Different Seasons

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Stephen King again? I do seem to feature him a disproportionate amount, but this time with good reason. My friend and now colleague Jeff Garvin and I have launched a podcast, the first episode of which is now available on iTunes, Stitcher, or directly on our website. This is the special project I teased in my July article about The Writer's Journey and I am relieved that it is no longer a secret. As hosts of The Hero's Journey Podcast, Jeff and I will examine classic and contemporary literature and cinema through the lens of Joseph Campbell's The Hero's Journey and using Christopher Vogler's The Writer's Journey as the modern guide. It has been a challenging and exciting and, as we raced toward release day, terrifying project. The podcast is all about the common elements of the path the hero takes in almost every story. Episode 0 introduces the concept of the project using examples from Star Wars and Harry Potter, but our first official episode focuses on the Stephen King novella "Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption" which was published in 1982 in the collection Different Seasons. We also cite Frank Darabont's wonderful film adaptation The Shawshank Redemption.

For the project, we tasked ourselves only with reading the first story, but I enjoyed it so much that I just kept going and in short order, reached the last page of the entire book. I had not intended to write a blog entry about just the one story, but since I ended up reading all four of them, I figure I might as well exercise the writing muscles once again. So here are my brief thoughts on the lovely Different Seasons.

Hope Springs Eternal

"Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption" is just the first of four novellas in the Different Seasons collection. It is worth noting that none of the stories in this early Stephen King work are horror stories, proving once again that the man is not just a horror writer. After reading this novella, I was surprised at how lukewarm I felt about it. This is one of those rare instances where the film is better than the source material. King's story is good, but the Frank Darabont film elevates the story and the characters to a much higher level. I have seen the film a dozen times or more and rank it among one of the best films ever made so I am sure I am being unfair to the novella. It is difficult to be objective in this situation. Much of the film's script is a verbatim transcription of the novella so much of that wonderful dialogue is credited to Mr. King, but Darabont's script includes significant changes that tighten things up. Byron Hadley, the cruel captain of the guards, plays a much smaller role in the novella, but the film turns him into a major adversary to great effect. Similarly, the warden Norton is just one of four wardens who run the prison throughout the novella, but the film conflates those into one superb villain played by Bob Gunton in the film. Because the novella has so many wardens, their impact feels minimal and maybe that was intentional on King's part. The prison staff comes and goes, but the inmates remain for the long haul. The film needed a Darth Vader so creating one single warden who antagonizes the inmates from the beginning was an excellent choice. If we are going to side with convicts, we have to hate the man who rules them. For the most part though, if you've seen the film, the novella will not present any surprises. It is still well worth reading.

Summer of Corruption

Following "Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption" is "Apt Pupil". Usual Suspects director Bryan Singer followed up his stellar debut feature film with an adaptation of this novella. It was not received nearly as well as his crime drama and I am sorry to say I have little memory of the film Apt Pupil. This novella, on the other hand, is outstanding and would be my favorite of the collection were it not for the story that follows it. A chilling examination of sociopathy, "Apt Pupil" tells the story of Todd Bowden, a bright, All-American thirteen year old boy who has discovered that a former Nazi officer is living in his neighborhood. Todd is fascinated by the atrocities committed by the Nazis on the Jewish people during World War II and wants to hear the stories directly from someone who personally committed those atrocities. This is not just youthful curiosity, however. Todd derives a sick pleasure from these stories and soon embarks on a path of atrocities all his own. The story is frightening in its plausibility. Todd and Herr Dussander are loathsome characters and I found myself reading voraciously, hoping they would both suffer justice. A brilliant story and one of the best of the collection.

