From the late 80’s to early 90’s, King ventured away from his modern twists on classic supernatural tales and claustrophobic encounters with psychotic individuals, to explore the dark and hidden horrors lurking within the walls of the unassuming home. Rose Madder marks the end of this informal “domestic horror” era which included Gerald’s Game, Dolores Claiborne, and arguably also Needful Things.
With this final entry, King really drives home the message in a very blatant way, within the realm of an engaging cat-and-mouse story.
At the beginning, we see Rosie Daniels suffering from a horrifying case of domestic abuse, brought upon by her psychotic police detective husband, Norman. Flash forward another nine years, and Rose is still married to this beast, while turning more submissive from his continuous abuse. However, one day she discovers one small drop of blood which causes her to mentally snap. She then leaves the house with nothing but her husband’s ATM card.
What follows is a dangerous escape into an unknown world, one she has felt disconnected from for 14 long years. As Rose loses herself in a new city and is taken in by the kindness of strangers, Norman slowly loses his sanity while trying to locate his lost “possession” in utter disbelief that he didn’t see it coming.
Initially, I regarded this as a standard thriller, with the usual high stakes of death if Rose was caught. And there are some very close calls to keep you hooked. However, there was a certain point which brought a fresh twist, marked by Rose’s discovery of a particularly alluring painting, aptly namedRose Madder. The other-worldly properties of it created a very interesting sub-plot, which I found myself far more interested in.
Then came a moment that all Stephen King followers love; the allusion to one of the other books in his multiverse. This wasn’t just any reference, but a direct reference to the ideology of the centrepoint of all universes – Midworld. Ka is a wheel.
Through strange means, you get to know the main figure in this strange painting, and she alludes to herself as being even more mysterious and dangerous as any other King character I’ve met. I believe there are strong connections between Rose Madder and the Crimson King, but I haven’t been able to find anyone else’s thoughts on the matter. She seems like too big of a player to only appear in this one novel.
Once Rose is established in her new city, and Norman reaches it to look for her, you can quite easily draw upon the metaphor of the Minotaur in the maze, blindly hunting down the victim. Well, King doesn’t mistake upon this, as towards the end of the novel, the metaphor slowly but surely becomes so blatant that it almost mimics the ancient Greek mythological story to the point of absurdity.
Perhaps the only drawback, and it is a quite major one, is that the psychotic husband Norman has absolutely no redeemable traits at all. As a character, he was very one-dimensional, trying to get back what is his. Although he does slowly slip into insanity, and you can gradually follow it, I did not care for him at all. Rosie, on the other hand, does transform quite well into an independent woman. You can’t help but also feel excited when she’s happy to do the things we disregard as routine or mundane.
I’d call this one of King’s hidden gems, depending on whether you care for those King cross-references to the larger multiverse or not.