Revisiting Different Seasons by Richard Chizmar
THAT WAS THEN…
It was Christmas 1982. I had just turned seventeen four days earlier and was looking forward to my final semester of high school…and then college. But, first, I had two weeks off and couldn’t wait to do absolutely nothing.
I can’t remember what Santa left under the tree for me that Christmas, but I do remember what my sister Mary surprised me with: an inscribed (by her; not King) hardcover copy of Different Seasons.
Of course, I was thrilled and grateful and dove right in.
“Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption”
I remember opening Different Seasons and scanning the promo copy for “Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption” on the inside dust jacket flap—the most satisfying tale of unjust imprisonment and offbeat escape since The Count of Monte Cristo—and feeling just a bit underwhelmed. A prison story by Stephen King? Hmmm. Well, maybe the prison will be haunted, I thought.
It was haunted, all right—and so was I by the time I finished reading “Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption.”
When I say haunted, I don’t mean in the traditional sense, of course. No spooks or goblins or creepy creatures lurking in the night. But there were hideous monsters (of the human variety) and ghosts aplenty—the weary and forgotten ghosts of wasted lives and dreams and hopes.
Looking back, there’s only one word I can use to describe how I felt while reading “Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption” — spellbound.
It felt like King had waved that magic wand of his and cast some sort of spell over me, and I had been transported to another place and time. Mind you, it wasn’t a place or time I wanted to live in, but for the two days I spent reading “Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption,” it was an amazing place to visit.
By the time Red climbed aboard that Greyhound bus and started off on his long journey to the almost mystical town of Zihuatanejo, it felt like I had spent years residing just down the cellblock from these men, working at their sides in the prison laundry and library; it felt like these men were my family.
There’s just so much story crammed into King’s opening novella—layered, textured, wondrous story.
When I finished reading “Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption,” I realized that the miracle of King’s opening novella wasn’t just his incredible storyline (some of his most clever plotting in my opinion) or his remarkably true-to-life characters (I’m not sure he’s ever done a finer job), the miracle was that he was able to weave such an unforgettable testament to the triumph of the human spirit in this the most unlikely of settings.
Even the restless, seventeen-year-old version of me was able to recognize this monumental achievement. Long before Frank Darabont’s extraordinary film version, I found myself enchanted by passages such as these:
There are others here like me, others who remember Andy. We’re glad he’s gone, but a little sad, too. Some birds are not meant to be caged, that’s all. Their feathers are too bright, their songs too sweet and wild. So you let them go, or when you open the cage to feed them they somehow fly out past you. And the part of you that knows it was wrong to imprison them in the first place rejoices, but still, the place where you live is that much more drab and empty for their departure.
Three-quarters of the way to the end, I saw the rock. No mistake. Black glass and as smooth as silk. A rock with no earthly business in a Maine hayfield. For a long time I just looked at it, feeling that I might cry, for whatever reason. The squirrel had followed me, and it was still chattering away. My heart was beating madly.
Meantime, have a drink on me—and do think it over. I will be keeping an eye out for you. Remember that hope is a good thing, Red, maybe the best of things, and no good thing ever dies. I will be hoping that this letter finds you, and finds you well.
As my final months of high school passed into one last summer break at home, I found myself thinking of these words—and this story—time and time again.
Simply the darkest and most disturbing Stephen King fiction I have ever read (one other King novel runs a close second, but I ain’t talking about that just yet).
I remember the terror and disgust and can’t-look-away pull I experienced as I read “Apt Pupil.” I remember the terrible nightmares it gave me. I remember flipping back over and over again to the first page to confirm that Todd Bowden was really only 13 years old. And I remember reading this nasty little slice of madness like it was just yesterday:
He stabbed the wino thirty-seven times. He kept count. Thirty-seven, counting the first strike, which went through the wino’s cheek and then turned his tentative smile into a great grisly grin. The wino stopped trying to scream after the fourth stroke. He stopped trying to scramble away from Todd after the sixth.
