The Stephen King Project – Different Seasons (1982)
About the project
I will be reading all of Stephen King’s books in order of publication (with the exception of The Dark Tower series which I will read together, at the end of this adventure) and writing a review of each. I’ll be looking at the recurring themes, the tricks he likes to use, the way he develops character and the way that his craft has evolved in the 44 years since Carrie was first published.
According to the afterword to this book, King had trouble at first convincing his editor to accept Different Seasons. Novellas did not sell as well during that time and it was harder to find a home for them. That, and the fact that the first three novellas in the collection have nothing supernatural about them, made them a bit of a gamble from the publisher’s point of view and it’s one that I’m very glad they took.
King talks about how each of these were written after he completed work on a novel, a time when he had a bit of story-telling juice left but not enough to make it through another 100,000+ words. I’m a believer that a story has an ideal length; with one exception, I felt these stories were perfect at the lengths they are.
Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption – Like many people, I saw the wonderful film adaptation of this before I read the original story and even now, about twenty years since that first viewing, it is one of my favourite films. For me, it is one of the few adaptations that really captures the heart of the story. It’ll come as no surprise to you then that I adore the novella. I love Andy so much and Red is such a wonderful narrator.
When Andy Dufresne is wrongly convicted for the murder of his wife and her lover, he ends up in Shawshank State Prison, where he meets Red, they guy who can get you things, along with a whole host of other wonderful characters. Many of the guards are bullies and at least one of the governors is a crook. Despite all that, Andy exudes a mysterious calm, a sense that none of this can truly touch him and that everything will work out in the end.
The layers and complexity and depth that King manages to convey in this short book are just breath-taking. If I was ever in any doubt that King is a master of his craft, then this novella would wash all such thoughts away. Seriously, if you haven’t read this yet, stop whatever you’re doing and go and read it now. Take it all in. This story is brutal and unjust and frightening in places, but it’s also filled with beauty and strength of character and hope.
Apt Pupil – If Shawshank is full of hope, then Apt Pupil is the opposite. It is bone-chillingly terrifying – definitely one of King’s scariest stories. Todd Bowden is an ordinary, all-American kid. Or, at least, that’s what he looks like. But when he discovers an old man living nearby is the fugitive Kurt Dussander, Nazi war criminal, he doesn’t tell his parents or report the old man to the authorities. No. Instead he uses his knowledge to blackmail Dussander into regaling him with stories from the concentration camps. He wants to know ‘all the gooshy stuff’.
Todd and Dussander feed off one another, each prompting the other to acts of violence, each a prisoner to their strange relationship. This story is truly horrific and there’s not a hint of anything supernatural – which is probably why it’s so damn scary.
The Body – This is another piece of genius, a story that doesn’t sound like much but is so much more than its plot. A group of 12-year-old boys head out on an adventure one day to see a dead body. See, sounds like there’s not enough there for a novella, right? That’s what you would think, but this is such a rich and textured tapestry of story. Full of the occurrences that make a childhood – being chased by a dog, ragging on each other, swimming in a pond and ending up covered in leeches – this story more than any other feels like looking right into the lives of many people. There’s a line that I love and that I think many people would identify with: I never had any friends later on like the ones I had when I was twelve. Jesus, did you? Now, I don’t remember much about when I was 12, but I do remember the almost mythic proportions that some things took on at that age – and gradually coming to the awareness that Gordie and Chris reach about how some friends pull you up and others pull you under.
My only complaint with this novella is the inclusion of the Stud City story, supposedly written by an older Gordie. It felt intrusive and out of place. The boys and their adventure are the heart of the story and it is my opinion that some of King’s best characters are the kids he writes.
The Breathing Method – Now, I feel like this story doesn’t get a fair chance. You see, it’s a good story and in another context I would probably love it, but coming as it does, after three such powerful and inspired novellas, this was a bit of anti-climax and, for me, it ended the collection on a low note. Perhaps it would have worked better for me had it been positioned before the others instead of after.
I love the framing device of the club, but in this case, it felt like it just went on for too long – half the words were about that framing story, one which, so far as I know, King never came back to – but he spent so much time setting it up it felt like it should have been more important. I think the story of the breathing method would have worked just as well without so much detail being put into the club beforehand.
The Breathing Method itself, the story as told by one of the club members, is a decent little piece of horror fiction but it doesn’t hold up to three previous works, for me at any rate.
All in all, Different Seasons is an essential read for any King fan and it displays some of his best skills. I know that I for one will return to these stories time and again.
Next up is Christine, which has the distinction of being the first book I read by the man who would go on to become my favourite author. Why don’t you grab a copy and come along for the ride?