"Rose Madder," by Stephen King. New York: Viking. 420 pages. $25.95 Rose Madder is a book you'll love . . . and hate.
It is a sinister tale of a vile cop - a slayer of the helpless - and his pursuit of his wife, whom he intends to torture, and torture some more before killing her. The wickedness of Norman Daniels, the cop, is extraordinary. His is no mere meanness. He relishes his killings. He enjoys their brutality.
His wife, Rose McClendon Daniels, is the heroine. Finally fed up with Norman's beatings, she flees, trying to find a new life in a new town.
His pursuit and her progress provide the narrative tension.
Let this be said: Stephen King is a marvelous writer. His style crackles. His story line skidders along, pausing for the kaboom, then moves quickly to the next terror. Mr. King had me hooked and it troubled me greatly.
Maybe I ruminate too much about what I read. Here I was, captured by an awful tale, anxious to discover what was next and dreading it. Worse was the notion that this is a very sick story. The world is full of perversities, but those in 'Rose Madder' are darker, more inhumane than any the real world has to offer. Mr. King's imagination is beyond the edge.
Take, for example, the way Norman kills his prey. In the book's beginning, he starts off normally enough: beatings followed by broken necks. But as 'Rose Madder' proceeds, Norman's insanity becomes more bizarre. His last few victims die as he bites their coralloid arteries. He also tortures them in a ghastly feast, chewing off all manner of body parts.
Now, I've been a newspaper person long enough to see and hear most of the worst of man's inhumanity. Even Philadelphia's Gary Hydnick, who cooked his victims, at least waited until they were dead before beginning to gnaw. For me, Norman's grisly killings were so awful, they were unbelievable.
Ultimately, Rose gets her revenge. But it happens in a fantasy - an Alice in the Looking Glass episode that left this reader wondering exactly what had happened. The text tells us a mythical spider chews Norman to death - 'Where Norman finally learned what it was like to be the bitten instead of the biter.' Thirty pages later, after much elaboration about the fantasy, there is this single line: 'Thursday's headline: Daniels may be dead by his own hand, insiders speculate.' Odd.
In contrast, Mr. King's women are too believable. All of them in Rose Madder had endured abuse, lots of it. All had fled. Like Rose, all were in a state of repair. Mr. King captures well the real struggle of domestic violence. Yet in combining it with such violent outlandishness, he diminishes the lessons of his work. And for me, Mr. King is too good a writer not to leave us with a real message.
Finally, let me rant a bit. I fervently hope that 'Rose Madder' never makes it to the screen. The coarseness and debasements are so constant and so raw that translating them for a mass audience would only perpetuate the spiral of decadence in American Society. Read this book if you must. But let us keep it far from impressionable minds. In 'Rose Madder,' Mr. King's ability has served us poorly.
James Asher is city editor of The Sun. Mr. Asher has written for newspapers for the last 25 years. His work has been cited regionally and nationally for journalistic excellence. Before joining The Sun, he was an editor at the Philadelphia Inquirer. He has a master's degree from Syracuse University and has done post-graduate work in finance and economics.