"Different Seasons" is an electrifying collection of Stephen King 'novellas', stories that fall into that literary twilight zone of being too hefty to be short stores, but also too short to be full novels. It was originally published in 1982, and all four of the stories within were knocked off by King after completion of larger works early in his career. All are stunning reads, consisting of some of the best stuff he's ever done. A linking theme loosely connects things, where each work represents a season of the year both in setting and in tone. Here is each one in a nutshell:
HOPE SPRINGS ETERNAL: RITA HAYWORTH AND SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION
This one has the least horror, but even so it doesn't shy away from detailing the torture of life behind bars. It is told in the first person by Red, a lifer in Shawshank prison who is the "guy who can get it for you". As supplier to the various needs of his fellow prisoners he has developed a cynical view of his surroundings. That is, until Andy Dufresne becomes a guest in the stone hotel. In Dufresne, Red sees a man refusing to succumb to despair, even though he has been railroaded by extreme bad luck and a corrupt justice system. The story develops a feeling of legend around Dufresne, and through his ordeals and triumphs he wears a cloak of dignity that inspires Red to refuse to surrender to his situation as the years wear on. The microcosm of prison life allows for microscopic examinations of the players involved, and the characterizations here are the strongest in the four tales. Like the predictability of changing seasons we have an idea where things are going, and as we move to the seemingly inevitable conclusion the story develops an almost fairytale quality, set in a stone prison instead of a stone castle. What transpires in the final third would seem impossible, if not for King's greatest strength as a writer: the ability to make the impossible seem completely probable.
SUMMER OF CORRUPTION: APT PUPIL
My favourite of the four, because it strikes a balance between a good story and shocking horror. It is largely contained to two characters: young, all-American Todd Bowden and the elderly Arthur Denker who closely guards a devastating secret. The chemistry between the two becomes this story's greatest asset as they enter into a hellish psychological dance. Forming a symbiotic relationship, they feed off each other in horrible ways as Denker aka Dussander starts as teacher to Todd's "apt pupil"...but perhaps Todd is teaching his instructor a few things as well? They provide two separate characterizations of evil that are played masterfully off each other by King: in Dussander we have an obvious atrocity of the past, and in Todd, American rot and deviousness gilded by a brilliant white smile. Again King telegraphs the ending for us, but as the story slides towards the inexorable conclusion, it's the journey of these characters through the Hell they've created for themselves, as opposed to their ultimate destination, that keeps us riveted.
FALL FROM INNOCENCE: THE BODY
This story may not be usual bucket of guts one might be expecting from King, but it's not without its own form of fear and horror...fear of leaving the paradise of childhood behind, the horror of growing old, the terror of losing cherished friendships forever. Four young friends set out on an adventure to find a dead body in the woods, but what they really discover is the fact that their own lives are about to change with the inevitable coming of adulthood. The tale is told by one of the four as an adult, now a horror writer who has found brilliant success in both books and movies...sound familiar, anyone? It is easy to believe that King has taken real people from his own past as inspiration, as the characterizations here are as clear and vibrant as a frozen snapshot in time. Adding to the biographic nature are two stories-within-the-story that are proffered as works by the main character; they're really two works by King that were published in magazines very early in his career. When I read 'The Body', I always imagine the places of my own youth, the tree house, the back alleys, the train tracks, as the places in the story.
A WINTER'S TALE: THE BREATHING METHOD
Where we return again to mysterious 249B East Thirty-fifth street, NYNY. First glimpsed in King's short-story collection 'Night Shift', it's a gentlemen's club where every Christmas season the members gather for a tale told of the uncanny, recited to the flickerings of strange colours in the hearth. We get two stories here along with two narrators; one is provided by barrister David Adley, and is currently the lengthiest portrait of the club and its shadowy existence we've had from King, along with the Christmas story presented by doctor Emlyn McCarron. 'The Breathing Method' is the most horrific work of the bunch as it comes to a crescendo of intensity and hovering madness at the end of McCarron's tale, but it is also a strangely touching story of grim resolve to bring new life forth in spite of a prejudiced, uncaring world.
Four incredible stories, by a writer fully flexing his literary muscles. Out of the four, it's usually 'The Breathing Method' that gets the shortest shrift from reviewers. But any King fan will be thrilled by the lingering view it affords curious 249B. Both the club and the story McCarron relates have a beautiful, darkly ominous quality. One really can imagine the hallways behind those heavy wooden doors twisting off forever. But perhaps attendant Stevens was really talking about the great, seemingly endless reads that Stephen King has locked away behind his twisting psyche: "A man could get lost..."