Fall from Innocence

The third story in the collection is "The Body", the inspiration for the 1986 Rob Reiner film Stand By Me, which had a profound effect on me in my formative years. The film is good, but the novella is stellar. Like the previous story, the film version is nearly identical to its source material, but in this case, the source material is the better experience. "The Body" is the story of four young friends who set out to find the body of a boy who had recently gone missing. If you have seen the film, you know that the story is not about the dead boy. The journey is greater than the destination here and the boys' experiences during their search and how those experiences impact the boys' friendship are the true subject of the story. I saw the film at a young age, roughly the same age of the boys in the film, and now I read the novella with a sense of nostalgia and longing, just as it is written by adult Gordie. This is my favorite of the four novellas in the collection.

A Winter's Tale

In the final novella, "The Breathing Method", a is invited by a partner at his firm to join an exclusive club. The club's headquarters has a large, stone hearth with a roaring fire, an extensive library with mysterious books of which he has never heard, a butler who speaks little but always has a glass of scotch ready when you need it, secret rooms with tiny doors. Each Christmas, one member of the club tells a story by the fire. This year, a retired doctor tells a tale of his younger years when his medical practice was new. An unmarried woman seeks prenatal care, socially frowned upon at that period of time, but the doctor agrees to treat her. What begins as a mundane story about the relationship between a young doctor and his patient during her pregnancy ends with a supernatural twist. This is definitely the strangest and most disjointed of the four novellas. So much time is spent on the man joining the club and his odd experiences within that I thought this was his tale, but all of that just serves as a conduit to transport us to the point where he hears the aging doctor tell his story. The real story is about and by the doctor so I wonder why King did not just start the story with him rather than insert him into this other strange tale that does not actually go anywhere. As good as "The Breathing Method" is, it is my least favorite, a statement that meant to elevate the other three stories rather than demean this one.

What struck me with this collection is how each novella featured literature and storytelling as a part of its narrative. In "Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption", the story is a journal written by Red and Andy spends considerable effort to expand the prison library. In "Apt Pupil", Todd tells his parents he is reading classic literature to the sweet old man down the road. "The Body" is a story written by an adult Gordie who has matured to become a published author and within the novella are shorter stories written by a younger Gordie. In "The Breathing Method", the club members tell stories to each other when they are not reading from the club's extensive library. Books and writing are often a feature of Stephen King's novels. Misery is about a famous author held captive by his "number one fan". The Dark Half is about an author who disposes of his literary pseudonym in a mock burial only to have the alter ego manifest itself as a physical being and terrorize the author and his family. This was a cheeky meta novel written after King was exposed as the true talent behind the pseudonym Richard Bachman. The Shining and Bag of Bones also feature authors as the central character. King's love of reading and writing is all too apparent throughout his body of work and it is difficult to resist being infected by it. Why would I want to resist anyway? This is one infection I will happily host and spread.

11/22/63

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When I was approximately twelve years old, I experienced my introduction to Stephen King when I read the unabridged edition of The Stand. My parents raised me to be a reader so I had read hundreds of books but they had all been age-appropriate: Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing, Bridge to Terabithia, Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH, Old Yeller, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, and any number of Newbery Award winners my mom would bring home to feed my brain. Stephen King's The Stand was my first adult novel. Being the age I was, it felt dangerous and exciting to be reading that book. Even as I and the books I had been reading grew from elementary school to junior high school, nothing had yet reached the level of scale and depth I would experience with The Stand. It took me an entire summer to read it, but I adored every page and became a Stephen King fan for life.

Fast forward a couple-few decades and King is writing books faster than I can read them. Every time I feel like I have made some good headway into his body of work, I glance at an updated bibliography and am stunned by what I see. A year ago, my friend Jeff began pestering me to read 11/22/63. I owned a copy, a gift from a friend if I recall correctly, but I kept postponing it. This is a big book and I had allowed the volume of the novel to intimidate me. I am not twelve anymore and I had convinced myself that I did not have the free time to devote to such a large novel. Why not, though? I read the equally robust Under the Dome a few years ago and adored it. I had devoted time to books one and two of Patrick Rothfuss's beefy Kingkiller Chronicle. I was making excuses, weak ones at that, so I finally dove in.

