Wednesday, May 16, 2018

You're Only Made of Moonlight: "Gerald's Game" Revisited, Part 2

Welcome back for the second part -- third, if'n you count this one -- of our revisit of Gerald's Game.  Today we're going to focus on the space cowboy himself, Raymond Andrew Joubert.

Joubert is a somewhat controversial figure among King fans, thanks to the question of whether King does right by his own concept for the character.  He is initially presented as a figure who might not exist at all: a figment of Jessie's taxed and overactive imagination, quite possibly.  And even once Jessie accepts that he IS real, she goes through rather an ordeal trying to reconcile that he is with the possibility of what he is.  The reader, obviously, goes along with her on that journey, and then along comes Stephen King at the end to upset everyone's apple cart.
So say some, at least.
We'll get to my feelings on the subject in due course, but let's first take an abbreviated stroll through the ways in which King depicts this monstrous figure during the bulk of the novel.
And where is there to begin except at the beginning?
A few mild potential hints notwithstanding, the first place in the novel where Joubert appears is during Chapter 12, where the former Prince -- the dog who has been dining on Gerald's corpse -- becomes alarmed.  Jessie is making occasional moans and other noises, "but her sounds were not the source of the stray's jitters; they were not what had caused it to sit up when it had been on the verge of drifting placidly off to sleep, and not the reason why its good ear was now cocked alertly forward and its muzzle had wrinkled back far enough to show the tips of its teeth.  It was something else . . . something not right . . . something which was possibly dangerous."  A bit later: "[S]ome strange and unidentifiable scent came to it.  There was danger in that scent . . . almost certainly danger."

Let's cast ourselves back once again to the summer of 1992.  And while we're here, let's consult the bibliography page that appeared in Gerald's Game:

In 1992, this was what one was referring to when one said "the works of Stephen King."  Yeah, sure, uncollected stories and movies and whatnot could be added to that definition.  But for most people -- most Constant Readers -- this was King's body of work.

Looking at that page, one thing leaps out at me above all else: there is very little here that isn't supernatural or paranormal or science-fictional in essence.  There's some, but not much:

  • Looking at the novels, you've got to get all the way to Misery to find an example of the non-supernatural, and it's the only one.  
  • Two of the Richard Bachman books count, but King fans were well-trained by 1992 to think of those as being kind of their own thing altogether; and even if you count two, that leaves three that you can't count.  
  • Three of the component novellas in Different Seasons count as non-supernatural, but that book has "different" in its very title; a small handful of short stories in the other collections fit the bill, and there's a nonfiction book, but otherwise...?

Otherwise, you're talking about the works a man who has trained his readers to be on the lookout for the supernatural and the extra-ordinary; who trained them, in fact, to expect the supernatural more often by far than not.

With this in mind, I wonder what the average Constant Reader would have thought when they reached Chapter 12 of Gerald's Game.  I can't remember what I myself thought back then on that long-ago first read, but I tend to assume that I thought some sort of monster was going to make its way into the story.  At the very least, it had to be something more dangerous than a starving dog, and how many things can that possibly be that would not more or less bring the novel to an immediate end?  A bear might have come to mind; a wolf, or a big cat of some sort would also seem like a possibility.  But a bear would either just walk straight over to Jessie and eat the head off her neck like Jessie were made of gingerbread, or it would eat Gerald and be essentially no different than what happened with the former Prince.  Same goes for any kind of natural predator, really.

So us folks in 1992 holding this hardback in their hands, did we mostly think that some sort of monster had to show up?  To me, it seems likely.

And in a sense, that's exactly what does happen; but not in the way King had trained us to expect over the course of his career to that date.

The dustjacket feints in that direction:

The phrasing in this summary is interesting, because it implies both that Jessie "is not alone" but also that it's merely her fears that are keeping her company.  It implies that the supernatural is very much on the table via the refrain of "who knows what dread things may answer?" (which is excerpted from p. 132 of the novel), as well as via the statement that Jessie's normal routine is about to be "eclipsed by the irrational."

So of course a great many of us would believe that something paranormal or supernatural is going to happen within the scope of this book!  You might even go so far as to say that we have been positioned so as to believe that Jessie being trapped in the handcuffs is not the point of the novel, but is instead a device which will take us to the actual point of the novel.

I could go on and on about how effective I find this to be.  Consider, if you will, the fact that the novel draws a great deal of power from the idea that Jessie's imagination is very strong, and that her need to bury certain memories (or keep them buried) is equally strong.  In the end, however, it will prove vital that Jessie move past that need for obfuscation; it has caused her harm, and the damage must be reversed (or at least stalled) before it is too late.
The first time we actually meet Joubert -- to whom we will now begin referring as the space cowboy (even though Jessie herself won't think of it/him that for several dozen more pages) -- is a few pages after the former Prince flees from his scent.  And speaking of the former Prince, you may remember that in the previous post in this series, I pointed out a great "jump scare" King has involving the dog.
Here's another: the moment in which he brings the space cowboy into the proceedings.  It's on p. 122, and comes in the midst of Jessie trying to gather her wits about her:

I've got to center my concentration -- I've just got to.  The problem isn't food, and it isn't water, either.  Right now those things matter as little as why I punched Will in the mouth at his ninth-birthday party.  The problem is how I'm--
     Her thoughts broke off with the clean snap of a knot exploding in a hot fire.  Her eyes, which had been wandering aimlessly across the darkened room, locked on the far corner, where the wind-driven shadows of the pines danced wildly in the nacreous light falling through the skylight.
     There was a man standing there.

