Sunday, December 1, 2013
"There's a guy like me in every state and federal prison in America, I guess - I'm the guy who can get it for you."
The Shawshank Redemption is a startlingly good film to have originated in the mind of Stephen King, an author whose works have been turned into such absurd constructions as Maximum Overdrive and Cat's Eye. So many people think of King as nothing more than a banal horror writer, and sneer when his work comes up in conversation. What is even more startling is that a writer as good as Stephen King has long been thought of as a producer of popular trash and nothing else.
I'm torn as to whether King does his best work in his insanely long novels or in his short stories, but what I do know is that he shines in his novellas. Different Seasons is a collection with four wildly different novellas between its covers. "Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption" is the first of these four, bright and hopeful and bursting with quiet joy. The story is told by Red, a long-timer in a drab prison telling the story of an innocent inmate, and is a wonder of cadence and rhythm. The brilliance of the story is in its narration - Red is a flawed man, a bad man in some ways, and a deeply fractured man, but you come to love him and his quiet, unassuming voice as it ushers you through the pages of his story. You can really hear him as you read; King never breaks in to do his King thing, he just lets Red take his pen over for a while and tell you about a man he once knew.
The plot of the novella is perhaps a bit trite, the characters include some standard prison-story staples, but none of that matters because King has set you up with a hearth and home to hear a story - his casual, sad, scared narrator puts a comforting hand on your shoulder and ushers you through each sentence with charming familiarity. Your sunshine is his sunshine, and you can still feel it on your face with every rereading, no matter how well you know the story.
"He looked like the total all-American kid as he pedaled his twenty-six-inch Schwinn with the apehanger handlebars up the residential suburban street, and that's just what he was; Todd Bowden, thirteen years old, five-feet-eight and a healthy one hundred and forty pounds, hair the color of ripe corn, blue eyes, white even teeth, lightly tanned skin marred by not even the first shadow of adolescent acne."
"Apt Pupil" is in the "Summer of Corruption" season of Different Seasons (Red tells his story from behind the title"Hope Springs Eternal"). The narration is firmly back in Stephen King's hands, with his side-shifting parentheticals making a few appearances as characters crack and criss-cross moral and personal boundaries. It is one of my favorite kinds of Stephen King stories - a supremely creepy story with nothing supernatural. In fact, it reads a lot like one of the Bachman Books - thrillers penned by King under the pseudonym Richard Bachman from 1977 to 1982, nearly all of which completely eschew the supernatural - and is all the more creepy because it seems like something that could really happen. It is the story of a young monster and an old monster meeting up in suburbia, each poisoning the other quietly under the noses of unsuspecting spectators.
There are two passing and incredibly minor references in the story to Hemingway's "A Clean, Well-Lighted Place" (actually the same reference made twice). It is my suspicion that "Apt Pupil" grew, as many books do, organically out of another story; that one day Stephen King found himself thinking about the old man of Hemingway's, wondering how he came to be quiet and alone in a cafe late at night, what he went home to, what his history was, where his friends were. Because it was King writing the story we are presented with a long, chilling examination of depravity and the ability that depravity has to take root in anyone - the thought that not all men are mad but what men are mad are infectious.
"The most important things are the hardest things to say."
"The Body" ("Fall From Innocence" chapter of Different Seasons) is a profoundly sad story about boys becoming men. It is haunted by an aching nostalgia and humming with the muted joy of memory as it follows four boys on the path to find a body in the last days of summer.
Nobody writes about 20th century boyhood as well as Stephen King does, and if not for Twain I'd say that nobody has ever written as well about boyhood in any century. The effortless way he gets the sun to shine in your memory, the dust to blow through the streets of your mind, and the heat to shimmer over invisible pavement while you feel a Coke in your hand and hear Roy Orbison on a nonexistent jukebox is just a little scary. Every time King writes about kids I feel like I'm wearing old jeans and new Keds, holding 50 cents in my pocket and standing on top of the world.
This is another novella with a strong narrative voice, but one where King shines through his speaker. Gordie Lachance has a lot in common with King, primarily that he is a writer, and offered up a nice opportunity for a couple stories-within-a-story, one of which was probably written as a throwaway for the novella ("Chico"), while the other ("The Revenge of Lard-Ass Hogan") may have been a fantastic opportunity for King to publish a short, hilarious story that otherwise might not have seen the light of day.
Reading "The Body," you're just another kid walking along the railroad tracks, slapping skin, being afraid of the dark and of the wide world you're just starting to understand is out past the horizon. You feel the timelessness of childhood wrapped up in the weight of mortality.
"I dressed a bit more speedily than normal on that snowy, windy, bitter night - I admit."
The problem with frame stories is that you never know which story is the real one. I've read "The Breathing Method" (Season - "A Winter's Tale") at least four times before this and only now am I realizing exactly how creepy the club that frames the story is.
"The Breathing Method" is probably the weakest novella in the collection (it is also the shortest by far). It is more truly a horror story than any of the other stories, and has more supernatural weirdness rubbed up on it than the others do. The construction of the framing club and its strange environs are much more compelling than the admittedly spooky subject matter at the heart of the story.
It stands out from the other novellas, not quite making sense as it rubs shoulders with them. The only thing it has in common with the other seasons is the thing that all of the seasons have in common - a ripe thread of nostalgia binding them together as tightly as the glue in my paperback copy is holding the pages together. The nostalgia in the final novella has thinner lips and sharper teeth than the warm memory of "The Body" or the thin hope of "Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption" or even the drunken recall felt throughout "Apt Pupil, but it is there nonetheless. No matter what may be said of the stories in this collection, they do all have some wistfulness and whimsy; they all shine a light through the dust of mental attics and seem to say "I remember when..."
King talks to his readers. It's a well-known trait of his, sometimes popping up in the actual text of his novels, most frequently observed in fore- and afterwords addressed to his Constant Reader. King has quite a lot to say to about Different Seasons, his first collection of novellas (though not the last, as time would tell), explaining how he shopped the idea to his publisher, when the stories were written, how he felt about being typecast, but more than that he had this to say: "I've been in love with each of these stories, too, and part of me always will be in love with them, I guess. I hope that you liked them, Reader; that they did for you what any good story should do - make you forget the real stuff weighing on your mind for a little while and take you away to a place you've never been. It's the most amiable sort of magic I know" (Afterword, 506). If there is a better reason for reading or writing a story, I've never heard it. Maybe that's why King has become such a staggeringly successful author; he know what it is to want to disappear.
King, Stephen. Different Seasons. Signet. New York: New York. 1983. (Originally published 1982.)