Sunday, 21 July 2019

Different Seasons - Stephen King

“Different Seasons”
Stephen King 

This is the Stephen King collection of four stories superficially set around the seasons. Two novels, a novella and a short story: ‘Rita Heyworth and the Shawshank Redemption’, ‘Apt Pupil’, ‘The Body’ and ‘The Breathing Method’. Two are best known for being adapted into some people’s favourite films. 

There really isn’t any redemption in ‘Rita Heyworth and the Shawshank Redemption’. A guy who was wrongfully incarcerated escapes prison and his friend goes to him after serving his sentence. It makes for a cool title but where’s the redemption? The same kind of faux-poignancy afflicts the story’s by-line: “Hope springs eternal”. The hope to escape? But the escape seems like something Andy worked for over years and not quite a hope, which is surely something more abstract? I guess he would have hoped his digging away would lead to an exit, but…? And what would the narrator Red hope for? To meet Andy again after getting out? Again, it sounds nice but… doesn’t quite develop convincingly.

What we do have with ‘Shawshank’ is an enjoyable study of character and context. The description of the jail and its frictions are well conveyed. A huge ingredient and appeal of King is his style of some-guy-just-shooting-the-shit which makes him immensely readable. Sure, his skill and literary merit can be argued, but he is very easy to engage with and that is formidable, whatever his weaknesses… and my observations make it clear that I often find him just as wanting and annoying as compelling. 

But, as far as ‘Shawshank’ goes: tales of put-upon protagonists outwitting everyone else are always winning. Despite its ingredients of gang-rape and notes on prison corruption, it all succumbs to sentimentality which doesn’t quite feel warranted. There is a sense that all the ingredients don’t quite gel, that the whole doesn’t quite exceed the storytelling and ultimately that the sentimentality is a little like floral wrapping paper on a rusty cudgel. But the storytelling is gripping with numerous memorable scenes and characters. Although Rita Heyward isn’t even the relevant poster.

‘Apt Pupil’ doesn’t possess any sentimentality. It’s the tale of a couple of sociopaths trying to outwit one another. A teenager discovers that an old local man is in fact a former Nazi concentration camp general in hiding and blackmails him to tell stories about that experience. Just the “gooshy” stuff. 

What’s most striking is how King depicts an all-American boy, a thorough success and virtual prodigy, as an all-smiling sociopath, a budding serial- and spree-killer with a deep fascination for fascism. He’s too smart and introverted for the scruffy anger of, say, the Proud Boy movement, but we get the idea: he’s a wannabe Nazi. Grady Hendrix says of the young character: “[Bowden is] just an All-American kid (as King tells us repeatedly, as if type is a substitute for character) who turns out to be rotten to the core.” Meanwhile, the adults have no idea of the monster in their midst. But I see this as the root social criticism. 

It’s the most unforgiving story in the collection. The tale of the impasse reached by these sociopaths is not undermined or embellished by digressions or sentimentality: they wouldn’t feel right here. There is a deceptively protracted feel, as it takes place over years, but it’s all tightly wound. Aside from King needing to introduce another character later on to make things move on, it avoids succumbing to a trite showdown and it remains upsetting and chilling to the very last line. 

‘The Body’ is, of course, the source for Rob Reiner’s ever-popular coming-of-age hit film, ‘Stand by Me’ (1986). Actually, the change in title can be seen as indicative of the film weighting towards the nostalgic and sentimental. Not that King’s original doesn’t have these elements, but it’s a far more clear-headed and sad affair. It is, after all, a tale of four boys thinking that going to see a kid’s body will be an adventure. All around are backstories of abuse, neglect, bullying and abundant cruelty to give the lie to rose-tinted nostalgia. This is not a safe world for the kids. Indeed, despite the I-am-a-writer intrusions – the self-reflexive kind that can made King tiresome – there is the sense that narrator Gordon doesn’t quite know himself why this particular childhood memory is so dominant and defining for him. After all, it isn’t like he continued to be close to all the gang except Chris. Like ‘Shawshank’, it’s told from the perspective of a somewhat adoring friend – in this case, Gordon’s observations about Chris. Unlike ‘Shawshank’ that seems to lunge for the sentimental to make up for what it lacks, ‘The Body’ has natural pathos in abundance.  

The shortest piece is ‘The Breathing Method’ which is a different kettle of fish altogether, with King evoking a more traditionally Gothic and macabre atmosphere. Like Peter Straub’s ‘Ghost Story’, it’s set around a group of men getting together to tell tales. The narrator is somewhat desperate to join this somewhat abstract group (another men-only scenario, elbowing out the womenfolk) and there are hints of something uncanny at the edges. But its centre is one of the men’s tales of a patient and when she gives birth. It’s a full-bodied set-piece where horror, exploitation, pathos and black humour come to a heady and unforgettable peak. You can almost feel King gleeful smirk as he engineers this and, if the other tales nod at the genre, this is the one that leaves no doubt he is a horror writer. All dressed up in the civility of gothic pretension it may be, but this centrepiece is pure grand guignol.  

This is all a Big Boys Affair where women don’t get much of a look-in. They’re mostly murdered in ‘Shawshank’ and "cunts" in ‘Apt Pupil’ and ‘The Body’. Although ‘The Breathing Method’ focuses on a strong female, she is seen through male reportage; a doctor who stops to mansplain how the pain of childbirth is just female delusion. And this could be seen as a feature of character if there wasn’t a dearth of female representation elsewhere. One of the last insights into ‘The Body’s main protagonist Gorden is that he won’t cry in front of his wife because “It would have been pussy.” It’s probably meant to be a call-back to his adolescence when as boys they would call each other “pussies” all the time, but considering how he earlier chastised his younger self for the immature misogyny of his own writing, this doesn’t hint too much at a personal growth. 

King is immensely readable here and the shorter lengths keeps in check his waffling and digressions, to sharpen the focus. The digressions of ‘Shawshank’ colour the context and are riveting. ‘Apt Pupil’, although the longest, is lean and mean without recourse to rambling detours; even when it seemingly loses concentration to divert to a teacher character, this ultimately has purpose. ‘The Breathing Method’ is the kind of story that has plenty of accommodation for lacunas and irresolution. ‘The Body’ is the greatest offender with its insistent subplot of a young author and The Magic of WritingTM trying to pull attention away from the main tale. I for one have never been fond of the dragged-out pie contest barforama from the film and it isn’t much better here, superfluously filling out fictional-within-a-fiction minor characters that really don’t need the attention. There are plenty of secondary characters of interest in the main tale. And the chapter that’s just a presentation of Gordon’s first writing, adjacent to the main tale, smacks of self-indulgence and the whiff of ego (at least the pie contest is part of the main story). But there is often that with King’s writer characters… and there are lot of them in his considerable output.

I read ‘Different Seasons’ for a book group with a people that, aside from one lady, didn’t read horror fiction at all; but despite its nasty and crude edges, the general consensus was that King was a good writer that drew you in, even if he wasn’t usually your thing. I hadn’t read King for a long, long time, but ‘Different Seasons’ is evidence of how he has a natural gift for popularist fiction, and of both how readable and flawed he is. It’s a good one to convert the curious.  

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