If I was a novelist and I read this book, I'd get to this part and throw the damned thing across the room in a fit of sheer envy.  Forget (if you can) how awesome the middle paragraph is; that single-sentence third paragraph is what horror fiction is all about.  Instantly a moment for the Horror Hall Of Fame, which doesn't exist but ought to.

This initial encounter runs about twelve pages; let's run through some of the highlights of this sequence:

  • The next sentences following the jump-scare reveal:  "Terror greater than any she had ever known crept over her.  Her bladder, which had in fact" [earlier] "relieved only the worst of its discomfort, now voided itself in a painless gush of heat."  Scared the piss out of her, eh?  Say, you ever had this happen to you?  Nope, me neither.  I'm trying to imagine how scared I'd have to be in order for my body to lose control of its societal niceties in that manner, and thankfully, I've got no real ability to do so.  But the sudden appearance of what looks like a monster in the corner of a room that I thought I was alone in would almost certainly do the trick.  Oh, and by the way, I associate fearful spontaneous urination with dogs; so Jessie here is once again being subtly put on par with the former Prince.
  • Page 123:  "A man.  A man in the corner."  Paragraph break.  "She could see his dark eyes gazing at her with fixed, idiotic attention.  She could see the waxy whiteness of his narrow cheeks and high forehead, although the intruder's actual features were blurred by the diorama of shadows which went flying across them.  She could see slumped shoulders and dangling apelike arms which ended in long hands; she sensed feet somewhere in the black triangle of shadow thrown by the bureau, but that was all."  Dangling apelike arms.  I am going to make a conscious effort when I go to bed tonight to lay there and try to imagine that I see something with dangling apelike arms standing in the corner ha ha no the fuck I'm not!
  • The next sentence is a gem:  "She had no idea how she lay in that horrible semi-swoon, paralyzed but aware, like a beetle stung by a trapdoor spider."  Look, Steve, you've already got parental incest, rotting corpses, a degloving, a necklace of severed dicks, and abandoned dogs in this book.  Please don't feel the need to get spiders involved, too.  It'll be too much for me; too, too much.  That's a great sentence, though.
  • We are told that Jessie thinks the creature's utter stillness is what undoes her, and in retrospect she knows that these are "the most powerful negative emotions" she has ever experienced, up to and including the dread of the dog snacking on her dead husband.  "It had crept in here while she slept and now merely stood in the corner, camouflaged by the ceaseless ebb and flow of shadows over its face and body, staring at her with its strangely avid black eyes, eyes so large and rapt they reminded her of the sockets in a skull."  Notice the genderlessness of the pronouns King is using.  He is feinting heavily in the direction of this being not a person but a thing.
  • Before long, her mind offers an explanation: "The man you see in the corner is a combination of shadows and imagination -- no more than that."  Her voices begin debating the likelihood of this.  After all, didn't the dog run away?  It's outside even now, barking hysterically!  Why would it leave its meal of deceased stockbroker?  True, but those arms can't be real; nothing has arms that long.  True, but it's got a face!  Not one that she can see very well, but ... something seems to be wrong with it.  She wishes she could see it better.
  • Page 125:  "You wouldn't want to, a whispery, ominous UFO voice advised her."  This is not the first time King has referred to Jessie having a "UFO voice" inside her head.  What this refers to is the fact that Jessie is doing a lot of thinking, and in many cases she is assigning specific personas to different aspects of her conscious personality.  One is the voice of Ruth, her former college roommate, a determined and confrontational voice-of-conscience type; another she thinks of as "Goodwife Burlingame," a somewhat browbeaten but not entirely wimpy type.  But occasionally, thoughts that seem to have no genesis in her own personality float into her consciousness, almost as if they are coming from personalities that are alien to her.  Hence, "UFO" voices.  By this point in the novel, though, I begin to suspect that King has been dangling a fishing pole in the waters, hoping that we fish readers will bite down on the hook.  Let me continue that in a separate bulletpoint.
  • See, I think he's got two goals in this section of the novel.  Goal #1: he wants us to invest in the possibility that this could be nothing but Jessie's imagination; he wants us to believe that her imagination is unusually strong, and her powers of self-deception equally strong.  Goal #2: if we choose to believe that Jessie actually IS seeing something, King wants us to believe that whatever this thing is, it's supernatural or paranormal in origin; and I think that he has prepared us to accept the possibility that the answer to the question of "WTF is it?!?" is "alien."  We WANT to believe that a King novel is going to have a spooky monster in it, and aliens were still in as spooky monsters in 1992.  This trend had probably been kicked off by the 1987 novel/memoir Communion by Whitley Strieber, which told the "true story" of Strieber's abductions by aliens.  (I say "true story" in a mocking manner, but only to acknowledge that not everyone accepts this story as being true.  I am an agnostic in that regard; though I probably lean toward believing in the possibility of it being true.  I read the book a long time ago -- probably the same summer I discovered King -- and quite liked it.  So in case I seem dismissive, know that it is not intentional.)

