22 December 2013

Different Seasons (Four Novellas), Stephen King

Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption   ****
Everyone has seen the film but some will still be surprised to discover whose mind this uncompromising and ultimately uplifting story came from. This is probably the single instance where a film adaptation threatens to overshadow King's original novella' a powerful exploration of indomitable human optimism.

Settling comfortably into a first person conversational narrative, Andy Dufresne's co-inmate and soon-to-be good friend Ellis (Red) Redding relates all he knows of Andy's crime, his time in Shawshank Penitentiary and his incredible and daring plans.

The account is so rich and so credible that it's easy to believe 'Red' was a genuine inmate. King's original story appeared in the beautiful storytelling-themed collection 'Different Seasons', and although deemed a novella is long and detailed enough to stand easily as a short novel.

Apt Pupil ****
It's hard to pick a favourite from the collection 'Different Seasons', it's so strong. However, for me Apt Pupil is the most dramatic, the most literary and the most gripping. And it's up against pretty stiff opposition from Shawshank and The Body.

His name-making novels were behind him now but I believe the collection 'Different Seasons' was where King started to show his true class. Apt Pupil is the only one of the three written in the third person so King can't slip so easily into his favoured fireside storytelling mode.

A young boy obsessed with all things Nazi is amazed to identify a German war criminal living in his small American town. He befriends the man but then blackmails him into spilling firsthand accounts of Nazi atrocities. Subsequent events see a turning of the tables and a grim stalemate develops.

The characters are rich and colourful, and the tale reads like melodrama. In a trademark reference to characters in other books, we are told Andy Dufresne (star of Shawshank) is the banker who gave the Nazi investment advice. King's one small failing is his endowment of the boy with the conversational style of an adult. Not quite authentic. Nonetheless Apt Pupil is a first rate story masterfully told.

The Body ****
Better known as the film Stand By Me, this is one of King's early ventures into the realm of formative childhood experience. Gordon, now a successful novelist, is writing an account of an event from his youth. The account is a flashback of his thoughts and tells the story of a summer in the 1960s. Gordon and three friends set out to recover a boy missing from their small town.

Under the ruse of a couple of nights' camping, the friends walk the railway tracks until they find his body. Throughout the long walk, the lads exchange banter and reveal the grim realities of growing up in a small town with few prospects. The adventure changes each of them forever.

King's mastery of popular culture and credible dialogue lift this novella from the 'Different Seasons' collection to a dramatic and literary level.

The Breathing Method ***
A tale with a supernatural twist in which a young pregnant woman befriends a doctor and persuades him to help her deliver her baby whatever the eventual circumstances. This was published as one of a collection of four novellas in 1982 under the collective title Different Seasons. Each of the four has some literary pretensions in that they veer from the horror genre, in some cases entirely. Publication was delayed so as not to interfere with SK's astounding initial period of horror success and because there was no perceived market for short mainstream novels.

The Breathing Method culminates in a horrific moment but its strength is a slowly mounting tension and dark atmosphere. Both in tempo and linguistically it reads like one of Poe's dark tales, revealing one of King's early inspirations. This is definitely short story territory using the tried and tested 'tale within a tale' delivery. Spooky and with some unexplained sideshoots, it is the last member of the 'Different Seasons' collection and the only one with a genuinely horrific moment.


Russell Duffy said...

As any author, critic, fledgling writer or indeed professor of literary fiction would assert; short story fiction is where the art of writing is found. No wonder that King is master of both. Another great post.

Perfect Virgo said...

This is a collection of four novellas. The Breathing Method is only fifty pages or so but the other three average a couple of hundred pages each.

I like the format a lot and this collection has factors (but not subject matter) which connect them, making a cohesive whole. King's four real short story collections, holding twenty or more tales, are great too. Bite-sized chunks you can easily digest in one short sitting.