Monday, August 30, 2010

Different Seasons by Stephen King

Different Seasons by Stephen King, 1982

I've read a lot of Stephen King. Some of it is very, very good--The Dark Tower VII: The Dark Tower (2005) is a personal favorite, as is the entire Dark Tower series--and some of it is self-indulgent and ponderous--Under the Dome (2009), for instance.

Different Seasons is mid-period King and it's one of his best efforts that I've read. The four novellas that make up the collection are not his usual small-town horror, although one of them has a strong supernatural element.

The opening novella, "Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption" is something of a modern classic, especially since the iconic film adaptation. The story is a terrific little gem, a bit hokey in segments (as much of King's work is), but ultimately a strong piece.

In the novella, wrongly convicted man Andy Dufresne becomes a beacon of hope in the darkness of Maine's Shawshank Prison, as told by another inmate:

You may also have gotten the idea that I'm describing someone who's more legend than man, and I would have to agree that there's some truth to that. To us long-timers who knew Andy over a space of years, there was an element of fantasy to him, a sense, almost, of myth-magic, if you get what I mean. The story I passed on about Andy refusing to give Bogs Diamond a head-job is part of that myth, and how he kept on fighting the sisters is part of it, and how he got the library job is part of it, too. . . but with one important difference: I was there and I saw what happened, and I swear on my mother's name that it's all true. The oath of a convicted murderer may not be worth much, but believe this: I don' t lie. --- (pages 38-39)

Number two in the collection is "Apt Pupil," a long, shuddery tale of a parasitic relationship between an old Nazi war criminal hiding out in the States and a sadistic young boy. This is King outside of his comfort zone and it's a triumph. The novella is far scarier than most of King's horror novels and is a well-constructed thriller aside from a few moments that don't ring quite true (the initial meeting between Dussander, the Nazi, and Todd, the boy, is a good example).

The third story is "The Body," the tale of four young boys on a quest to find the body of a kid who was hit by a train. Technically, it's well done, but the main characters themselves become grating over the course of the novella and there's just a little too much sap. Still, it's a fairly successful entry in the collection.

It's the fourth novella, "The Breathing Method" that lingers most in my memory. It's really two stories--one concerns a bizarre gentleman's club in New York and the other is a Gothic tale of the supernatural. Both stories pack a wicked punch and King's prose is knife-sharp.

Overall, it's an excellent collection. All of the novellas are entertaining in their way. "The Breathing Method" is probably my personal favorite, but they're all well-crafted stories. King's prose is confident and strong, even though faults that will become more annoying as time goes by (folksiness overload, incredibly obvious symbolism) are present.

Different Seasons is a vastly superior collection to King's next one, Four Past Midnight (1990), which shows King at his weakest. Different Seasons is Stephen King at the height of his talent. It makes me wonder why King has produced so much mediocre material over the past few years. Sometimes he seems to be trying too hard, sometimes he's trying too little. He should look back at this collection and all the things he did right in it.

NEXT UP: Drums of Autumn, the fourth novel in Diana Gabaldon's fabulous Outlander Series.

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