  • The book was a massive bestseller, and the 1989 movie version starring Christopher Walken wasn't, but still, it was a thing that existed.  (Oh, and by the way?  Walken's wife in the movie was played by Lindsay Crouse, who narrated the Gerald's Game audiobook.  Just sayin'.)  So I think King was banking -- with his "UFO voices" and his big dark eyes and his long arms -- on the thought of the stereotypical "gray alien" occurring to us.  I'm not saying he 100% wants us to believe that that's what's going on; I think he just wants it to float into our minds as a strong possibility, so as to further distance us from the thought that this scenario could have ANY sort of an explanation that fits our normal definitions of ... well, of "normal."
  • If so, hats off to him.  I think it's a complete success.
  • Page 126:  "What she felt coming from the corner were long, slow waves of malevolence."
  • Jessie finally (p. 128) summons the nerve to speak to this thing in the corner, asking it to help her if it is really there.  No dice.  She becomes hysterical and begins pleading with it; still nothing.  
  • Page 129:  Once she regains her composure somewhat, King, who is awesome but by no means perfect, delivers a clunker.  " 'What are you?' she sobbed.  'A man?  A devil?  What in God's name are you?' "  In my note-taking copy of the book, I wrote "I'M BATMAN" in the margin, just to amuse myself.
  • King redeems himself a few sentences later in a shocking moment: " 'Daddy?' she whispered.  'Daddy, is that you?' "  I don't think this possibility will have occurred to many readers.  We're all like, "Is it an alien?  A zombie?  A ghost?  The Grim Reaper?  A vampire?  A sentient gorilla?"  Okay, probably not that last one.  But her father?!?  Why would that even cross our minds?  A better question: why would it cross Jessie's mind?  We'll find out pretty soon.
  • An astonishingly good pair of paragraphs follows.  Page 130, paragraph the first: we learn that Tom Mahout, Jessie's father, had been interred in the family crypt in Falmouth.  "Jessie's burning, terrified mind insisted upon showing her a hunched figure, its clothes and rotted shoes caked with blue-green mold, slinking across moon-drenched fields and hurrying through tracts of scruffy woods between suburban housing developments; she saw gravity working on the decayed muscles of its arms as it came, gradually stretching them until the hands were swinging beside the knees."  [I'm going to pause there to mention that Dolores has a similar vision about Joe rising from the well and traipsing, dead but nevertheless ambulatory, out of the blackberry tangle and through the yard and onto the porch and into the house in Dolores Claiborne.  So there's another point of commonality between these books.]  "It was her father.  It was the man who had delighted her with rides on his shoulders at three, who had comforted her at the age of six when a capering circus clown frightened her into tears," [some readers will insist on seeing this as a reference to It and those readers should cut it the eff out] "who had told her bedtime stories until she was eight -- old enough, he said, to read them on her own.  Her father, who had cobbled together home-made filters on the afternoon of the eclipse and held her on his lap as the moment of totality approached, her father who had said, Don't worry about anything . . . don't worry, and don't look around.  But she had thought maybe he was worried, because his voice had been all thick and shaky, hardly like his usual voice at all."  This is the closest we've gotten to understanding what happened to Jessie on the day of the eclipse.  In terms of this blog, we've already explored that in the post previous to this one; but it's well worth remembering that the space cowboy precedes -- and, in fact, precipitates -- the memory of the eclipse.
  • Next paragraph:  "In the corner, the thing's grin seemed to widen and suddenly the room was filled with that smell, that flat smell that was half-metallic and half-organic; a smell which reminded her of oysters in cream, and how your hand smelled after you'd been clutching a fistful of pennies, and the way the air smelled just before a thunderstorm."  What's just happened here is sickly amazing.  Jessie has thought of her father, and has begun to think about the day of the eclipse; is, in fact, on the verge of thinking about her father ejaculating onto the back of her panties.  And all of a sudden, in the real world, the air is filled with the same smell.  I suspect that most readers will have squinted and thought to themselves, hey, is Stephen King describing what jizz smells like?   He sure is, and in this moment, he has allowed reality to olfactorially complete the climax of a memory.  That's a hell of a moment.  (The smell is also connected with the well in Dolores Claiborne, incidentally.)
  • Page 131: "Goodwife Burlingame" insists mentally that "this is real life" and that her father cannot have come back from the dead.  But another UFO voice speaks up in rebuttal.  "This voice insisted that things changed in the dark.  Things especially changed in the dark, it said, when a person was alone.  When that happened, the locks fell off the cage which held the imagination, and anything -- any things -- might be set free."  At this point perhaps a new idea begins dawning on readers: maybe something like a metafictional exploration of what it's like when human fear is pushed to its breaking point is going on here.  See, we only thought King had finished saying everything he wanted to say about the nature of fear in It.  The idea is back, and as toothy as ever.  It's not that, of course.  Except ... it kind of IS, isn't it?
  • Page 131-2:  "It can be your Daddy," the UFO voice thinks.  "It can be, never doubt it.  People are almost always safe from ghosts and ghouls and the living dead in daylight, and they're usually safe from them at night if they're with others, but when a person is alone in the dark, all bets are off.  Men and women alone in the dark are like open doors, Jessie, and if they call out or scream for help, who knows what dread things may answer?  Who knows what some men and women have seen in the hour of their solitary deaths?  Is it so hard to believe that some of them may have died of fear, no matter what the words on the death certificates say?"
  • Jessie responds to this alien thought out loud, saying "I don't believe that," and then addressing the visitor in the corner.  "You're not my father!  I don't think you're anyone!  I think you're only made of moonlight!"
  • King delivers a haymaker:  "As if in answer, the figure bent forward in a kind of mocking bow, and for one moment its face -- a face which seemed too real to doubt -- slipped out of the shadows.  Jessie uttered a rusty shriek as the pallid rays falling through the skylight painted its features with tawdry carnival gilt."  (Consider, if you recall from our "In the Path of the Eclipse" post, the context in which the word "carnival" has been used.)
  • If this fuckin' thing IS an illusion, it's a specific one: Jessie sees it open its case, which "was full of bones and jewelry."  She realizes that the feeling she feels is one of utter reality.

