Saturday, July 28, 2012

Stephen King: Different Seasons (1982)

In "The Breathing Method", one of four novellas collected in Different Seasons, an inscription on the keystone above the large fireplace in a mysterious private club at 249B West Thirty-Fifth Street in New York City reads:
It is the tale, not he who tells it.
In his introduction to Night Shift, John D. MacDonald wrote:
I do not give a diddly-whoop what Stephen King chooses as an area in which to write. The fact that he presently enjoys writing in the field of spooks and spells and slitherings in the cellar is to me the least important and useful fact about the man anyone can relate. ... [T]he main thing is story. ... [O]nce you know how, you can write in any area. Stephen King is not going to restrict himself to his present field in intense interest.
With Different Seasons, King made good on MacDonald's prediction. Three of the four novellas have no horror or supernatural elements whatsoever. Forget genres, King is saying with this collection. Don't think of me as a horror writer – think of me as simply a writer.

In the Afterword, King states that each of these stories was written after finishing the first draft of a longer novel.
[I]t's as if I've always finished the big job with just enough gas left in the tank to blow off one good-sized novella. The Body, the oldest story here, was written direct after 'Salem's Lot; Apt Pupil was written in a two-week period following The Shining (and following Apt Pupil I wrote nothing for three months – I was pooped); Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption was written after finishing The Dead Zone; and The Breathing Method, the most recently written of these stories, immediately following Firestarter.
(Douglas Winter, who interviewed King for his book, The Art of Darkness, offers a different chronology: "Rita/Shawshank" was written after The Stand while "The Breathing Method" came after Cujo.)

All four novellas revolve around the act of telling stories.

In "Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption (Hope Springs Eternal)", Red, a convicted murderer, gathers strands of information from a variety of sources to tell us the story of fellow Shawshank prison inmate Andy Dufresne, an accountant who was falsely convicted of killing his wife and her lover. After 27 years of blind hope, "brute persistence" and seemingly limitless patience, Andy escapes and becomes a folk hero to the other inmates, an avatar of hope against an inhumane institution.

"The Breathing Method (A Winter's Tale)" is a gothic horror story in which a group of older, professional men gather each week at a Manhattan brownstone to trade tales of the uncanny. On a snowy Christmas Eve, a retired physician recounts the tale of an unmarried pregnant woman who came to his office back in 1935.

"Apt Pupil (Summer of Corruption)" is a tense, psychological thriller in which Todd Bowden, a seemingly all-American teenager, blackmails a Nazi war criminal into telling him stories of the death camps. Todd is obsessed with the firing squads, the gas chambers, the ovens, the experimentations – "all the gooshy stuff". Bringing up the past has unexpected consequences and as his relationship with Kurt Dussander deepens, Todd finds that he no longer has the upper hand.

The tour de force of this collection is "The Body (Fall from Innocence)". It is a classic coming-of-age story, a journey from innocence to experience, in which four close friends (all 12 years old) head out from their homes in Castle Rock, Maine, on an overnight trip to see the dead body of a boy their own age who went missing three days earlier. One of the boys, Gordon Lachance, now an adult with a successful writing career much like Stephen King's, is recalling those eventful two days.

Safe inside the confines of a tree house the boys have built near a vacant lot in Castle Rock, the boys - Gordie, Chris Chambers, Teddy Duchamp, and Vern Tessio - play cards, smoke, and look at girly and true crime magazines. Vern relates a conversation he overheard, in which his older brother mentioned the body near some train tracks, roughly 30 miles away. The four boys decide to look for the body – one final summer adventure before trudging back to school the following week - packing sleeping bags and concocting a cover story for their parents.

A common theme in many of King's books - Rage, The Shining, The Dead Zone, Carrie, among others - is the damage (both emotionally and/or physically) that parents regularly inflict on their defenseless children. Each of the four boys has suffered some type of neglect or abuse from their families.

Chris's alcoholic father is always on a "mean streak" and beats him on a regular basis. When Teddy was eight years old, his father punished him for breaking a plate by searing both of his ears on a hot stove. Vern seems to exist mainly as a punching bag for his older brother.

Gordon's parents are still mourning the accidental death of their other son, Dennis, who was ten years older than Gordie. Dennis died five months earlier when his Army jeep was broadsided by another truck. Gordie says he relates to the title character of Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man, a book which Gordie assumed was science fiction when he chose it for a school book report. He says he still really enjoyed it. "Nobody even notices him at all unless he fucks up. People look right through him." Like Ellison's nameless main character, Gordie and his friends' identities are in flux. They are embarking on young adulthood and the act of self-creation, searching for their true selves.

