Monday, January 6, 2020

Different Seasons by Stephen King

Different Seasons is a collection of four novellas, and Stephen King’s first (successful) attempt to demonstrate that he could write a wider range of work than just horror. In the afterward, you can tell he’s both a little chippy that he doesn’t get respect on the basis of the genre he was (and still is) most known for, and knows, for the most part, what his strengths are as a writer. Now, I think that horror can be every bit as affecting and effective than any of the more “literary” genres. That way of thinking seems to be working its way into more wide acceptance, not least by King’s being awarded the Medal of Distinguished Contribution to American Letters in 2003. Genre snobbery still exists, but the intervening 16 years have seen genre and mainstream merge to an even greater degree. And King deserved that award. Of the eight or so of his books I’ve read, I’ve only disliked one, and that is far outweighed by how well I liked the rest of them. I’d put Misery and Salem’s Lot at the top of the list of those, and I think this joins those.

The first novella is Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption is the only one of these I’m absolutely sure I’ve read before; I think it was the first King I read. Of course, I saw the movie years before I read the book the first time, so I couldn’t read it without hearing Morgan Freeman’s voice and feeling the emotional heft of the movie (one of at least ten movies from 1994 that were more worthy of Best Picture that year than the not-terrible, but not even close to best movie of the year, Forrest Gump). Fortunately the movie is an incredibly faithful adaptation and the themes of freedom and avoiding institutionalization are straight from the book, as is the emotional heft of the piece. This is a fantastic story, and, even though I can’t know it, I think I would like it nearly as well had I not seen the movie. It’s the second best story in the book.

Apt Pupil would be a terrifying read in any year, I suppose, but in 2020 when actual nazis are among us again and mass shootings are at an all time high, it’s even more terrifying. Sure, there are fewer nazis than some media would have you believe, but they have been emboldened lately, and some people who should know better look the other way when their party implicitly accepts them. And sure, more gun deaths are suicides than mass shootings, but that doesn’t make the mass shootings any less tragic. Apt Pupil is the story of a 13 year old boy who becomes fascinated with the nazis to the point that he recognizes a nazi war criminal living in his town. He blackmails the nazi into talking about his experiences running the medical side of a concentration camp and both characters go into a homicidal spiral even as they blackmail each other. This is an incredibly tense thriller with a lot of resonance. It’s not horror in the same way King’s handful of previous books had been, but it is very much horrifying. There are two really big coincidences at the end, but if you’re willing to suspend just a little disbelief, the story is riveting.

The Body is the basis for the movie Stand by Me, which, sad to say, I haven’t seen. I’m pretty sure I’ve read at least some of the story before. I’ve read at least the pie eating section before (no one who’s read that is likely to forget it, even though I would have initially guessed that it was John Irving), but as I read the novella I didn’t remember much else other than the basic premise; four friends hear about the location of the dead body of a missing boy. As they go they learn about death for the first time, among other things. King is so good at ruminating on growing up and friendships among kids (see: IT). There are two nested short stories. The second, the aforementioned pie contest story, is great. The first is a pretty bad noirish story. The narrator, a King stand-in writing the story 30 years later bemoans its badness, but saw it as the first thing that was in his own voice. I get what he was going for with it, both in terms of recognizing it as a breakthrough and the thematic resonance with the rest of the story, but the novella would be improved without it. Then there’s the dialog, which I don’t know what to make of. No group of kids talks like every group of kids, but I’m not convinced ANY group of kids would talk like this. That said, I was able to get past both the first story and the dialog because the rest of the story is so compelling, even if it is my least favorite of the quartet. It’s still very good. I’m looking forward to watching the movie soon.

The final story, The Breathing Method, is the closest the collection gets to supernatural horror (though it’s almost more magical realism with a really gory moment with some nice cosmic horror hints). It posits a group of upper middle class and upper class New Yorkers whose club tells each other stories once a week, and around Christmas they tell more supernatural stories. I loved the frame story so much, and the story of a miraculous birth on Christmas Eve that forms the central tale is really unsettling. The strength of this novella is the sense that there is a fully realized world full of other stories and dimensions that it doesn’t tell. This was easily my favorite of the bunch. I get the sense it was a homage to some other writer, but I’m not sure who (there’s a hint of Lovecraft, but that’s not it). At any rate, it is one of the best things I’ve read by King.

Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption- canon-worthy
Apt Pupil- highly recommended
The Body- recommended/highly recommended
The Breathing Method- canon-worthy

Books Owned But Previously Unread 2020 1/75

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