He found the next day he could barely lift his right harm to the level of his shoulder. He told his father he must have strained it throwing pepper with some of the guys in the park.
“It’ll get better in Hawaii,” Dick Bowden said, ruffling Todd’s hair, and it did; by the time they came home, it was as good as new.
There are darker moments in “Apt Pupil”—my God, there are much darker moments—but for some reason this one stuck with me for a long time. I’m not certain, but I think it was the dad ruffling that insane little bastard’s hair.
Finally, I also remember one last thing—with great clarity—and that is never wanting to read “Apt Pupil” again.
And I didn’t…until just now.
Gordie LaChance. Chris Chambers. Teddy Duchamp. Vern Tessio.
Man oh man, I was awestruck. Couldn’t read “The Body” fast enough. And, once I was finished, I flipped back to the first page and started reading it again.
These guys talked like me and my friends. They thought like me and my friends. They acted like me and my friends.
And, oh yeah, they cussed like me and my friends.
Just a few years earlier, we’d hung out in our own awesome tree fort, had gone on countless adventures together (maybe not to locate a dead body, but lots of other cool things: haunted houses, secret fishing spots, buried treasure), and we’d even known a kid from the next block over who buried his precious pennies.
Before “The Body,” I had often felt that Stephen King was somehow able to high-jack my own inner thoughts and emotions for certain characters at certain moments in his stories—much like I felt about Gordie Lachance in this one—but I had never, until now, felt like he was writing about me and my own close group of friends.
It was a wonderful and eye-opening experience.
Other than the Stud City excerpts, which I found intrusive and boring—sue me; I was a youngster—“The Body” instantly climbed the mountain to become my favorite Stephen King story.
Like so many other King tales, it thrilled and enchanted me, it frightened and surprised me, and most importantly, it made me think—about myself, my friends, my family, the world all around us.
You see, even at seventeen, I recognized the bittersweet truth of:
I never had any friends later on like the ones I had when I was twelve. Jesus, did you?
Even then, I knew without a doubt that these words held golden rays of truth inside them—and it made me all the more determined to hang onto the friends I grew up with.
“The Breathing Method”
Okay, time for another one of those embarrassing admissions from my misspent youth:
I started reading “The Breathing Method” three different times that winter break and throughout the following year, and failed each time to finish the novella. In fact, I never once even made it to the halfway point of the story.
I’ve always blamed the more formal prose style and story structure for my failings, or the fact that “The Breathing Method” had an impossible act to follow in “The Body,” one of my all-time favorite King tales.
I may have even (gulp) felt that “The Breathing Method” was boring.
But, looking back with more mature—and wiser—eyes, I think it was something else. Keep on reading to find out what that is…
* * *
THIS IS NOW…
Thanks to extraordinary—and frequently shown on television—film adaptations, “Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption” and “The Body” have become two of the most popular and beloved movies of the 20th century (released under the titles, The Shawshank Redemption and Stand By Me).
Add to this, my numerous and regular re-readings, and I can probably recite the bulk of both stories. But both of King’s tales still manage to hold some surprises for me—as I learned back in April of 1996.
It was an early spring evening in Baltimore, and my wife Kara and I found ourselves sitting on the sofa in our cramped apartment watching The Shawshank Redemption—for probably the fifth or sixth time. I pretty much had the character’s dialogue memorized; especially Morgan Freeman’s wonderful voice-overs, and I usually enjoyed torturing Kara by repeating those voice-overs in my plainly rotten Morgan Freeman voice.
But that night was different, and I was a much quieter observer—because the next morning, I was scheduled to begin a 12-week cycle of intense chemotherapy to combat the cancer that had recently spread to both of my lungs, my liver, my stomach and my nymph nodes.
I sat there next to Kara, with a million thoughts ricocheting around inside my head, but when Red leaned his serenely smiling face out of the Greyhound bus window on my television screen and I heard the words…
I find I am excited, so excited I can hardly hold the pencil in my trembling hand. I think it is the excitement that only a free man can feel, a free man starting a long journey whose conclusion is uncertain.
