication that Annie has stockpiled in a closet and doses him with for months on end. By the conclusion of the novel, Sheldon is in recovery not only from his injuries, but from his addiction to pain pills. He’s drunk all the time, getting by on “heavy duty aspirin” and jonesing for the “good dope” that Annie had fed him, going so far as to almost wish he were back in captivity if it meant the good drugs would be in his veins once more.

Misery is about drug addiction, but that’s not the only animating force metaphor or motif of fable in the text. Annie Wilkes is cocaine, but that’s not all she is. She’s also a dark mother, a terrible mother. The dark side of motherhood has been described and noted, by folklorists and psychologists who analyze literature, as an inversion of the caring, wholesome figure that motherhood is prescribed to be. As simple as the wicked queen in Snow White, the bad mother appears in stories as a figure of fright and an obstacle almost too terrible to contemplate. Paul relates to Annie in simple and infantile ways: she feeds him while he lies prone in bed. She bathes him and shaves him. She brings him a urinal and a bedpan to relieve himself. Paul is effectively her kidnapped baby, and part of the affection and control she shows him is the mother-love shown between a maternal figure and child. This is also a connection of incest; Annie’s love is impure, and the feeling Paul returns to her is even more warped in return.

“Her fingers were in his mouth suddenly, shockingly intimate, dirtily welcome. He sucked the capsules from between them and swallowed even before he could fumble the spilling glass of water to his mouth. ‘Just like a baby,’ she said . . . ”

This feeling increases in power and terror as Annie becomes intertwined with the image of the H. Rider Haggard-inspired bee-goddess Paul creates in the novel that he writes at her murderous insistence. After she has amputated both his foot and his thumb, Paul’s thoughts become less coherent, richer in both worship and horror, calling her once and only once “Annie the mom” amidst a stream of consciousness vomiting of his most paranoid and least rational thoughts.

“Annie was great Annie was good let us thank her for our food including that we don’t have to eat girls just wanna have fun but something wicked this way comes please don’t make me eat my thumb Annie the mom Annie the goddess when Annie’s around you better stay honest she knows when you’ve been sleeping she knows when you’re awake she knows if you’ve been bad or good so be good for goddess’ sake you better not cry you better not pout but most of all you better not scream don’t scream don’t scream don’t scream don’t”

Finally, Annie Wilkes’ monsterhood exists primarily in the nature of her mind. Her profound mental illness is front and center throughout the book, culminating in Paul’s discovery of her scrapbook that details the dozens of murders committed while working as a nurse. Annie kills first among the terminal wards, choosing the oldest and sickest victims. When she becomes a neonatal nurse and the death toll occurs among children, she is caught, prosecuted, and released.

Paul observes the physical evidence of her mental illness, outside of these killings and her assaults on his body, and connects them to research he conducted as a writer to learn about mental health in another century:

“There was a queer interval of silence, and Paul was frightened by what he saw on her face, because what he saw was nothing; the black nothing of a crevasse folded into an alpine meadow, a blackness where no flowers grew and into which the drop might be long. It was the face of a woman who has come momentarily untethered from all of the vital positions and landmarks of her life, a woman who has forgotten not only the memory she was in the process of recounting but memory itself. He had once toured a mental asylum—this was years ago, when he had been researching Misery, the first of the four books which had been his main source of income over the last eight years—and he had seen this look . . . or, more precisely, this unlook. The word which defined it was catatonia . . . ”

Annie progresses from these periods of catatonia to abject depression, evidencing self-injury and the inability to bathe or care for herself. From there, she shows Paul deep paranoia about everything ranging to him wandering through her house to the government taking action against her. Finally, she shows out and out psychopathy, wielding axe and lawnmower and chainsaw against him and the cops who come to free him, killing without remorse, and burying bodies in a frenzy of bloodthirst and sweaty farm work.

Among all the King’s women, Annie Wilkes is uniquely powerful. His bad mothers: Carrie’s mother Margaret White, IT’s Sonia Kapsbrak, and The Stand’s Nadine Cross are simple vessels for a larger form of villainy, and are all killed without fanfare. Annie isn’t just cocaine. She isn’t just a bad mother. Annie Wilkes is queen and goddess not just of Paul Sheldon’s limited world, but of all his villains across four decades of weaving nightmares out of words. Killing her seems impossible; Paul tries to stab her, to bash her brains in, to stuff her with flaming pages, and he still warns the state troopers who come to his rescue that she can’t possibly be dead. She rises in his nightmares and waking fantasies long after he has escaped her house of horrors.

“Annie Wilkes was in her grave. But like Misery Chastain, she rested there uneasily. In his dreams and waking fantasies, he dug her up again and again. You couldn’t kill the goddess.”

Like a god who made a rock too heavy for himself to lift, Stephen King struggles with the powerful women he creates. He nerfs them and unsexes them; he places world-rending powers in the hands of a teenage girl, but he makes sure we’re all looking up her skirt when she uses it. He struggles with fat women, and typically renders them powerless, disgusting, and pitiable. Annie Wilkes is fat and sexless, but still the object of rape for control. Annie Wilkes is not a supernatural villain, but still a goddess who rises from the grave to plague mankind. Annie Wilkes is a receptacle for misogyny and Freudian resentment, for the struggles of addiction as well as the cringe and excess of fandom. King is god, but she is the goddess. She is standing at the foot of the bed, holding the axe. The hammer. The typewriter. The dope. The truth about all the King’s women.

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Meg Elison

Meg Elison is a science fiction author and feminist essayist. Her debut, The Book of the Unnamed Midwife, won the 2014 Philip K. Dick award. She is a Hugo, Nebula, Sturgeon, and Otherwise awards finalist. In 2020, she published her first collection, Big Girl, with PM Press, containing the Locus Award-winning novelette, “The Pill.” Elison’s first young adult novel, Find Layla, was published in 2020 by Skyscape. Her thriller, Number One Fan, will be released by Mira Books in 2022. Meg has been published in McSweeney’s, Fantasy & Science Fiction, Fangoria, Uncanny, Lightspeed, Nightmare, and many other places. Elison is a high school dropout and a graduate of UC Berkeley. You can find her online at megelison.com and on Twitter @megelison.