Stephen King is known for his horror novels, but he has not limited himself to the genre. He branches out more often than most people realize and when he does, I find the result just as satisfying. 11/22/63 is just one of King's several non-horror novels and it is superb. A modern moral question with which we are often presented is whether we would travel back in time to kill an infant Adolf Hitler if we had the opportunity. King explores a similar argument in 11/22/63, but instead of asking whether it is OK to murder a baby if you know it grows up to be a monster, he suggests a more heroic path and asks what would happen if someone had the chance to prevent the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. This is a brilliant novel, masterfully constructed, and so much fun.

When English literature teacher Jake Epping is shown a portal to the past tucked away in the storage room of his neighborhood diner, he is not sure he believes his eyes. The diner owner, Al, says the portal always exits the same date and time in 1958 and he has been using it to try to stop the Kennedy assassination. Now, Al has taken ill, is unable to continue, and needs Jake to take his place. He warns Jake, though, that the past does not want to be changed and it will try to stop him every step of the way. With the portal dumping him into 1958, he will have to wait five years before he can attempt to stop the 1963 Kennedy assassination. That is a long time for the past to fight back. Jake agrees to take on the challenge and what follows is a wonderful story of perseverance and consequence.

I worried that the five-year gap Jake has to fill before he can attempt to save Kennedy was going to be a long-winded slog, but I should have trusted Stephen King. I was absolutely fascinated by Jake's activities during that period. As time marches toward the inevitable, Jake takes the opportunity to practice changing the past to varying degrees of success, all of which threaten his ultimate goal. Stephen King has always excelled at character. Whether his novels focus on a small number of characters or feature a huge cast, his characters are complex, interesting, and devastatingly human. They represent the best and worst of humanity and with a few exceptions, all are plausible. King introduces Jake to some great characters and even manages to humanize Lee Harvey Oswald. I am not saying the guy was a lovable chap I would invite over to watch Game of Thrones, but I found myself recognizing Oswald as something more than a simple villain and that is a testament to Stephen King's otherworldly ability to write characters who inspire one to read well past one's bedtime, even on a school night.

For longtime King fans, this story fits nicely into his established literary universe and there are references to previous works that I suspect will delight you. If this is your first Stephen King novel, there is no reason whatsoever for you to not enjoy this amazing story fully even without the knowledge of King's previous work and settings. Time travel is a difficult subject to write convincingly because there are so many questions, so many logical arguments. King's solution to this conundrum—I do not read a lot of time travel stories myself so it may not be entirely original—erases the need for these arguments and allows the reader the glorious freedom to just enjoy the story as it is presented and if one allows oneself that beautiful experience, the reward is so well worth it. This story is thrilling, intense, and full of moments that will make you forget to breathe, and if you are the type of person who enjoys a bit of romance in your novels, this story will kick you in the teeth. Is this book sitting on your TBR pile? Put it on the top. Right now. I will allow you to finish your current read, but 11/22/63 needs to be next on your list. I am not even kidding.

Misery

I first experienced Misery in 1990 on the silver screen.  I was fourteen years old at the time and Kathy Bates scared the bejesus out of me.  I started reading the novel a couple of years later, but did not progress very far due to reasons that now escape my memory.  Recently, and once again inspired by my niece, I returned to what may now be my favorite Stephen King novel.

Famous author Paul Sheldon loses control of his vehicle in a Colorado snowstorm and crashes off the road.  Annie Wilkes, a certified nurse, extracts the unconscious and seriously injured writer from the wreckage.  With the snowstorm raging, the phones are out and the roads are blocked so getting Paul to a hospital is impossible.  She brings him back to her secluded home to nurse him back to health and it is there she learns who he is:  her favorite author.  Oh what a treat for her. 

