I’ve read just about every Stephen King book, and I think the only exception might be Gerald’s Game. I have it — in hardcover even — but something about it has always put me off. It’s in the mundaneness of the horror that you get from the blurb on the back cover, I think: a husband and wife go to a remote cabin, handcuffs are involved, and then he keels over dead, leaving her chained to a bed to slowly starve or die of thirst. At face value it seems less King and more one of those lurid sex thriller sort of novels that seemed to only exist in library discard piles, beat up beyond their years and with covers prominently featuring some combination of lipstick and garters.
I gave Gerald’s Game a chance on Netflix mostly because the combination of King’s built up good will and a header image of Carla Gugino in a nightie will earn anything a chance. And now I need to read the novel, because the movie is incredible.
What follows after the initial set-up is nothing short of an acting clinic by Gugino, playing both herself chained to the bed and the angel on her shoulder hallucination. The movie is almost entirely composed of dialogues, between her and herself, between her and the conjured ghost of Gerald. They snipe and debate, cajoling her into piecing together tiny victories even as they hound her about her past, about her relationship with Gerald, about the nature of fear.
And as the time goes by, and her desperation swells as it sinks home that no one is going to come, the tension ratchets tighter and tighter, step by step. There is an intensity to the film born of the claustrophobia that arises from the tightly shot confines of a single room. The viewer has the entire universe of the film memorized, every object and bit of debris, every fold of the sheet. We are constrained by her perspective, so that other than the compromises of pointing the camera at her so we can see her face, we are as blind as she is. We know the exact bit of Gerald’s body we can see from her perspective, how much of the hallway can be glimpsed, where the shadows fall darkest in the corners in the dead of night.
It reminds me in some sense of the original Paranormal Activity, in the way that film also filled the mundane with absolute dread. Because when you cannot move, when you are completely helpless to investigate, then every creak and shift of the house could be the end of the world. Every flitting shadow at the windows could be murder come to roost. “Maybe this is how death always comes to people who die alone” one of her hallucinations intones. It is fear in a handful of dust.
And more, there’s a surprising depth to the story, which is not content to be straightforward thriller, whether supernatural or not. It uses the literal story of being chained to tell the metaphorical story of the deeper chains that bind us, the emotional chains that wrap tight around our soul hidden deep where no one else can see.
Those chains are carved of our scars, which aren’t just injuries that never heal, but eternal reminders of horror that happened. Whenever my eyes flicker over my scar, the trauma is there again. For my entire life, I will never look at my limb and not be there again in the heart of that horror, playing over and over again like an old time kinetoscope. Emotional scars are not where something hasn’t healed, so much as where a memory of horror has been frozen in amber. The secret of trauma is that there is only one trauma. And so whenever we confront horror again, we relive the old horrors in parallel. Every pain, every startling jolt, every surge of fear, and the same scenes play out in our mind’s eye.
This is a story that understands that part of horror. And for all that horror, it is fundamentally a story of deeply earnest hope and optimism. Because the scars might never fade, but maybe there is hope that they won’t always be chains.
Gerald’s Game is currently available on Netflix.
Dr. Steven Lloyd Wilson is a hopeless romantic and the last scion of Norse warriors and the forbidden elder gods. His novel, ramblings, and assorted fictions coalesce at www.burningviolin.com. You can email him here.