Different Seasons (1982)

As King points out in the afterword to Different Seasons, the novella is rather an awkward proposition for a publisher. Too short to be released individually, yet too long for most fiction magazines to consider, the novella falls somewhere in between and is therefore often likely to remain unread by anyone other than the author. Thankfully, the successes of his previous works gave King a considerable amount of clout with his publishers. The result is Different Seasons, a strong collection of four novellas which - at first glance - might seem to have little in common. However, while only one of them is an outright horror story, the others each contain various horrific elements, regardless of their central plot.

The first, 'Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption' (subtitled Hope Springs Eternal), will be familiar - in essence, at least - to most people, thanks to the success of the film adaptation. The plot, concerning convicted murderer Andy Dufresne, is narrated by Red, an Irish-American fixer at the notorious Shawshank penitentiary. Almost from the beginning, King establishes Red as a believable character in his own right; he is a likable and trustworthy narrator. Red's relationship with Andy develops from wary respect to true friendship in a measured, gradual way that never seems forced. King's style here is concise but detailed, creating a whole world within Shawshank's walls: wardens come and go, brutal guards and inmates are confronted or accommodated, and all the while Andy makes himself invaluable to those above him in the prison hierarchy.

Major spoiler ahead! But this is all a diversion from Andy's secret work: escape. Behind a series of posters (starting with one of Rita Hayworth), he gradually chips away at the wall above his bed. This escape route is the one thing which keep Andy going over the years, and he directs all of his energies to (a) creating it and (b) dissembling, with the result that his eventual escape is a surprise to everyone, even in the close world of the prison community. King reveals Andy's escape fairly early on, which allows him to expand on (some of) the details via Red's recollections and prison hearsay. As a paean to hope, perseverance and optimism in the face of cruelty and depression, 'Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption' is a complete success. Hardcore fans of the rather bloated film may be disappointed by this pared-down original, but I much prefer it.

The next story, 'Apt Pupil' (subtitled Summer of Corruption), is an entirely different animal. It opens with 13-year-old Todd Bowden - the apt pupil of the title, an all-American boy with top grades - knocking on the door of an old man in Santa Donato, California. Todd has worked out that the old man is Kurt Dussander, a former Nazi commandant (the "Blood Fiend of Patin") living under an assumed name, and proceeds to blackmail him. It's a simple enough set-up, but the story swiftly develops into a horrible power game, with control alternating between the two. Todd's initial reason for the blackmail is simple interest in the subject, but his curiosity about experimentation and genocide grows into an unhealthy and disturbing obsession. In the meantime, he is unaware that he has awakened the long-dormant monster in Dussander.

Spoilers ahead! Their mutual descent into evil covers some gruesome ground. Todd struggles for normalcy as his grades begin to fail, but it is his burgeoning sexual nature which provides some of the most sinister moments - in particular, his first wet dream, in which deviant experimentation and murder become inextricably linked with arousal. Another chilling scene involves Todd forcing his opponent to wear a costume-shop Nazi uniform and goose step around the house. King's perversion of Todd's innocence parallels his portrayal of Dussander's gradual loss of the self-imposed control which has preserved him this long, and both begin separate killing sprees among Santa Donato's homeless population. A particularly tense section in which Dussander has a heart attack allows King to exploit the paranoid relationship of dependency which exists between his characters to the fullest extent, and the consequences of this scene set up a truly bleak denouement. By far the darkest of the stories in this collection, 'Apt Pupil' makes for a harrowing and almost physically grimy read.

'The Body' (subtitled Fall from Innocence) will again be familiar to fans of the film version, Stand By Me, which is a remarkably faithful rendering of the source material. The plot takes us to Castle Rock, and follows four friends as they embark on a journey to find the body of a local child who has gone missing in the woods. Inadvertently tipped off to the location of the body, narrator Gordie Lachance and his friends - Chris Chambers, Teddy Duchamp and Vern Tessio - race to beat a group of older and meaner kids to get there first. Their adventure is a classic coming-of-age tale, as the four boys make the transition from the long, fun summer days of childhood to the more realistic and painful state of adulthood. King gives us a solid grounding in the geography and families of Castle Rock, and creates an air of poignancy around the boys' jaunt up the train tracks. On the first page of the novella, he writes:

"I was twelve going on thirteen when I first saw a dead human being. It happened in 1960, a long time ago... although sometimes it doesn't seem that long to me. Especially on the nights I wake up from those dreams where the hail fell into his open eyes."

