5 out of 5 stars.
Minor Spoilers Ahead.
First published by Viking Press in 1982, “Different Seasons” is a collection of novellas written by American author Stephen King. Each novella centres around the theme of seasons and steps away, mostly, from King’s obvious horror background. Three of the short stories were made into Hollywood movies, the most successful of which is the first one we’ll be discussing.
There is something very special about this book and the way certain stories interconnect within the collection, but also with other works by Stephen King.
Subtitled “Hope Springs Eternal”, the first novella in the collection is “Rita Hayworth and Shawkshank Redemption”. This is the story that most people will be aware of because of the amazing film adaption starring Tim Robbins and Morgan Freeman in 1994.
Starting in 1947, the tale is narrated by an inmate known as Red as he tells us about a man named Andy Dufresne who was incarcerated in Shawshank Prison. Dufresne was there to serve a double life sentence for the murder of his wife and her lover, though he denies committing the crime. The story follows Andy over the course of his almost-19 year stay in Shawshank, and very cleverly keeps the point of view from Red’s perspective.
There is something very endearing about this novel both in its language and it narrative. Red had a mixed tone of voice; there are moments where he can come across as common, down-trodden, but then there are moments where we as the reader can catch of glimpse of sophistication. It’s a very interesting way of writing a story: creating a narrative arch about one man’s stretch in prison but telling it through the voice of the inmate who grew to know him best. We get to learn about two characters at once in great detail.
The thing about “Shawshank” as a story is its amazing ability to humanise each of the characters you meet. It sticks to its theme incredibly well. In your average prison story, you are more likely to drift into the realms of the officers in charge. The prisoners are scum, you shouldn’t emphasise with them because they were in there for a reason, they do not deserve your thoughts. The officers do because they are the good guys, they are the ones keeping the public safe. But in this book you get an honesty that is truly astounding for such a short story: everyone is human and human nature flows throughout. The prison guards can be just as cruel as the prisoners, if not worse at times. There are prisoners who have spent so much time behind the concrete walls they pose no threat to anyone but themselves once they get released.
Each high and low of the story is excellently paced, so much so that with every beating Andy receives you feel the blows with him and when he finally gets his redemption you feel just as elated as everyone else.
The second novella, subtitled “Summer of Corruption”, is called “Apt Pupil” and was also adapted into a movie released in 1998 starring Ian McKellen and Brad Renfro. This story was a lot darker than “Shawshank” from the very first chapter, showing King’s brilliance in not only writing about children but psychological tension.
Though the story’s timeline crosses a few years, it starts in the summer of 1974 where fourteen-year-old Todd Bowden goes to visit his elderly neighbour Arthur Denker. At first the boy’s intensions seem innocent: reading for the old man and giving him some company in his solitary golden years. However, it soon becomes apparent why Todd is really at Mr Denker’s home: he has discovered that Denker is not who he claims to be. In reality, elderly Mr Denker was once known as Kurt Dussander, a wanted Nazi war criminal who fled Germany and started a new life in America. Dussander was responsible for some of the most horrific crimes committed during the Holocaust, and Todd wants to know all about it. They strike a deal: Dussander will tell Todd all about his crimes if Todd promises to never reveal his secret. Todd agrees, but the combined psychological toll of the stories and their mistrust of one another soon sends the pair spiralling down a path of mutual destruction.
I found this to be one of the more interesting stories in the collection. For one, it is the only one of the quartet to be written in third person. I thought this was an interesting choice because it gave a clearer reasoning for each characters mental state. The story goes into some very gruesome detail about Dussander’s crimes, Todd’s mental spiral and the torture the pair puts each other through. Reading it this way makes you feel like an outsider looking in, you can understand what is happening but there is no connection to the thought processes of the characters. Seeing “Todd thought” rather than “I thought” gives a separation that is really needed for this novella.
Throughout the story the phrase ‘apt pupil’ is thrown around referring to Todd in a good light. His parents love him and everything he has managed to accomplish, his teachers are fond of him once he gets his grades back up. But they never get to see the real way this phrase represents him. The relationship between Todd and Dussander is a toxic interpretation of a grandson and grandfather, a student and his teacher. We as the reader are peering through the looking glass at this pair as two generations collide in a dangerous and thrilling way. The writing style for this story echoes the kind of style I’m more accustomed to with King’s work, like IT.
