(Different Seasons — “The Body”)
If you aren’t familiar with Different Seasons — first of all, you’re missing out. But what you need to know first is that Different Seasons is a collection of four novellas, and you’ve heard of at least some of them. It begins with “Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption”, and if you’ve never read it, you may still know it by the extremely famous movie adaptation Shawshank Redemption that stars one Morgan Freeman. That’s followed by “Apt Pupil”, which has also been adapted into a movie by the same name, although I would understand if you don’t know that one. But the third novella in the book is “The Body”. If you haven’t read these, you might think you don’t know it. But it was also made into an extremely famous movie under a different title: Stand by Me. You’ve probably at least heard of it. The final installment is “The Breathing Method”, which has not been adapted as far as I know and is lesser known as a written work, too.
Even as I sit here typing this, I’m still going back and forth about whether I should cover these in one post or do four separate ones. It would be perfectly possible for me to write an entire long post on each novella. But do I want to do that? Do you want to read that (assuming anyone is even reading)? Since they were first published together and, I think, have stayed that way (if they’ve been published separately since, I don’t know about it, at least) and since I read them that way, I think I’m going to just do one post about the book. But it’s probably going to be a longer one. If I ever finish this current project and feel like it, I reserve the right to go back and do each one separately in order to go deeper, too. I love this book, and my favorite story is a three-way tie between “Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption”, “Apt Pupil”, and “The Breathing Method.” So here we go.
“Rita Hayworth and The Shawshank Redemption” — This is one of the rare stories that I actually saw in movie form before reading. The movie adaptations don’t usually interfere with my perception of the story, but in this case, I can’t help but hear and visualize Morgan Freeman telling the story, even when his character (the book counterpart, anyway) describes himself as having a head full of carroty-red hair. This might annoy me if the movie or Freeman’s portrayal of the character were bad, but my guess is that Freeman was better for the role than whatever real or imagined person King had in his head when he wrote this. That’s unusual, but it happens sometimes, so I’m just going to keep reading it that way.
I should note that the title of the collection, Different Seasons, is supposed to denote that these are not “typical” King stories in that they’re not horror, or not supernatural, or not whatever it is people think of when they think of King. Which was probably important at the time, when he hadn’t created so much content, and may be important for casual readers who know him from It and The Stand and not much else. If you’re living in 2021 and have read a decent chunk of King’s work, it should already be obvious to you that horror is not all that King does. In any case, “Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption” is not “horror” in the ways we might typically think of it.
Except Andy Defresne’s imprisonment for a crime he didn’t commit but that he looked incredibly guilty for, thanks to an incredible coincidence, is horrible. The conditions in Shawshank prison are horrific. The people who run the prison are as crooked (or more crooked) than the people they’re supposed to be supervising, and they’re very Kingian villains — even at this point in his career, human monsters are a trademark of his. Andy’s escape through the sewer system is a very Kingian grossout, too. People who’ve seen the movie but didn’t know it was one of his are often surprised to learn it, but even without a supernatural element, it screams King all over, in my opinion.
The actual plot of the story isn’t very likely, of course — that Andy would be able to make a hole like that in his wall, that he would manage to get away, that he would be able to find his way to the money that’s secreted away for him and make his way to Zihuatanejo. But on the other hand, abuse in prison, by both other prisoners and by guards and higher ups, the deleterious effects of being put in solitary, and the problem of becoming so institutionalized that you can’t adjust to the outside once released — and the problem of releasing prisoners that are elderly or infirm as if they can just walk away and make a life at that point — are all very real issues that prison reformers and abolitionists are still talking about and that still haven’t been addressed properly, so there’s that.
I looked up Zihuatanejo (mostly so I could spell it for this post) and learned that one of the possible meanings for the name is “place of the women”, referring to goddess women who would lead the sun to the place of the dead every day at dusk, so that the dead could have some light. Which makes me wonder if we’re supposed to think that Andy is dead at the end of the book and Red is heading to his death, or maybe that they were metaphorically dead in prison and left to go toward the light of Zihuatanejo, or if King just liked the name. I don’t want to overthink it too much, because I get the sense that King isn’t a fan of overthinking a good story and isn’t purposely writing most of them that way. Still, a lot of writers would have just put them in Cancun or something, so it’s worth exploring why he chose Zihuatanejo.
“Apt Pupil” — I didn’t care as much for Rage and Roadwork on this reread as I have in the past, and I wondered if this would be the same. I also wondered if this story went in the Angry White Boy/Man pile. But I still like it, and I don’t think it does quite belong in the same pile.
The difference in “Apt Pupil” is mostly this: at no point do I get the sense that the story wants me as the reader to sympathize with either Todd or Dussander. Dussander is a Nazi — obvious what the problem is there — and Todd is a kid who went out of his way to find a Nazi and blackmail him into telling first-hand stories about the Nazi death camps because he enjoyed hearing about them. This is not a kid that you can sympathize with. This is almost a bad seed situation. There’s no desire to see either of these characters get away at the end, nor does the story seem to want you to desire that.
Again, there’s nothing supernatural here. Todd is, I think, in the pantheon of King’s precocious kids. He’s a bad precocious kid instead of a good one, and he doesn’t have any telekinetic or psychic or pyrokinetic powers, but he is a little too smart and a little too self-possessed for his age. And he just gets weirder and worse from there. But this is not a “horror” story. Except for how it is.
