The Stranger in My Bed: Take 2.

The Stranger in My Bed: Take 2.

Three weeks ago I reviewed Karen King’s latest, The Stranger in My Bed. While it is billed as a psychological thriller, the issues that underlie the story are important. Here Karen talks a little more about them.

Thank you, Tom, for your blog post about my new thriller, The Stranger in My Bed. I appreciate you taking the time to do this. As you mentioned, I normally write romance novels, where love wins in the end and everything goes right. Whereas The Stranger in My Bed, is a portrayal of a marriage gone badly wrong.

You commented in your blog that ‘Like many men, I had my suspicions that coercive control was mainly an invention of militant feminism and that, if it happened at all, it happened to weak women who were, to a degree, complicit in their abuse. Since then two separate friends of mine, both strong, confident women, have fallen victim to this sort of relationship.’ A lot of people think this, unless they are involved, or know someone involved, in this kind of destructive relationship and this is one of the reasons I wrote this story, to raise awareness of the issue.

Both women and men – although it’s mainly women – are affected by domestic abuse – over 2.4 million according to the 2019 Crime Survey for England and Wales, it’s a big problem that is often misunderstood and pushed under the carpet.  Someone who has never been in an abusive relationship, or never known anyone in one, can find it difficult to understand why the abused person doesn’t run for the door when the first incident occurs and say things such as ‘why didn’t she get out sooner?’ or ‘why  does he put up with it?’ These comments suggest that the victims of domestic abuse are partly to blame for it, that it’s their fault for ‘allowing’ it to happen. I wrote The Stranger in My Bed to try and dispel the myth that abused partners are weak doormats  and  to try and show how insidious the emotional impact of domestic abuse is, how the abuser gaslights their partner into believing that they are imaging the abuse, or that it is their own fault, they cause it to happen. Also, these kinds of abusers aren’t abusive all the time, they are sometimes kind, loving, the life and soul of the party. This can be confusing for their partner who hangs on in there waiting for the abuser to return to the person they know they can be, the one they fell in love with and who loves them.

In The Stranger in My Bed, both Freya and Phil have their faults – as all people do. Freya is no doormat. She is outgoing, strong, a career woman who fights her corner determined not to put up with the things her mother put up with from her father, who was a serial adulterer. Phil is intelligent, loving, kind, charming if a little overbearing, they seem the perfect couple.  One night Phil storms out and Freya packs her bag ready to leave him when he is involved in a serious car accident. When he comes out of his coma he can’t remember the past two years – all their married life – his last memory is of them returning from their happy honeymoon. Freya is faced with the dilemma of whether to still leave him or give their marriage another chance. It’s evident that some kind of abuse has gone on in the marriage, but the story changes POV so that the reader isn’t sure which one of the characters is the abuser and which one the abused.

It’s a story that, I hope, will make people think. That nice couple next door could be going through this, your sister, brother or friend. Did they really get that bruise on their arm by walking into the door frame? Do they always wear long sleeves for a reason? Would they tell you if something was wrong or cover it up? And when they finally do confess to you what’s going on will you believe them or say ‘but he/she seems so nice?’  As you say in your blog, Tom, ‘it can be difficult to believe that there can be a real threat lurking in an apparently normal home’.

No one knows what goes on behind closed doors.  Even the victims of domestic abuse often don’t realise what’s happening to them and question whether they are really the ones at fault, if they are causing the abuse. If my book helps just one of them to open their eyes and reach out for help then I’ll feel that I’ve achieved something.

The Stranger in My Bed

‘We have a patient who has been involved in a serious accident. We believe he’s your husband.’

When Freya first met Phil, she thought he was the man of her dreams. He bought her roses every week, booked surprise trips to sun-soaked destinations, and showed her affection like she’d never experienced before. But over time the dream had become a violent nightmare. And now Freya is packing her bags, knowing it’s time she escaped their increasingly broken marriage.

But then Freya gets a visit from the police. Phil’s been in a horrific car crash and – as he comes around – it becomes clear that he remembers nothing since their blissful honeymoon two years before, back when their relationship was perfect. All he wants is to be happily married again.

Freya knows giving him another chance could be dangerous. But now he’s the one who needs her, it’s a chance to turn the tables, and to change the outcome of their relationship once and for all. After all, he will only know what she chooses to tell him…

But what really happened during those two years of marriage? And as they start over again, who is safe? And whose life is in danger?