Any semblance of a loving or caring environment is one that the boys must carve out for themselves, among themselves. King is a master at portraying the special bonds of young adulthood, and the love that exists between friends. This entire story is testament to that fact, but there are some exceptional moments. One occurs early in their hike, after the guy who runs the town dump insults Teddy's father (who is confined to a veterans mental hospital and who Teddy, despite the abuse he has suffered, still loves and defends). Teddy explodes in anger and tears, and Chris goes to comfort him, holding his hand and telling him:
Lissen, Teddy, what do you care what a fat old pile of shit like him said about your father? Huh? I mean, sincerely! That don't change nothin, does it? ... He still stormed the beach at Normandy, right? Do you think that pile of shit was at Normandy? ... He was rankin you, man. He was tryin to rank you over that friggin fence, you know it? No strain, man. No fuckin strain. He don't know nothin about your old man. ... He's just dogshit, man. Right, Teddy? Huh? Right?
Teddy apologizes for his outbursts. "Hey if I spoiled your good time, I'm sorry."

Vern suddenly says: "I ain't sure I want it to be no good time. ... [G]oing to see a dead kid — it shouldn't be a party, maybe. ... I mean, I could be a little scared. If you get me.

Within this tight group of friends, Vern knows he can share his honest fears and worries in a way he cannot do with anyone else in the world.
I'm ascared to look at that kid cause if he's, you know, if he's really bad ... I'll have nightmares about him and wake up thinkin it's him under my bed, all cut up in a pool of blood ... I can't help it. But I feel like we hafta see him, even if there are bad dreams. You know? Like we hafta.
(As King writes in "The Mangler" (Night Shift): "It was the way things worked – the human animal had a built-in urge to view the remains".)


Near the spot he overheard his brother describe, Vern spies a single, pale white hand sticking out of the blackberry brambles. Gordie:
It would have been better to see the whole body, all at once, but instead there was only that limp outstretched hand, horribly white, the fingers limply splayed ... It told us the truth of the whole matter. It explained every graveyard in the world. The image of that hand came back to me every time I heard or read of an atrocity. ...

Chris and I were the first to reach the body of Ray Brower. He was face down. Chris looked into my eyes, his face set and stern – an adult's face.
The corpse of Ray Brower is death stripped of metaphor. It is the end of life in its most raw form: a lifeless body in the bushes, crawling with bugs. Seeing the corpse brings the concrete idea of death - the reality of his brother's death and his own mortality - home to Gordie for the first time. The idea of death is no longer an abstract thought.

What makes the tragedy brutally real for Gordie is knowing that Ray's Keds were knocked completely off his feet; he sees them hanging in the bushes about three feet away. Earlier in the story, Gordie says that for him, summer will always mean running down to the market on a hot day with some change in his pocket, "my feet dressed in Keds".


On the first day, after the boys have set up their camp for the evening, Gordie tells one of his stories: "The Revenge of Lard Ass Hogan". (Both this story and "Stud City" are included within the novella; they were published by King while he was in college.)

Hogan - "this fat kid nobody likes" - enters a pie-eating contest. To get revenge on the people who have teased and hurt him, he drinks a bottle of castor oil beforehand. When he gets sick after eating a couple of pies, it starts an epic domino effect of vomiting among both contestants and audience members alike. Hogan then walks home.
"Just goes upstairs to his room, locks the door, and lays down on his bed."

I downed the last swallow in Chris's Coke and tossed it into the woods.

"Yeah, that's cool, then what happened?" Teddy asked eagerly.

"I don't know."

"What do you mean, you don't know?" Teddy asked.

"It means it's the end. When you don't know what happens next, that's the end."

"Whaaaaat?" Vern cried. There was an upset, suspicious look on his face ... "How’d it come out?"

"You have to use your imagination," Chris said patiently.

"No, I ain't!" Vern said angrily. "He's supposed to use his imagination! He made up the fuckin story!"
The full conversation is actually a sly bit of literary criticism: what makes a story, when is a story complete, the storyteller's responsibility to a reader, how much effort should a reader put into a work of fiction, etc.

A little later, Chris tells Gordie to not pay any attention to Teddy or Vern, that the story was good. "They come outta you like bubbles out of soda pop. ... It's like you could tell a million stories and still only get the ones on top. You'll be a great writer someday, Gordie."

The boys talk about starting junior high in a few days. Chris says, "And you know what, Gordie? By next June, we'll all be quits."

Gordie is shocked. "What are you talking about? Why would that happen?"
It's not gonna be like grammar school, that's why. You'll be in the college courses. Me and Teddy and Vern, we'll all be in the shop courses, playing pocket-pool with the rest of the retards, making ashtrays and birdhouses. ... You'll meet a lot of new guys. Smart guys. That's just the way it works, Gordie. That's how they got it set up. ...

"Meet a lot of pussies is what you mean," I said.

He gripped my arm. "No, man. Don't say that. Don't even think that. They'll get your stories. Not like Vern and Teddy."

"Fuck the stories. I'm not going in with a lot of pussies. No sir."

"If you don't, then you're an asshole."

"What's asshole about wanting to be with your friends?"

He looked at me thoughtfully, as if deciding whether or not to tell me something. ...