I was relatively young when I read this, and almost everything in it came as a complete surprise. It would have been one thing for Todd to blackmail Dussander. But to blackmail him for Nazi stories? Because he thought they were… cool? Of course, by the end of the thing, it’s not even just that he thinks the gasses and torture and weird experiments are cool, he’s also picked up on the anti-semitism. And that seemed so strange to me when I read it in 1990-something. I wondered who could possibly be cool with hating Jews now (or then) let alone identify with straight-up Nazi war criminals. Had I actually known some more Jewish people at the time, I probably would have learned differently even back then. But now — well, a couple of years ago, I saw a bunch of guys who looked like grown-up Todds and friends of grown-up Todds marching around with tiki torches yelling “Jews will not replace us.” And that’s only one example of how obvious it’s gotten since I first read this back in the 90s. So revisiting this story is frankly just more horrifying than ever.
But because it’s concerned with the real horrors that men do, it’s “not horror”. OK.
“The Body” — I said up front that my favorite story in this book was a three-way tie between the stories that are not this one. Real talk — this is a pretty distant second. I know, I know. I don’t care much about the movie either.
I hear this story referred to as a coming of age story a lot, and I wonder if it’s just such a specifically male coming of age story that I don’t really get it. Or maybe it’s the time and place that are too specific for me to find applicable.
Whatever the case, it’s not that there’s anything wrong with it — it’s a good piece of writing. The movie is also good — it must be, people love it. It just doesn’t hold my attention well in either format. I will cop to that probably being more of a me thing than a problem with either novella or movie. Too many people love both for me to be able to reasonably argue that they’re not good. I just think that they’re not for me.
It does have beautiful passages. I’m interested in the theme of friends dragging one down instead of propping one up, which is closer to what we usually hear. And while this is another story that’s not “horror”, it does have a body (a pretty gross one). It has kids who got a bad omen coin flip and then three of them end up dying young — not in the story, but still much too young. It has parental abuse and neglect, which is pretty horrible. It also has some other types of abuse of children by older people, including siblings, teachers, and townspeople. Kids have it pretty rough in this time and place.
I will say that I enjoyed the story on this re-read more than previous times, but I still had to force myself to focus, and I took considerably longer to finish it than the other stories.
“The Breathing Method” — This one is really two stories. It’s the story of a woman who gave birth under unusual circumstances, and it’s also the story of a spooky little gentleman’s club. The giving birth story isn’t the only supernatural aspect of the overall story — the club has a decided creep-factor — but it’s interesting to me that the only story that fits the “horror” mold in this collection is the one that primarily concerns a woman. The other three are all very male-centric. Well, this one is too, but giving birth is a central theme of the story within a story and that’s a definite female thing. Just a thought.
I actually didn’t like this one as much as I have on previous re-reads. Before, this would have been my favorite, followed by a tie between “Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption” and “Apt Pupil”. Now it’s a three way tie. Which still means that I like this story a lot, but I found myself wondering why the new club member needed to lie to his wife, and why it was a gentleman’s club at all and not just a club. When the new club member begins to get promoted, I really thought about how that happens a lot in real life — that men get promoted because of things that happen in spaces that women either can’t access or are discouraged from accessing, effectively shutting us out. It bothered me.
In the story within the story, we’re told the story of Sandra Stansfield, who got pregnant out of wedlock in the first half of the 1900s — obviously a scandal in and of itself. I didn’t like Sandra as much as I have on previous reads either. She reads very “not like other girls” to me — which I like a lot less than I used to. Especially when written by a man.
I still like the stories a lot. The club, while it may be misogynistic, is also fascinating. My personal theory is that the inside of the club’s door is located in some attic or cellar or pantry or balcony of the tower that isn’t located on the same level of the the tower that the outside of the club’s door. But I wish we knew more about it. It does return, just once in a short story, but not enough to explain much more about it.
And in the story within the story, the climax, where Sandra’s headless body is determinedly Lamaze breathing, contracting, and pushing out her baby, is appropriately frightening, heightened, and at leasts suggests the presence of something supernatural to explain what’s happening. It’s a great ride. It reminds you that Stephen King is a horror writer, in case the other types of horror you’ve been reading about so far have caused you to forget, and it gives you something to think about. Much of both the club setting and the birth story are atmospheric set-pieces. The sense of the uncanny in the club, the sense of doom — that is specifically spelled out for us — as Sandra progresses through her pregnancy.
I read an article that suggested this is probably why it’s not a movie — actual plot is short here — and maybe that’s true, although lack of material didn’t stop them from making a million Children of the Corn sequels. But there’s something about this mostly atmospheric piece that really sticks with you even after you finish reading it.
Different Seasons stories link to King’s other work in several ways. “The Body” is set in Castle Rock and full of characters and places we see again and again, like Ace Merrill and The Mellow Tiger. Shawshank prison is also a recurring location in King’s work. And in “Apt Pupil”, Dussander refers to having had Andy Defresne pick out stocks for him, so they’re connected even though the events of “Apt Pupil” take place in California. “The Breathing Method” seems to have fewer connections, but the club is certainly recognizable as a King place, and it will recur.
I don’t see many authors selling novellas at all. Different Seasons seems like a triumph of the format to me — but, you know, go find me a famous modern novella. There’s not a lot to compare them to other than more Stephen King novellas, so maybe I’m overblowing it. But this is one of those books that I can pick up again even if I just read it a week ago and still get sucked in anew, and that’s something special.