So what in THE HELL do first-time readers, who know nothing of the story, think is going on right now?  It's going to be a very individualized thing; I've got no recollection of what I myself thought on first read.  My guess is that the vast majority of readers assume alien or monster, or else figment of the imagination.

You know what I enjoy thinking, though?  That there was probably, like, one person who read all of this and thought, "I bet it's a serial killer with acromegaly."  One lady working in a tollbooth outside of Gresham, Oregon (or wherever) figured it right the fuck out; a postal worker in Scotland got real close but mistakenly thought of it as "acrobat disease" and was disqualified on a technicality.
Regardless of what readers think, Jessie herself continues to mentally debate whether what she saw was real or not, and seems to be more or less on the side of it having been a dream.  As she ponders this (p. 198), a few lines of song lyrics occur to her: "Some people call me the space cowboy..."  This is the Steve Miller Band song "The Joker," and it's worth noting that there is also a Steve Miller Band song called "Space Cowboy."  The lyric in "The Joker" is likely a reference to that earlier song.  Does that matter to us?  Nope.

Jessie shuddered.  The space cowboy.  That was somehow just right.  An outsider, someone who had nothing to do with anything, a wildcard, a--
     "A stranger," Jessie whispered, and suddenly remembered the way its cheeks had wrinkled when it began to grin.  And once that detail had fallen into place, others began falling into place around it.  The gold teeth twinkling far back in the grinning mouth.  The pouty, poochy lips.  The livid brow and the blade of nose.  (p. 198)

"What if I was awake?" she thinks; and, moments later, "It was Death you saw."  But before long (201) she notices a bloody footprint inside the door leading to the front hall.  The blood makes sense; that used to belong to Gerald.  But the footprint must mean that her visitor was real, right?

Well, at the very least it means that Jessie has accepted it as being real.  This is not quite the same thing as being real, you will note.  Readers will likely have accepted that Jessie has accepted the cowboy as real; but they may not have accepted that Jessie is qualified at this point to distinguish between the real and the imaginary.

Let us now pause briefly to have a look -- for no better reason than that I feel like doing so -- at several other notable space cowboys:

Cowboy (played by George Peppard) in Battle Beyond the Stars (1980)

Mal Reynolds (played by Nathan Fillion) in Firefly (2002)

Spike in Cowboy Bebop (1998)
Are those images mere Google-search-bait?  You be the judge.
Anyways, back to Jessie's space cowboy.

King has done a very good job at this point in the novel of weaving a dreamlike space made of semi-delirium and panic and exhaustion and thirst and excruciating pain.  What, as readers, are we prepared to accept as an explanation?  Are we prepared to accept no explanation at all?  Probably (and I know that some Constant Readers would have preferred it that way).  Are we prepared to accept that this "space cowboy" actually IS Death, or the boogeyman himself (as King has referred to him a couple of times, perhaps in a conscious evocation of his short story of that title)?  I bet most of us are.  Something else off the wall, like the possibility that it is an actual alien from outer space?  Not impossible; remember, King had published an alien-centric novel (The Tommyknockers) the very year Communion came out.

Regardless of such considerations, Jessie won't have another encounter with the space cowboy until she has escaped the handcuffs and is attempting to make her way out of the house and to the car so she can go seek help before bleeding out.  She thinks the cowboy -- of whom she is afraid to an almost mythic degree -- might be in the house with her, but is not sure until she finally sees him standing in Gerald's study.  Even then, she is initially unsure whether she is seeing something made of imagination and shadow, but...