Fans of The Girl on the Train, Behind Closed Doors and Date Night who are looking for a dark, gripping psychological thriller, with a final twist that will leave their jaw on the floor, will love The Stranger in My Bed.

Karen King

Karen King was born in Birmingham and has always enjoyed reading and writing. She’s been published for over thirty years, in a variety of genres for both children and adults. She loves writing about the complexities of relationships. She is published by Bookouture and Headline. Her first three books for Bookouture were romances where relationships came right, she has turned to the darker side of relationships for her next two books, writing two psychological thrillers about relationships that go badly wrong. Karen now lives in Spain where she loves to spend her non-writing time exploring the quaint local towns with her husband, Dave, when she isn’t sunbathing or swimming in the pool, that is.

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The Stranger in My Bed: Take 2.

The Stranger in my Bed

‘Coercive control’ is a form of domestic abuse that has started to be taken much more seriously over the past few years, especially since the Serious Crime Act in 2015. It’s not a new thing and there have been many stories and films featuring it over the years. In fact, ‘gaslighting’, when the perpetrator convinces the victim that the abuse is all in their head, takes its name from the 1940 film ‘Gaslight’.

Like many men, I had my suspicions that coercive control was mainly an invention of militant feminism and that, if it happened at all, it happened to weak women who were, to a degree, complicit in their abuse. Since then two separate friends of mine, both strong, confident women, have fallen victim to this sort of relationship. It’s a terrifying problem and people (mainly, but not exclusively, women) need to be aware of the behaviour and its dangers.

This makes Karen King’s latest, The Stranger in my Bed, a timely novel.

Phil and Freya have married after a whirlwind romance. Two years later, the marriage is in trouble with rows that often turn violent. Mind games are being played. But who is the abuser and who is the victim? At this point, though, Phil is involved in a car crash when his brakes are tampered with. He wakes in hospital with no memory of the abuse. All he recalls is the courtship and marriage.

King’s book, then, sets out to tackle several different issues.

  • It’s a straightforward whodunit. Who tampered with the brakes (and continues a campaign to harass Phil, breaking into his house and leaving threatening notes in his home office)?
  • It’s (as it says on the cover) a psychological thriller. Is Freya really in danger from Phil or is it all in her mind? Or is Freya the abuser?
  • It’s a sort of romance. Given the chance to start again, can Phil and Freya rekindle the love that characterised the courtship and honeymoon that Phil remembers or are they doomed to remain in the cycle of abuse?

The story is told in the third person but with chapters from the point of view of different characters. Mainly it’s straightforwardly from Freya’s viewpoint but some chapters are from Phil’s point of view. Phil sees himself as a loving husband. OK, he can lose his temper from time to time, but then his wife, as he puts it “always presses his buttons”. Some of her behaviour (I can’t give examples because of spoilers) goes way beyond what I would consider acceptable in a marriage and I found my sympathies moving to Phil. Karen King’s willingness to forgive the kind of behaviour that would suggest a marriage has already broken down makes me uncomfortable and blurs some of the lines in the book. It certainly doesn’t fit well with the “can they get their marriage back on course” subplot. Surely the marriage is doomed? But, given the structure of many romantic novels, maybe there will be a happy ending after all.

Karen King has a lifetime of writing romance behind her and her writing flows well. All the bits that could be in a romance novel read just as they should. Nice, normal Freya, her handsome sexy husband, their comfortable home, her interesting job. But the ‘psychological thriller’ elements are less comfortable. I felt that there wasn’t quite enough menace for it to work as a thriller. Perhaps that’s what makes coercive control so insidious. It’s very difficult to believe that there can be a real threat lurking in such an apparently ‘normal’ home. Some authors of psychological thrillers introduce a pet animal at this stage – as with the rabbit whose fate gave rise to the expression ‘bunny boiler’ in ‘Fatal Attraction’. Dogs, too, have met grisly ends in plenty of films and books. I have a twisted mind: I miss that sort of peril in a thriller.

Bunnies nervously considering possible plot twists

In summary, this is a romance author who is tackling an important, and very unromantic, subject. It has meant breaking away from her usual style to explore a new genre and, inevitably, there is some grinding of gears as the drive engages with a whole new terrain. But it’s an important subject and one that her audience probably isn’t that familiar with. It’s well written and carries the reader along and anything that makes people more aware of the issues is to be applauded.