Book Review – Different Seasons by Stephen King

Different Seasons

Different Seasons is a 1982 collection of four novellas by Stephen King. At the time, this book marked a bit of a departure from horror for King, the stories within telling more dramatic tales. Each novella is headed by a sectional title that assigns a season of the year to it: Hope Springs Eternal for “Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption”, Summer of Corruption for “Apt Pupil”, Fall from Innocence for “The Body”, and A Winter’s Tale for “The Breathing Method”. In the first story, a wrongfully imprisoned convict manages to rise above his destitute fate, in the second a gifted teen becomes obsessed with the dark past of an elderly local, in the third four rambunctious boys go on a quest to find a dead body, and in the final a single mother-to-be goes beyond the natural in order to save the life of her baby.

I find reviewing this book a bit tricky in a way that’s different from a short story collection or anthology because each one of these novellas could have a dedicated review in their own right, but I really don’t want to keep you here all day, so I’d like to try giving my thoughts on each going along, tying things together as I go.

As a fan of the film adaptation, “Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption” was close to exactly what I expected it to be, plot-wise. It did feel a little less personal, though. Red, a fellow convict and the man who can “get things” for other inmates, serves as the sole narrator of the story and tells it all retrospectively. It was an interesting stylistic choice that helped to highlight the more mythical qualities of Andy Dufresne, the innocent convict upon whom the story is focused, as we come to learn of his reputation and what he manages to achieve despite his position. I liked how it had more of a conversational quality to it too, as if you’re sitting down and hearing Red tell it, with all the tangents, asides, and references to future events in the story that might come along with that.

What was most striking to me, though, was seeing how the film worked toward beefing up the drama in the narrative. The decades Andy spends at Shawshank Prison, and the triumphs and tribulations he goes through, felt a lot more grounded in this book. There isn’t a singular, mean old Warden who oversees his time there, nor a head of the guards serving as his lead crony. Many come and go during his time there, exploiting Andy’s talents for banking like it is business as usual, lost in the shuffle as the years pass, and there was something rather more poignant about that. The tale is ultimately just as hopeful, but there is no grand comeuppance for the bad guys. It shows you an uncomfortable sliver of reality in the penal system, along with the uncanny good fortune Andy is able to make for himself.

“Apt Pupil” is the longest of the collection, and while I enjoyed it as a dark psychological thriller, it was definitely my least favourite. It follows Todd Bowden, a young teen in the 1970s with a sick fascination for all of the “gooshy” details he can get his hands on about the holocaust. Fortunately for his twisted interests, he has discovered that an old man in his community, Arthur Denker, is actually a Nazi war criminal named Kurt Dussander. He blackmails the old man into telling him all that he wants to hear, lest he expose him to the authorities, which begins a sinister, parasitic relationship between the two.

The placement of this story was definitely ideal, as it is by far the darkest and neither of the two lead characters are redeemable, especially by the end. I actually came to find the dreariness a little exhausting, and can’t help but wonder if the story couldn’t have been trimmed a little. None of the other stories overstayed their welcome the way this did. It did nevertheless make for an interesting exploration of the ways a person with sociopathic tendencies, like Todd, can have those sinister aspects of their personality nurtured if left unchecked. Even more so it emphasizes how sick and twisted individuals can hide behind the veneer of a good family, good grades, and performed virtue.

While “Apt Pupil” was the most conventionally told from the third person, “The Body” once again has a narrator recounting the tale, written by one of the four boys, Gordon. He is writing it long after he has grown up from his experiences that summer, when he and his friends went to see the corpse of a boy their age who was missing and had been hit by a train. Unlike Red, Gordon has gone on to become an author in his adult life, so the writing is much more refined to reflect that. Interspersed throughout are examples of Gordon’s writing too, which was a nice touch, especially in one example that was made to read as a much more amateur piece from when he was just starting out.

It’s strange, despite being set so long before my time (1960) and describing experiences and behaviours between friends quite unlike my own, this story nevertheless tugged at my heart strings the most. King is really good at capturing a nostalgic atmosphere, where one maybe can’t relate directly to the events, but can nevertheless relate to the feelings it evokes. Though crude and rambunctious, these boys were among the most likeable and organic characters in the collection too. Initially, I recall being concerned about keeping their names straight. Now, I can’t imagine getting any of them confused.

“The Breathing Method” is the shortest of the collection, as well as the one that offered me the most surprises: I had no idea what it was about. It is a frame narrative, the outer story telling of a strange Club in New York City where members often share stories with one another. The inner story is told by one of the members during the Christmas Season, about a patient named Sandra that he once had, many years before. I love the idea of tying ghost stories and tales of the uncanny to Christmas time, and this example was wonderfully bittersweet and unsettling.

This story is the one that edges the closest to horror of a supernatural kind as well. The direction things were going in was telegraphed fairly early on, but I applaud just how affecting the turn toward the unnatural was. I still felt wholly swept up by the moment of human tragedy, only to be further unnerved, yet also relieved, by the sudden shift to something else. It was an unusual mix of feeling stirred in me that did not go unappreciated.

Final Thoughts

Different Seasons is a little hard to quantify, only because you need not read the others to enjoy each individual story. The links between them are slight, only “Apt Pupil” trying in a small yet obvious way to tie itself to another story and character, though it’s obvious they all take place in the same world. I nevertheless really enjoyed the way these novellas are united by a motif of reflection on the past and the myriad of forms this can take, reflected in the respective seasons heading each story. These are some of King’s best dramatic stories, so even if he deters you because you don’t usually go for horror, I strongly recommend checking this book out. My copy is nearly 700 pages long, but I hardly felt its length.

My Rating: 4 out of 5

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