As expected, the film took quite a bit of creative license with the story and while I enjoyed it, the novel is leagues better.  Where the film included multiple points of view, the novel is told exclusively from Paul’s perspective.  When Annie is not in his convalescence room, we have no idea what she is up to and that frightens me much more.  Just as with every Stephen King novel I have read, the characters are the strongest part of the book.  When the majority of your entire novel has just two characters, they’d better be strong characters and King delivers as he always does.  Annie Wilkes is one of the most frightening characters I have ever encountered because she is so vile, so sadistic, and so believable.  She is not a monster under the bed.  She walks among us, a hideous beast hiding in plain sight behind a sweet smile.  We first see her as a benevolent rescuer but in short order, the veneer begins to crack and the true Annie is revealed.  O, and the things she does to poor Paul!

Misery is truly one of the most intense books I have ever read.  Anyone who has only seen the film needs to read the novel.  In many cases, the film is enough like its source material that one could probably get away with not reading the book if one wasn't in the mood, but Misery demands to be read.  King is so clearly expressing some personal concerns here that his words need to be consumed to gain a deeper appreciation of the author as a human being.  Fortunately, Stephen King has never been in the same situation in which he places Paul, but you just know he received some fan mail that got his brain pistons pumping.  When you are as famous a person as Stephen King, you no doubt come into contact with all kinds of people, most of whom are perfectly decent folk, but a few of whom are Annie Wilkes.

In a heart stopping instance of life nearly imitating art, Stephen King was struck by a car and seriously injured during his daily walk in June 1999.  I don’t imagine that in that exact moment he subconsciously prayed that the driver was not an Annie Wilkes, but as he recovered in his hospital room, one has to wonder if he was grateful not just to be alive, but to be in a public hospital with the story plastered all over the news instead of being rescued by a deranged fan and secreted away to a secluded location in the mountains.  As Paul Sheldon wrote during his imprisonment in Annie’s house, so too did Stephen King write after his accident to help himself heal.  Being in such pain, King had considered retirement but in a recent interview with Bangor Daily News, King recalled that his wife set up a writing desk for him and encouraged him to work to help him mentally recover from the accident.  It worked too because King has written over thirty novels, non-fiction books, and novellas since his accident.  We all owe Tabitha King a note of gratitude.

On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft

Thoughts on Stephen King's On Writing

A friend of mine recently approached me with idea of collaborating on a novel.  Intrigued by the idea and needing a creative outlet, I accepted.  He asked me to read On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft by Stephen King before our first writing meeting next weekend.  His thought is that the book will give the two of us a common foundation so I was more than happy to comply.  I am typically a slow reader, taking weeks to get through books of just a few hundred pages, so my fear was that I'd be burning them midnight oil the night before the meeting in an attempt to finish the book in time.  I read On Writing in a little more than a day.

The memoir segment of the book, roughly a third of the page count, is told in brief vignettes.  Some of them are hilarious and some are damned heart-breaking but all of them are beautiful, stained-glass windows into the life of a man who has become an American pop culture icon and how he became the writer he is.  King pulls no punches and directs a good many of them back at himself.  He is candid about and, I dare say, embraces his personal demons where others would conceal theirs at all costs.  King knows these traits define his character and I love and respect him so much more now for being courageous enough to share them with the public.

The rest of the book contains Stephen King's advice on the craft of writing.  He goes out of his way to stay brief because as he notes in his foreword, "the shorter the book, the less the bullshit".  He encourages a writer to just sit down and write, seeming to subscribe to the "use it or lose it" philosophy.  He knows creativity is difficult and knows that a writer must constantly grease the gears or the whole machine will seize up and break down.  This is a philosophy I've heard repeated by many creative people, some of whom I know personally and hold in high regard.  King supplies new writers with a helpful toolkit, cites examples from the work of other authors and provides insight into his own approach to storytelling.  As King puts it, writing a story is like unearthing a fossil.  It must be done carefully and with the right tools.

On Writing is encouraging, pleasant, and funny as I suspect King was to his own students.  Reading this book is less like sitting in a university auditorium and more like relaxing in a cozy parlor with a cup of tea and a crackling fireplace.