Welcome to Rose Madder or, The Book That Stephen King Keeps Throwing Under the Bus. “Sometimes I feel like a baseball player,” he said in an interview. “In that some books feel like singles and some books feel like doubles and every so often you get a Rose Madder.” Or how about, “I’ve had bad books. I think Rose Madder fits in that category, because it never really took off.” Fans generally name it as one of their least favorites, and it’s consistently coming in last on rankings of his novels.
What makes this book so bad that even its own creator doesn’t have anything nice to say about it? Why do we hate this book? And does that make us giant jerkwads, since King has frequently said that lots of people come up to him and say this is the book that gave them the courage to leave their abusive spouses?
Rose Madder isn’t as bad as its reputation suggests. It’s not even as bad as King thinks it is. It opens with Rose Daniels doubled over in pain because her husband has beaten her into a miscarriage. It’s a visceral moment that drops the reader right inside her skin, and in terms of openings, it’s one of King’s best. Jump forward nine years and a numb Rose is making up the bed when she sees a drop of blood on her pillow. Her husband, Norman, popped her in the face for spilling his iced tea last night and her nose hasn’t stopped bleeding since. It makes Rose think of a J. Lo movie and she says “Enough,” then walks of her marriage without even cash in her wallet.
She winds up in another city, locates a battered women’s shelter, and starts to put her life back together. Norman, predictably, comes after her. Less predictably, he tracks her down by squeezing dudes’s scrotums until their testicles pop. He’s a cop, and everything is set up for a totally lopsided match-up between the traumatized wife who can barely function in the world, and the evil ex-husband who is all-too-wordly.
And then Rose buys a magical painting.
She’s pawning her wedding ring, which Norman told her is super-valuable (in a neat twist, it turns out to be junk), when this painting in the back of the pawn shop “calls out to her” and after hanging it on her wall she realizes that she can step inside the frame and enter a spooky world based on classical mythology.
The magic painting isn’t quite enough to send Rose Madder off the rails entirely, so what is it that’s wrong with this book? Because at a certain point, it stopped being compelling and turned into page flipping. Maybe it’s the fact that Rose gets “discovered” in the pawn shop by a guy who produces audiobooks and she becomes, with no training, a natural star of the audiobook world, reading a selection of Stephen King’s favorite novels (Jane Smiley gets a shout-out, as does David Goodis) as people talk about her talent breathlessly, “He said you were the best voice he’d heard since Kathy Bates’s recording of The Silence of the Lambs, and that means a lot…”
Or it could be the fact that King was never a man to turn down thirds at the all-you-can-eat character trait buffet. He keeps piling Norman’s plate high until he slides over the line from psycho ex to supernatural cartoon. Norman isn’t just sexist, he also kills hookers. Norman isn’t just racist, he also murders a black witness. Norman isn’t just homophobic, he also bites men to death. It’s on the nose in much the same way that one of the book’s few Hispanic characters has to mention that he had quesadillas for lunch.
Ask people why they don’t like this book, though, and you can never get a straight answer. King felt like he forced the plot, making it march to his beat rather than letting his characters lead the way. And it is a thin story, little more than an EC Comics morality tale in which a mean guy who bites his wife winds up getting bitten to death by a spider monster zombie lady who lives inside a painting. You practically expect the Crypt Keeper to show up and cackle, “Heh, heh, heh, kiddies, I guess you could call that love at first BITE.”
But I think the problem is the painting. The title of the book is the title of the painting, and it’s so striking that when Rose first sees it she comes to a skidding stop and gawps. So what’s it look like? That’s when things get hazy, marking one of the few times that King’s visual imagination seems to have failed him, leaving a great emptiness at the center of this book. For this picture to work, it has to be as vivid for King as if it was hanging on the wall over his desk. And yet whenever he needs to describe it he hedges, he equivocates, he spends two pages telling us that the picture isn’t very special-looking at all.
When it first shows up, we get eight paragraphs telling us about Rose’s over-the-top reaction to the painting, but all he says about the way it looks is that “It was the picture of the woman on the hill…” The next chapter gives us more: there’s a hill in the foreground, and a woman stands on it with her back to us, shading her eyes, gazing at a ruined temple. Or maybe a plantation house. No one seems sure. We’re told it’s badly done, that it’s gothic, that it’s classical. We learn things about it that would be impossible to see in an oil painting that size. We never get a clear description, we get hand-waving. King spends page after page telling us it’s nothing special, not much to look at, not very well done, but not once do we see it the way Rose sees it: clear, present, and compelling.
King is one of the most visual authors working today. Who can’t remember Pennywise peering out of the Derry storm drains in It? Or Danny Glick, hovering outside Mark Petrie’s window in ‘Salem’s Lot? The snowbound Overlook hotel in The Shining? A little girl surrounded by fire and wild horses in Firestarter? In King’s short story “The Road Virus Heads North” King described a painting in 112 words and we see it perfectly. Rose Madder is 420 pages long, and I still can’t imagine the damn thing. It’s almost as if King is unconvinced it exists, or that it could exert such a hold on his main character. And if he’s unconvinced, so are we.