I love that last sentence; it tells you a great deal in very few words, and manages to be chilling and almost heartbreaking at the same time. King maintains this bittersweet tone - surely one of the hardest challenges of writing to pull off successfully without descending into mawkishness - throughout, and the novella feels like a very personal piece of writing.* Gordie is a natural storyteller, even at this young age, and we are treated to a couple of his early pieces, including the puketastic tale of a pie-eating contest and a moody fictional reflection on the death of his brother. Although these moments work to break up the (mostly comical) plot, we are always aware of the end goal, the body of the title. In their final confrontation with the older boys, our heroes realise that they will never look on life in the same way again. I think that however unhappy one's childhood might have been (and mine was generally happy, so this is an assumption on my part), there will always be a few moments that we treasure in later life. In this tale of lost innocence and the drifting nature of friendship, King has crafted a sweet and touching portrait of those times.

The final novella in the collection is 'The Breathing Method' (subtitled A Winter's Tale), a gothic horror story if ever there was one. Our narrator, Mr Adley, is invited to a mysterious gentlemen's club by his employer, where the informal membership play billiards, or sit by the fire with a good book. The Club is overseen by a manservant, Stevens - always ready with the appropriate drink at the perfect moment, but not especially welcoming of questions. Adley embraces the various oddities of the Club, taking the hint when Stevens rebuffs his genuine (and understandable) curiosity. For sometimes, eerie tales are told, which draw the listener into rapt attendance. One of these, a pre-Christmas horror story told by a member called McCarron, makes up the body of the novella. I won't go into detail about it here, but it is a deliciously macabre affair, revolving around McCarron (a doctor) and one of his pregnant patients. Although this story is the centrepiece of 'The Breathing Method' (and gives the novella its name), King is almost as interested in the Club itself. The enigmatic - and at times, deeply sinister - Stevens is a strong creation, as is the rather bumbling Adley, ever-so-slightly out of his depth in this enticing but unsettling brownstone.

The Club's motto is: "It is the tale, not he who tells it." King opens Different Seasons with the same line. Given that each of the novellas contained within the book revolve around stories, most told by well realised narrators, one more concerned with uncovering the evils of the past, this should not be surprising. I find it interesting that King's current reputation is for knocking out bloated novels one after another - as if he doesn't know when to stop writing - but these stories give the lie to that kind of thinking. In his shorter fiction, King displays a truly skilful economy with words, as is the case here. And while Different Seasons might not have been what his horror readership were expecting at the time of its publication, I would argue that the book contains some of his most effective stories to date.

Notes for the obsessive factfan: Andy Dufresne is mentioned in 'Apt Pupil', having given Dussander financial advice at some point before his incarceration. 'The Body' refers to Shawshank penitentiary, and also to the events of Cujo, introducing Constable (later to be Sheriff) Bannerman. Finally, King notes that each novella was written immediately after he had completed one of his earlier novels - I won't list them here, as this is possibly only of interest to me.

* Indeed, in Danse Macabre (if I'm not mistaken), King briefly mentions the earliest bad thing he can remember: stumbling home, confused and alone, the friend he was with having been struck by a train. The parallels with 'The Body' are striking.

Next: Christine.


Emma said...

Apt Pupil scares the crap out of me.
That's my informed literary opinion.

Sasha said...

Another insidiously convincing entry. I'm interested in your footnote, that he wrote each novella after a longer work. Is there any matching of tone or subject, or are they quite different departures?

Dan said...

'The Body' was written after 'Salem's Lot; 'Apt Pupil' straight after The Shining; 'Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption' after The Dead Zone; and 'The Breathing Method' after Firestarter.

They're mostly quite different in tone and subject - although if you reduced them down to their basic elements, you could probably argue that, say, 'Apt Pupil' and The Shining were both about malevolent evil and madness. But I don't think too much should be read into this, because you could technically unify all of his books under that (or a similar) theme if you reduced the plots down enough.

In King's own words: "...it's as if I've always finished the big job with just enough gas left in the tank to blow off one good-sized novella." His subsequent collection of novellas, Four Past Midnight, is pretty good, too (as I remember it anyway) - but I've got about 10 more books to read before I get to that one...