"It's asshole if your friends can drag you down. I know about you and your folks. They don't give a shit about you. ... It's like God gave you something, all those stories you can make up, and He said: This is what we got for you, kid. Try not to lose it. But kids lose everything unless somebody looks out for them and if your folks are too fucked up to do it then make I ought to. ... If you go along with us just because you don't want the gang to break up, you'll wind up just another grunt ... Nothin'll get written down. Cause you'll be just another wise guy with shit for brains."

Chris Chambers was twelve when he said all that to me. But while he was saying it his face crumpled and folded into something older, oldest, ageless. He spoke tonelessly, colorlessly, but nevertheless, what he said struck terror into my bowels. It was as if he had lived that whole life already, that life where they tell you to step right up and spin the Wheel of Fortune, and it spins so pretty and the guy steps on a pedal and it comes up double zeros, house number, everybody loses.

While it is a fool's game to match up autobiographical details in a writer's fiction, I feel safe in saying that what Gordie says about his writing career are King's thoughts as well.

Gordie sees writing as private act – and he remains somewhat embarrassed about it:
I always felt uncomfortable when the talk turned to my stories ... I wanted [Richie] to read them and at the same time I didn't – an uneasy mix of pride and shyness that has never changed in me very much when someone asks to look. ... [Richie said:] "You're pretty good at this. Why don't you show these to Chris? I said no, I wanted it to be a secret, and Richie said: Why? It ain't pussy. You ain't no queer. I mean, it ain't poetry."
As an adult:
Me? I'm a writer now, like I said. A lot of critics think what I write is shit. ... My story sounds so much like a fairytale that it's fucking absurd. ... [T]he writing isn't so easy or as much fun as it used to be. ... And I wonder if there is really any point to what I'm doing, or what I'm supposed to make of a world where a man can get rich playing "let's pretend". ...

Nowadays writing is my work and the pleasure has diminished a little. ... And although no one is going to call me the Thomas Wolfe of my generation, I rarely feel like a cheat ... What scares me is how often it hurts these days. Back then I was sometimes disgusted by how damned good it felt to write. These days I sometimes look at this typewriter and wonder when it's going to run out of good words.

When the boys get back to town and Chris heads back to his own house, Gordie can't think of anything to say.
Even if I had known the right thing to say, I probably couldn't have said it. Speech destroys the functions of love, I think — that's a hell of a thing for a writer to say, I guess, but I believe it to be true. If you speak to a deer you mean it no harm, it glides away with a single flip of its tail. The word is the harm. Love isn't what these asshole poets like McKuen want you to think it is. Love has teeth; they bite; the wounds never close. No word, no combination of words, can close those love bites. It's the other way around, that's the joke. If those wounds dry up, the words die with them. Take it from me. I've made my life from the words, and I know that is so.

Keith Silva, "A Requiem for Ray Brower: Encounters with Death in Stephen King's 'The Body'" (thesis):
Death is a fact of life, just like the facts that parents do not always love their children, adults can often be cruel and hurtful, and friendships that appear at the age of twelve that would seem to last for eternity seldom do. Although "The Body" is imbued with these elements of indifference, despair, and death ... [e]ach death (and life) is remembered and it resonates with the ones that preceded it until finally Gordie can fully realize what mortality actually means and what a joy it is to be living and alive.
Silva points out another of King's strongest themes, the randomness of life and death:
In the end, survival is not a result of heroic triumph, and there is no action that can restore innocence destroyed by experience. In the end, survival is the result of random chance tempered in the end by fate.
All you can do is what Lard Ass Hogan did after his pie-eating contest: Go home, lock the door, lie down on your bed and be glad you are still alive.

Next: Christine.


laura k said...

Gordie says he relates to the title character of Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man

Now that's what I call a coincidence.

Amazing that all of these stories were made into movies - three of them hugely successful.

Maybe at some point you can write about King's involvement with the movie adaptations of his work.

laura k said...

King is a master at portraying the special bonds of young adulthood, and the love that exists between friends.

This sounds so good. I love what you and Keith Silva say about "The Body"... but what you've written is much better than what you've quoted. I'm curious to see if I find this too obvious, the dialogue too stilted.

I love the anger at the unfinished story, a reader annoyed at having to use his imagination, accusing the storyteller of not doing their job.

johngoldfine said...

The inscription sounds like a variation of "Trust the tale, not the teller." --DH Lawrence

I tell that to student writers who sometimes react rather doubtfully to my laudatory comments by saying, 'Well, I never meant all that, had no idea it was in there!'

Not much point writing if there isn't some magic, some tapped subterranean streams, some surprises in the tale even for the teller.

Zenslinger said...

A dumb little observation on this one, too: The Body made a pretty big impression on me. In 1986 (or whatever) I was at a friend's house watching TV with nothing on my mind (we might have just finished or were about to watch Spinal Tap.) A movie trailer was broadcast: there was an aerial shot of four small figures on a railroad bridge with the sun reflecting off the water, and I knew instantly that someone had made a film of this (relatively obscure) book.