As a side note, I found the location of the novella interesting simply because it was set in California rather than Maine. I’m unsure of how many stories of King’s travel away from Maine, but this was the first I’ve noticed it happen.
The third story is one that will be familiar even to people who haven’t read the book. Subtitled “Fall From Innocence”, “The Body” is quite possibly my favourite amongst the collection. It was adapted into the 1986 movie “Stand By Me” starring Wil Wheaton, River Phoenix, Corey Feldman, Jerry O’Connell and Kiefer Sutherland.
Just before Labour Day weekend in 1960, twelve-year-old Vern arrives at the treehouse where his three friends Gordie, Chris and Teddy are hanging out to tell them about a body that’s been found out in the woods. Ray Brower had gone out to pick berries one day and never came home. Thinking this could be their chance to be heroes, the boys decide to go on an adventure out to the woods to find the body before Vern’s older brother and his friends go out to claim it for themselves. The novel is narrated by an adult Gordie who is reflecting on this moment from his childhood in his memoirs.
I was honestly enraptured by this story. It is easily my favourite of the bunch. You get a real sense of nostalgia through King’s/Gordie’s words. I wasn’t born in the 60s, hell, in 1960 not even my mother or father were born yet, but the writing gives off an air of something great. It’s not really the year that’s yearned for when reading this story, its childhood. Each and every one of us will go on a journey like these boys, a journey away from the carefreeness of being children and into the harsh reality that is adulthood. The novella symbolises this by their literally discovery of death through the corpse of Ray Brower. Death is not something you tend to think of as a child, death is some foreign concept you hear about happening to other people but never see with your own eyes until much later in life.
The comradery of the boys is also excellently displayed, and even as an adult it was something that struck me as something totally raw and unfiltered. It’s an interesting message to have in a story about children: that it’s okay to let your friends go. If you feel like you are being pulled in the wrong direction, it is okay to walk the other way. Teenaged-Me learnt that lesson the hard way, but reading it in this novel, listening to Gordie talk about Chris and how they stuck together to get Chris through some tough times, then drifted apart slowly, how Vern and Teddy were set on their path to failure, it is an incredible story that I truly wish I’d read when I was still growing up. I don’t know if I’d have understood the message back then, though.
Finally, the last story on the list. Subtitled “A Winter’s Tale”, “The Breathing Method” is genuinely the most bizzare thing I have ever read from Stephen King. This is the only story in the collection not to have been adapted into a film yet, and, to be frank, I can see why.
The frame of the novella is narrated by a man named David, a middle-aged Manhattan lawyer who gets invited to a private gentleman’s club in which (amongst traditional activities like reading and pool) the members tell stories with have peculiar twists. The focus of the novella is a particular story that caught David’s attention. He’s already suspicious of the club, but when Doctor Emlyn McCarron steps up to tell a tale before Christmas his curiosity is piqued. The doctor tells a story about a patient of his in the 1930s, a young woman he calls Sandra who is pregnant but unmarried who meets a horrible end but still delivers her baby.
I’m not going to lie, this one freaked me out a little. This is more like the weird pseudo-supernatural things I’m used to seeing from Stephen King. And I say ‘pseudo’ simply because (apart from one incident I won’t mention because of spoilers) everything to do with the club implies something creepy is going on behind the scenes.
The writing in this novel takes a slightly different turn than the rest but is no less interesting. It still follows the first person narrative, but because David is telling a story told by someone else, the perspective shifts slight to allow for this man to tell his tale himself, though through David’s memory. It is the shortest of the novellas but it takes on a concept that I’ve not seen before.
Also, the descriptions of 1930s America and its treatment of women who got pregnant before marriage really stunned me. I knew certain things happened but it did make me look up whether some of it was accurate and it pained me to say it was. As much as we still have a long way to go we have taken great strides to escape from that era.
Overall, this was a really fun book to get through. Each story shifted in mood and tone, which kept the whole thing fresh. “The Body” is definitely my favourite, but I highly recommend picking this book up to read each and every one of them because it is so worth it.