As if to remove any lingering doubts she might have had on this score, her visitor poked its head forward in a kind of parody of inquisitiveness, giving Jessie a clear but mercifully brief look at it.  The face was that of an alien being that has tried to mimic human features without much success.  It was too narrow, for one thing -- narrower than any face Jessie had ever seen in her life.  The nose seemed to have no more thickness than a butter-knife.  The high forehead bulged like a grotesque garden bulb.  The thing's eyes were simple black circles below the thin upside-down V's of its brows; its pudgy, liver-colored lips seemed to be simultaneously pouting and melting.  (270)

Jessie realizes the cowboy is actually trying to smile at her, as it shows her the contents of the case it is carrying.  She further decides that the smell -- so recently smelled coming from the decomposing husband formerly known as Gerald -- means that the cowboy is dead; not her father, true, but dead all the same.  She removes the rings from her good hand, throws them into the case alongside the other trinkets, screams a defiant "No!" and finally runs from the house.  She gets in her car, and makes her final escape, imagining -- ? -- all the while that the space cowboy is right behind her, in pursuit.  Even inside the car, driving away, she imagines that she sees him in the backseat.  She will end up driving her car into a tree, and passing out.

As I've alluded, there are some King readers who believe firmly that this is where the novel ought to have ended.

It doesn't, though, and for my money that's a very good thing.  Here, we learn what Jessie learns during her recovery: the space cowboy was real, but he wasn't from space, and he certainly wasn't no cowboy.  He was, in fact, Raymond Andrew Joubert, an acromegaly-stricken grave robber and serial killer.  Unfortunate genetics made his arms long and apelike and his face distorted and alien; temperament made him prone to fashioning necklaces out of severed penises.  You know how it is.

The emphasis during the coda is on Jessie's desire to continue her recovery by continually confronting the things she had previously tried to bury.  Part of that ends up being a zeal for understanding Joubert, so as to revoke any hold he has over her imagination.  "Every time I turn off the light, he's standing across the room from me in the dark, and I'm afraid that unless I can turn a spotlight on him, that's going to go on forever," she says (p. 311).

And so King gives us a goodish amount of info on Joubert, such as:

  • He broke into crypts and mausoleums, not individual graves.  "He systematically stripped the corpses of any jewelry they might have been wearing when they were interred; he used pliers to pull gold teeth and teeth with gold fillings."  (312)
  • "He gouged out eyes, tore off ears, cut dead throats."  He also knocked off a few noses with a chisel, on account of the bodies being basically frozen in the wintry weather.  What became of them?  Nobody knows.  "In a few cases he opened up the bodies and/or skull cases and filled them with animal excrement."  (312-3)
  • When Joubert was apprehended, a cop found a wicker box, within which he found "six penises strung on a length of jute twine.  He said he knew it for what it was at once: a necklace.  Joubert later admitted that he often wore it when he went out on his graveyard expeditions, and stated his belief that if he'd been wearing it on his last trip, he never would have been caught.  'It brung me a power of good luck,' he said, and considering how long it too to catch him, Ruth, I think you'd have to say he had a point.  The worst thing, however, was the sandwich lying on the passenger seat.  The thing poking out from between the two slices of Wonder Bread was pretty clearly a human tongue.  It had been slathered with that bright yellow mustard kids like."  (317)  Hey, I like that type of mustard, too!  Not so much with human tongue; although if forced to eat a human tongue, I'd almost certainly want mustard and mayonnaise to help seal the deal.
  • "There were body-parts strewn all over the house, some rotting and maggoty in spite of the cold weather, others carefully cured and preserved.  Most of the cured parts were male sex-organs.  On a shelf by the cellar stairs, the police found about fifty Ball jars containing eyes, lips, fingers, toes, and testicles.  Joubert was quite the home canner."  (318)
  • "He was a victim of sex abuse himself, of course -- his father, his stepfather, and his stepmother all apparently had a go at him."  (319)

