I first posted this review on my Goodreads account over here.
Of all of the scary, supernatural subject matter that Stephen King is (in)famous for–haunted hotels, psychic/telekinetic/pyrokinetic children, demonic clowns from the Macroverse, sinister aliens, rabid dogs, vampires, possessed cars–what scares me the most about his novels are the twisted, hellacious things that his human characters occasionally do to each other. Particularly parental figures (Margaret White, Annie Wilkes, Jack Torrance, Andrew Landon in Lisey’s Story, to name but a few) and husbands. (I don’t like to psychoanalyze authors based on the fictional stories they create, but jeezum crow, Stephen King, what did childhood do to you?) Rose Madder’s antagonist, abusive husband Norman Daniels, might be one of the creepiest, most tangible, most violently scary villains King has ever come up with. Let’s just say that you won’t ever look at a tennis racket the same way again.
(This is supposed to be a review of the book, not the audiobook, so of the audiobook I will simply say: 1. I have half a theory that the reason Stephen King narrated Norman Daniels’ chapters himself is because there wasn’t a male voice actor in all of the country who was willing to become such a despicable person, and 2. Don’t listen to the audio book out in public if you have one of those faces that will give away your reaction to what you’re listening to. Strangers on the street will think you’re looking at them funny.)
So, first: trigger warning. Like CAPITAL LETTERS trigger warning. If you have any experience with domestic violence, this may be a hard or impossible book for you to read (though it could also be redemptive: Norman Daniels gets his comeuppance in a way that few real-life abusers do). Anyone who’s read any Stephen King knows that he doesn’t pull any punches, but describes things in extreme, close up, totally gorey and horrifying detail (and honestly, knowing that Stephen King does this makes Rose Madder even more horrifying in the very beginning, before anything even happens, because you know something’s going to happen and it’s going to be bad).
The only thing that really aggravated me about this book is that nothing truly supernatural happens until halfway through, and by that time, I felt so established in the non-supernatural world that the appearance of the [spoiler redacted] felt machinated and random. I’d become convinced that Rose was going to find her way out of her situation through the strength of her own resourcefulness and the community she’d found, and getting there by [spoiler redacted] felt like cheating. (I’m told by the Internetz that the [spoiler redacted] is a thing that appears in some of King’s other novels, too, so if I’d read those novels maybe it wouldn’t have felt so random.) On the other hand, though, the [spoiler redacted] enables Rose to truly escape from Norm without having to sacrifice her own humanity or essential gentleness as a person, which is a nice turn of events–one that other King characters, like Wendy Torrance, would probably have appreciated having a chance at. One of the things that Rose does, when she sets out to survive, is not just survive in the physical sense, but to survive emotionally and mentally–to not let her marriage to Norm poison the rest of her life after she’s walked out. And she’s able to do that, in ways big and small. She’s able to rewrite her own internal narrative, wiping out the narrative that Norm had written for her, and that transformation that she goes through is almost as satisfying as watching what happens to Norm.
Rose Madder really is Stephen King near the top of his game as a writer (and though I avoided him out of my general dislike of both horror and novels available in grocery stores for most of my life, I’m gaining a reluctant admiration of him). We get to know Rosie slowly, as she gets to know herself and who she is when not completely dominated by Norman. Norman is almost cartoonishly evil, a terrible person on every possible level (seriously, there’s no way this character won’t disgust and horrify you). Since I’ve already made a few comparisons to The Shining, I’ll make another: Jack Torrance had redemptive characteristics, and was never totally evil, and that was part of the tragedy of his undoing throughout The Shining. Norman has no redemptive characteristics, but that’s okay, because this book isn’t about him. It’s about Rose, and to give more time to plumbing the depths of Norman’s psychosis to find the sad, scared little boy at the middle would somehow feels disrespectful to her and all the horrors that she’s been through. And besides–his lack of redeeming qualities just makes it that much more satisfying when you get to the end and he [redacted].