** spoiler alert ** I really believe that Rose Madder contains one of the most relentless, heart stopping pursuits in any novel anywhere, and – in Norman Daniels – the strongest villain in any of King’s work. King doesn’t just describe Norman Daniels’s actions in Rose Madder; he gets inside the monster’s head and in the process shows us the kind of thoughts that motivate a violent murderer. 

Rose McClendon married Norman right after high school, suffered a vicious bite from him on their wedding night, and from then on her life became one long nightmare of abusive violence. If things weren’t done Norman’s way, done just right, there was hell to pay… and it was physical hell. Rose was beaten for things like not washing the floor thoroughly enough, reading romance novels, and getting pregnant. It was getting pregnant that landed Rose in the hospital, the baby beaten to death within her. She put up with all this for fourteen years, and then one day, when she noticed a drop of blood from last night’s beating on her bed sheet and knew she’d either have to change the sheets yet again or face more abuse, Rosie just walked out of the house forever. She took Norman’s ATM card and split. 

What follows is really a story of liberation. One that cuts back and forth between Norman’s raging plans to make his wife pay for the effrontery of leaving him and Rose’s escape into a new life. That life turns out to be far more wonderful than she could ever have imagined. It isn’t just the absence of pain; it’s a world of friends, a lover, and a magical painting she discovers in a pawnshop. 

The painting becomes a key focus in the story. It shows Rose the image of a strong woman standing on a hillside (a woman who inspires Rose to be strong whenever she’s overcome with doubt or fear), and Rose eventually learns that she can step into the panting, and have amazing though sometimes terrifying new experiences there. Meanwhile, as Rose’s new life improves, Norman draws ever closer, just as she knew he would.

How is King is able to gain such a keen grasp of the mind of a sicko like Norman? I’m sure there were mountains of research and discussions with experts. Norman is a cop, a great cop, and he’s internalized police procedures to the highest degree. I can see King in long conversations with guys who know the ways and whiles of the police force and its most aberrant practitioners. Still, I think there’s more to it than that. In a word, it’s genius… maybe King’s greatest genius. He’s such a keen observer of people that he’s able to create believable characters even when they’re monsters. He can enter Norman’s mind, piece together his intentions, reconstruct his thoughts, and give us a clear-cut rationalization for all those brutal actions. 

When Norman shows up, terrorizes, and murders the very people who saved Rose when she arrived in her new city (has to be Chicago), the painting becomes even more alive. Crickets hop out of the scene and into her bed; the painting’s moonlight fills the room even on the darkest nights. Then the image takes over one whole wall of Rosie’s apartment, and she’s lured inside. Rose does a favor for that woman on the hill… a favor that the woman says she will REPAY. 

It’s at this moment that the story starts to get even stranger than most of us would ever have expected. Up until now it’s been a terrifying and very real tale of pursuit; now it becomes surreal and horrific. The woman (named Rose Madder for the color of her gown and the words scrawled in charcoal on the back of the painting) is not the sweet motherly type we might have imagined. She’s not just there to help Rose; she’s a monster in her own right, stark raving mad and in the process of being consumed by some flesh-crusting illness. But she also serves a liberating purpose because, when Norman chases Rose into the painting, Rose Madder is more than happy to confront him, reveal her truest self, and basically eat him alive. 

Teetering on the brink of continued violence from then on, Rose Madder exercises scary self-control as she warns Rosie that she has to do certain things to be able to lead a happy life. Oh, and Rose had better get the hell out of the paining while she can. 

Rose does escape. She marries the wonderful guy she met earlier, has a sweet daughter, but she’s suddenly possessed by a new and terrible temper. Rosie pictures herself carrying out some of the same kinds of cruel actions that Norman performed. (Guess she couldn’t have been that much of a victim without learning about the allure of violence.) And now Rose begins to fear that her anger with turn her into the very being she encountered in the painting. Rose Madder might have been a preview of what Rosie is to become. King sometimes uses symbols and at other times avoids them. In this case it sure looks like the crusts growing on Rose Madder might be emblematic of the anger that has transferred from Norman to her, taking over her life, turning her into the same kind of monster who had so persecuted Rose. 

Good news. By carefully following the ritualistic steps that Rose Madder outlined for her, Rose overcomes her anger, and then, one day, when performing the very last task out on a hilly slope that does resemble the one in the painting, Rose realizes that she’s overcome her demons. She’s free. She doesn’t have any of the crusted growths that she saw on the crazy woman. She’s not destined to become Rose Madder. HAPPY ENDING. 

I get the feeling that King is channeling more folks than Norman Daniels in this one. Shakespeare seems to have worked his way in there too… and probably Euripides.