Okay, so what does all this amount to within the context of Gerald's Game?  It's memorably grody, but what does it have to do with this novel?
I can't help but see Joubert as an exaggerated reflection of both Tom and Gerald, both of whom could be said to have ungovernably awful sexual desires.  This is more true of Tom than of Gerald: Tom commits incestuous sexual abuse, which is pretty far down the road as far as sexual deviance goes.  Gerald is less warped than that, at least for most of his life as we understand it; and for the record, no, I am not making any kind of a negative judgment of people who engage in bondage games.  Where he crosses the line is in deciding to rape his own wife; normal and well people do not do that.
If Tom Mahout is a star of sexual deviance, Raymond Andrew Joubert is a black hole.  Same category of phenomenon; incredibly more complex.  But, crucially, Joubert's own deviance seems to have been at least partially kicked into high gear by being sexually abused by parents; so maybe Tom is more of a nebula, the sort of deviant who can cause other deviants to form.  I've lost control of my cosmological metaphors, I think. 
It's worth noting that while both Jessie and Joubert have sexual abuse in their backgrounds, they put their damage to very different uses.  Jessie internalizes hers; she buries it, buries it so deep that not only can nobody else find it, but she can barely find it herself.  Joubert externalizes his; he makes it a part of himself, and arguably fashions a new (and very horrific) sort of existence from it.  Jessie hurts nobody but herself; Joubert hurts others.
Thinking of it in that manner, it almost sounds as if I'm arguing that Jessie's self-deception was a good thing.  And, I mean ... comparatively, it IS, right?  Given those choice between marrying a stockbroker who'd prefer you not to have your own identity and robbing graves so you can make a talismanic cock necklace, I'll go with the stockbroker every doggone time.
But that's not what I'm arguing, and it's not what King is arguing.  What King is arguing, as I see it, is that there is no way for sexual abuse not to cause serious damage.  The only way to prevent it the damage from growing is to not allow it to fester inside; it must be confronted and conquered.  This is what Ruth seemingly knew all along, and so it makes sense that it is Ruth -- the real Ruth, not the mental voice masquerading as her inside Jessie's mind -- to whom Jessie writes about Joubert.  Joubert becomes a symbol for Jessie's damage, which has never quite managed to rampage out of control; and while it could almost certainly never go so far as Joubert's own did, the fresh damage she has incurred via Gerald and her captivity is threatening to push her even farther down her own road of damage than she had ever been before.
Some people feel that King ought to have left the space cowboy ambiguous and unanswered, but the fact is that that was never the novel King was writing.  Does he want it seem attractive as an idea to Jessie?  Very darkly attractive, yes; not attractive in a positive sense, but human impulses of all sorts ARE attractions, and there is no need for them to be positive.  They simply are.  Leaving the space cowboy unmasked could only have turned Gerald's Game into a tragedy, and this is not that; this is a tale of redemption, within which a woman deals with her problems, as incredibly unpleasant as it may be both emotionally and physically to do so, and then sets herself on a road to permanent recovery by refusing to allow the problems to come back.
Say, have I mentioned that King had conquered his addiction problems only a few years before this?
I'll just mention that and leave it there, adding only that there is no doubt in my mind that King had his own emotional and physical struggles somewhere inside when writing this novel.  This feels like a very personal novel to me, not in the sense that I think King or anyone he knows was sexually abused as a child, or got trapped in a bondage game at some point, or anything facile like that.
Nah, I don't think this is a personal novel in that sense.  But don't doubt for one second that it's personal nevertheless.  Consider, for example, the fact that the novel ends with Jessie writing a letter to Ruth.  Not visiting Ruth, not calling Ruth; writing to her.
King allows us to read this letter, which forms a good chunk of the novel's concluding chapters.  In one bit, Jessie writes to Ruth about how she would have let Joubert have sex with her if it would have gotten her free.  "Do you understand?  I would have let him put his cock -- the cock he stuck down the rotting throats of dead men -- into me, if only he would have promised me I didn't have to die the dog's death of muscle-cramps and convulsions that was waiting for me.  If only he would have promised to SET ME FREE."  (321)
At this point, King breaks from the letter, nor for the first time but in an impactful manner:
Jessie stopped for a moment, breathing so hard and fast she was almost panting.  She looked at the words on the screen -- the unbelievable, unspeakable admission on the screen -- and felt a sudden strong urge to delete them.  Not because she was ashamed for Ruth to read them; she was, but that wasn't it.  What she didn't want to do was deal with them, and she supposed that if she didn't delete them, she would have to do just that.  Words had a way of creating their own imperatives.
     Not until they're out of your hands, they don't, Jessie thought, and reached out with the black-clad index finger of her right hand.  She touched the DELETE button -- stroked it, actually -- and then drew back.  It was the truth, wasn't it?  (321-2)
Indeed it was.
And so is Gerald's Game.  Fiction, after all, is the truth inside the lie.  Haven't I heard that somewhere before?  And the truth of this fiction is: recovery is possible, but only if you make the monsters take their masks off and don't let them stand in the corner.  You've got to see them right out in the open and refuse to allow them to keep that power over you that they've tried to grab for themselves.
Jessie visits a courtroom so she can confront one of her monsters right up close.  Her new friend Brandon -- who doesn't seem all that friendly, if you ask me (though that is a subject for some other time) -- tries to get her to keep her distance so as to not get herself in trouble.
"This is close enough," he murmurs.
     She moves away from him.  He's wrong; it's not close enough.  Brandon doesn't have the slightest idea of what she's thinking or feeling, but that's okay; she knows.  For the time being, all her voices have become one voice; she is basking in unexpected unanimity, and what she knows is this: if she doesn't get closer to him now, if she doesn't get just as close as she can, he will never be far enough away.  He will always be in the closet, or just outside the window, or hiding under the bed at midnight, grinning his pallid, wrinkled grin -- the one that shows the glimmers of gold far back in his mouth.  (326)
In a not-entirely-convincing plot development (but a richly satisfying one that allows me to accept the unlikelihood of it happening), Jessie gets close enough to actually confront Joubert.  But...
Raymond Andrew Joubert is gone; this is the space cowboy, the specter of love.  Its oversized lips wrinkle back once more, revealing its teeth -- the stained, unlovely, and completely serviceable teeth of a wild animal.  She sees the glimmers of gold like feral eyes far back in a cave.  And slowly, oh so slowly, the nightmare comes to life and begins to move; slowly the nightmare begins to raise its freakishly long arms.  (328)
Apologies to Close Encounters of the Third Kind, which does not deserve to linked to a corpse-defiling murderer.  No way for this image not to pop into my head, though.
What happens next is that Joubert raises his arms into the posture Jessie's handcuffed arms were in, and repeats her own words from that night back to her: "You're only made of moonlight!"  And then he begins to laugh at her.
King ends a chapter here, and tells us what Jessie wrote to Ruth about this: that one of her voices spoke up and demanded that she do what she had to do.  And so she does, and she spits in Joubert's face.  It's worth remembering that much earlier in the novel, Jessie saw a runner of drool fall from Gerald's chin onto her stomach, and had the wild thought, "It's his spunk."  It was this very thought which caused her to reflexively kick Gerald, precipitating the heart attack that ended his life (and very nearly her own).
So, obviously, she's not merely spitting on Joubert in this moment; she's spitting on both Gerald and Tom as well.  She is robbing all three of these men of any further power over her.
The novel ends almost immediately after this, with Jessie completing her letter, mailing it to Ruth, and finding herself able to deal with the coming night; the darkness it brings with it can no longer hurt her.
And thus, my friends, ends the tale of one of Stephen King's most resilient and capable protagonists, who got herself out of a bad situation with a level of fortitude I think most of us would envy.  I wish I knew what I'd make of this novel if King had elected to (metaphorically or otherwise) leave her trapped in that room.  Maybe on the level of the Tower where Richard Bachman wrote this instead, that might have worked.
But it's not the novel that King wrote, and I'm very glad.
We'll conclude our revisit of Gerald's Game soon with a roundup post, where I will just sling a bunch of stuff at a wall and we'll see what sticks.  See you then!


