Dolores Claiborne is a hardworking, tough talking housekeeper for an elderly woman on an island just off the coast of Maine. She’s been accused of killing her employer by shoving her down the stairs, and Dolores has her work cut out for her, explaining why she is, in fact, innocent of that crime, though she readily admits she did murder her husband thirty years earlier. Stephen King’s Dolores Claiborne is the protagonist’s chapterless confession of what drove her to murder her husband and also an explanation for why she didn’t murder her employer, Vera, despite having several good reasons for doing so.
I have what may be a strange relationship with Stephen King’s stories. I’ve watched and enjoyed a lot of film adaptations of them–don’t judge me!–and I’ve read and enjoyed an excerpt from his book On Writing in which he hilariously recalls how his wife fished the manuscript of his first novel, Carrie, out of a garbage can, encouraged him to submit it, and the rest is, as they say, history.
But before now, I’d only ever read one other Stephen King book–The Green Mile–and I didn’t like it. I had enjoyed the movie, and when I saw the book for sale, I picked it up. But I really disliked the narrative voice in the book. As in disliked it so much that the margins of the pages of my copy are an angry scrawl of my own rantings and ravings about how much I hated it. The main character was supposed to be an elderly Southerner, and I just couldn’t get past the fact the guy sounded neither like a product of the 1930s nor a resident of the South. I was willing to concede that if I were to read another of his books, I’d probably like them more since King is better known for setting works in contemporary times and in his native Maine.
And to that end I have purchased copies of The Shining and Carrie and even checked Misery out of the library, all with the intentions of reading them, but I never did get around to it. My relationship with horror is perhaps even more bizarre than my experiences with Stephen King’s writing–I actually take some sick pathological joy in being frightened, but I am also easily frightened, so I don’t read a lot of horror, especially of the supernatural, because I already know that whatever it is will keep me awake for days. I tend to veer more toward psychological suspense when I want to be frightened. I prefer my nightmares revolve around tangible people and not the unknown. I think, as a result, my subconscious may have prevented me from ever following through with my plans to pick up another Stephen King novel.
In any event, I was recently chatting with my friend Brandon about books when he mentioned he was reading It. I explained my own unsatisfactory experiences with The Green Mile, and he encouraged me to give King another chance. He also provided me with a list of other King books that I might like more. After some due deliberation, I settled on Dolores Claiborne because a) it was one I’d never watched the film adaptation for and was least familiar with and b) the plot description interested me because it seemed like it would be a little less frightening than some of King’s other works. And I’m really glad I got over my initial King experience because I really enjoyed this one! (Thanks again, Brandon!)
One’s enjoyment of this book very much lives and dies by one’s enjoyment of Dolores Claiborne as narrator, and from the very first page, I found her hilarious and fascinating. She’s also compelling. I started reading this book one morning, with the assumption that I would read a bit of it before going to work. A couple of hours later, I was still glued to it and only put it aside because, by that point, I really needed to go to work. As soon as I got home from work, I immediately went back to reading it and didn’t finish until late that night.
The book’s narration is entirely one-sided, with Dolores providing a rambling confession to authorities. This type of narration is hard to sustain over 30 pages, let alone 300 pages, and I was impressed with King’s skill in doing so. I thought he also succeeded in making the other characters just as interesting and believable as Dolores herself. Though this book is definitely Dolores’s show, I particularly found her employer Vera an intriguing character, though we of course only see her through Dolores’s flashbacks.
This novel is definitely more of a psychological suspense thriller, though it has a few suggestions of horror, as befits any book written by Stephen King. Those parts were genuinely creepy and haunting, but they didn’t overwhelm the narrative. In fact, I think King was wise to avoid making the story too overtly supernatural and horrific because a lot of its power is rooted in the realm of the ordinary–that of human relationships and when they go wrong, whether it be employer and employee, husband and wife, mother and child.
*Audiobook also available on Libby.
Are you a Stephen King fan? Which of his books have you enjoyed (or not enjoyed)? Have you read Dolores Claiborne? If you’re interested in requesting this book–or any Stephen King book in our system–just follow this link to our online catalog.