  1. Mr. Burnette:
    You really took me down the rabbit hole of thought with this one. I think I would have preferred a more ambiguous ending, maybe something along the lines of Cell. Anyway, I'm enjoying this very much. Thanks a bunch.
    Ray (not Joubert)

    1. I do enjoy sending people down a rabbit hole. I dig the ending to "Cell." A lot of people don't, but I think it's solid. I look forward to rereading that novel, which ought to be circa 2056 at the (lamentable) rate I'm going.

  2. 1. 1992. Okay, so that's when I first became aware of King as a figure just somewhere out of sight that everyone seemed to be talking about. Not a lot, just here and there. It's the kind of talk that's somehow just enough to get you interested. Also I saw commercials like this:

    At last that's how it all started for me.

    2. I can see a warped sensibility like King's can here Miller's "Space Cowboy" and think: Wow, that sounds like one scary dude".

    Of course, it probably helps that I remember listening to an old Dad Rock standard and thinking, "Wouldn't it be funny if the speaker of this song was the headless horseman from "Legend of Sleepy Hollow"?

    The irony, I was on no substance whatsoever when I had that thought. The song, for reference was "Ride like the Wind". Yeah, by that Cross guy....Moving on!

    3. In terms of this being a personal book for King, I think the only way it can be is if it is seen, with most of his other work, as a subconscious revolt against the New England milieu in which he was raised.

    It's point I've brought up before, but I think he's writing in tradition similar to both Hawthorne and Poe. I think all three writers can be said to be reacting to and against the ethos they were all brought up in, because on some level they just realized the hypocrisy of their shared society, and so their fiction, ultimately, is about airing all the skeletons, both social, political, and psychological, of their surroundings.

    Especially, I would argue all three were focused on the ways that Puritanical society could warp the human mind. At least there's one take on it. In that sense, I suppose you could say that the work of all three authors is a form of subliminal confession. I do have to acknowledge Tony Magistrale for starting this line of thought.


    1. 1. I bet those Stephen King Library commercials made a lot of people interested in King's books. I was a member for several years myself!

      2. Hah! I dig that song. I've (for a long time now) had a low-grade desire to listen to more Christopher Cross. I kid you not, "Arthur's Theme" is probably one of top five all-time favorite songs. Anyways, "Ride Like the Wind" is pretty great, too. Is that Michael McDonald on backing vocals?

      3. I think there's almost certainly something to that; just the mere use of "Goodwife" and stocks imagery consciously evokes it, and places it within that tradition.

      Thanks for pointing that out! Magistrale's work is good stuff; one of the great King critics, for sure.

    2. Yup, that's McDonald on the backing track. Expanding on the Sleepy Hollow theme just a bit, I remember thinking if you were to print the lyrics to that song as verses, like in a poem, a good alternate title would be "Headless Horseman: An Autobiographical Study in Un-Self-Awareness".

      I also have to admit to an honest enough liking of the "Arthur Theme". Not sure it's in my top favorites, though.


    3. Yeah, that's just a personal-connection thing. I've got fond memories of going to see the movie as a kid and hearing the song everywhere; something about it just spoke to me.

      I am glad to hear my ear for Michael McDonald was accurate! Cross AND McDonald on one song; those are two awfully golden throats for a single song, boy. That's about as yacht-rock as it gets, and yes indeed I do mean that as a compliment.

  3. (1) Up front on this one, at least from the read-and-a-half of this I did a few years ago: I really didn't like the ending. I'm going to have to re-read my review of it. Be right back. (later) Yep, that's still my recollection of it. You, sir, have prompted a re-read of this, specifically to see if I still feel the same way. I really liked the real-or-isn't-he and then the effect of the finding Santa's glove or pipe or something, that "wait a minute... WAS he real?" sort of thing. But would that have been gimmicky? (What I describe?) My opinion: no less than the pop psychology of the ending. But again, I'm curious, now, to see if that's how it would hit me now, particularly in light of the remarks you've made here.

    And let's get back to 'em!

    (2) How quaint to see those old bibliography pages! And yeah, there wasn't a lot there that didn't have a foot in the Twilight Zone, for sure. The book flap definitely plays to this.

    (3) That's a fun connection with the audiobook/ Communion.

    (4) "The Smell of Jizz" is all over (god - I'm sorry) so many works. I think classical literature alone from India to Rome to Valhalla to the Incas to just about everywhere alludes to it - often way more than alluding to it. King's in a clear, icky throughline here! Tying together the primordial forces with the olfactory call to procreation and ritual and shadows and all that fun stuff. It's all very metal.

    (5) "there was probably, like, one person who read all of this and thought, "I bet it's a serial killer with acromegaly." One lady working in a tollbooth outside of Gresham, Oregon (or wherever) figured it right the fuck out; a postal worker in Scotland got real close but mistakenly thought of it as "acrobat disease" and was disqualified on a technicality." Nice. And I hope this is 100% true. It would make a great, very specificly-awesome movie.

    (6) A very unexpected and appreciated sidebar on space cowboys!

    (7) Your take on Joubert in the next several paragraphs is truly worth thinking about. A purposefully deranged reflection of King's own horrors, reflecting on addiction? A projectile-vomit of all the vile things of man? The other side of sexual abuse? All very interesting. I still think it all comes on a little strong in the epilogue, and I don't know how it could have come across before except to have sections of the novel from Joubert's POV. Maybe that would've been better, to emphasize all you say here. Moot now of course - the ending we got is the ending we have.

    (8) Man, those "Communion" crossover pics are very well-placed, and it makes me think how all of this (sexual abuse, alien visitations) was very much throughout so much of the media from this period. I had not previously considered GG alongside stuff like TWIN PEAKS FIRE WALK WITH ME or FIRE IN THE SKY, etc., but it really DOES track, doesn't it? Fascinating.

    1. (1) I thought I remembered that being the case; I didn't want to reread your review before writing all of this, but I need to circle back to it now. In any case, I don't think you're on your own with that by any means; I'm fairly certain your island has more people on it than mine does, and by a significant margin. The same applies to the movie, from what I've read.

      (2) For sure. And I'd imagine a great many readers resent the novel's failure to live up to the implication.

      (3) I enjoyed discovering that.

      (4) "(god - I'm sorry)" -- lol

      But yeah, for sure. It's a damn near elemental force, I guess you'd say, which makes it 100% appropriate for artistic exploration. I'm reminded of how in "Carrie" somebody talks about the sight of menstrual blood setting her teeth on edge; this is very similar, in some ways, and I suspect a lot of readers have taken it that way. Like, they're down for a gnarly story that goes damn near anywhere, but they draw the line at describing what spunk smells like. I get it. It's one of those things where I just sigh, rub the bridge of my nose, and keep walking down the path behind King so I don't lose track of his voice.

      (5) This for sure, but also this: I bet there were a few people with acromegaly who read the novel and got to the end and were just really bummed out by it. I feel for 'em.

      (6) I'm sure there are others I've forgotten (or don't know about) who could also have made the gallery.

      (7) I feel like I was not quite able to get across what I was really trying to get across here. I made a go at it, but success seems to have eluded me. Ah, well. Part of what intrigues me is the notion that Jessie has to be willing to put herself through real physical degradation in order to get to a place where she need never be physically (or emotionally) degraded again. Much must be sacrificed. In a way, it's the same for Joubert. He probably doesn't think of what he does as self-degradation, but it is; you can't wear a necklace of rotting penises and not be degraded by it. All of this clearly stems from some sort of extreme emotional damage, and he's simply done so thorough a job of sacrificing himself to get over it that the needle has swung way beyond where the normal person's capabilities would typically end. In a sense, he's a nightmare version of both Tom and Gerald, but also a nightmare version of Jessie herself.

      (7a) I kind of like the idea of King writing a novel about Joubert within which the stopover at Jessie's house is just a weird and inexplicable interlude. Which is exactly what it would be like for him in real life! He'd be all like, lemme check out this house with the open door, and then he gets inside and he's all like "whuuuuuut the FUCK?!?" And then, much later, he gets caught and is minding his own business in court and all of a sudden that weird handcuff lady is there, spitting at him. He's kind of delighted by the oddity of it all. I'd read that novel!

      (8) It really is. UFO stuff fascinates me in general, and writing this post prompted me to buy a copy of "Communion." Whether I will actually reread it or not, I don't know, but it seems like it ought to be in the collection.

    2. (7) That makes a lot of sense to me actually. So if you didn't get it across in the post, it certainly came through here.


      (7a) "I'd read that novel!" Hell yes, me too.

    3. I've probably made more sense in comments on my posts than I made within the posts themselves on many, many occasions. Which is perfectly fine by me. I look on these things as extended conversations, so why not?