…a long journey with an uncertain conclusion much like the one I was about to take myself, it felt like the line was written expressly for me, and I found a comforting blanket of peace settle over me. I looked at Kara, she looked at me, and neither of us spoke a word. We didn’t have to.
To this day, I still believe that Steve positioned “Apt Pupil” second in the collection as a sort of cruel ambush for all the folks who were complaining ahead of time that Different Seasons didn’t sound scary enough. Constant Readers came off the heartwarming and hopeful high of “Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption” and—boom—they got smacked right in the gut (and soul) by Todd Bowden and Kurt Dussander.
I can picture Steve sitting back in his chair with his feet up on his desk, smirking, thinking: Serves em right.
Just a reminder that Stephen King doesn’t always play fair, folks.
Gordie LaChance. Chris Chambers. Teddy Duchamp. Vern Tessio.
I still know their names—and voices—as well as I know the names and voices of all the kids I grew up with: Jimmy and Jeffrey, Brian and Craig, Carlos and Steve, Fat Bill and Bobby.
Edgewood was our Castle Rock.
Hanson Road our Back Harlow Road.
Winter’s Run Creek our Royal River.
We rode bikes and skateboards and played wiffle ball and traded baseball cards and cracked on each other’s moms and girlfriends. We played tackle football and marbles and ran from the cops and fought bullies side by side. The world was ours. The future was ours.
And then, before any of us realized it was happening, years had passed and the future was right there in front of us, staring us in the face, and the memories of our childhood—just like “The Body”—felt like nothing more than a cool story we’d once heard. Somewhere.
Revisiting “The Body” now is as bittersweet (there’s that word again) as ever, and it’s sometimes hard to separate the novella from the movie—a testament to the wonderful job Rob Reiner did with the film.
Like “Shawshank Redemption,” it’s one of the very few Stephen King films that is able to capture not only the heart, but the soul, of King’s original story. And we are all blessed for that.
One final observation and we’ll skedaddle over to “The Breathing Method”…
The opening passage from “The Body” is one of those instances where it sure feels like King is reading my mind and lifting my own inner thoughts to plop down in the mind of one of his characters—and it ranks very highly in my all-time Top 10 Pieces of Stephen King Writing list:
The most important things are the hardest things to say. They are the things you get ashamed of, because words diminish them—words shrink things that seemed limitless when they were in your head to no more than living size when they’re brought out. But it’s more than that, isn’t it? The most important things lie too close to wherever your secret heart is buried, like landmarks to a treasure your enemies would love to steal away. And you may make revelations that cost you dearly only to have people look at you in a funny way, not understanding what you’ve said at all, or why you thought it was so important that you almost cried while you were saying it. That’s the worst, I think. When the secret stays locked within not for want of a teller but for want of an understanding ear.
I was twelve going on thirteen when I first saw a dead human being. It happened in 1960, a long time ago…although sometimes it doesn’t seem that long to me. Especially on nights I wake up from dreams where the hail falls into his open eyes.
Jesus. Does it get any better than that?
Okay, I admit it, I was wrong about “The Breathing Method.”
Dead wrong. Let’s get that out of the way right at the start.
In fact, I couldn’t have been more wrong with my initial interpretation.
The novella’s more formal prose style and story structure aren’t its weaknesses; they are, in fact, the novella’s strength. And “The Breathing Method” is certainly not boring. My God, no.
This older and much more experienced reader adored both the New York City club setting and the time-honored storytelling framework employed in “The Breathing Method”—that of a narrator sitting down to tell his story to an attentive audience.
The fact that King concludes such a subtle and old-fashioned tale with such a graphic scene of terror…
I believe that as I yanked her dress up to her waist I began laughing. I believe I was mad. Her body was still warm. I remember that. I remember the way it heaved with her breathing. One of the ambulance attendants came up, weaving like a drunk, one hand clapped to the side of his head. Blood trickled through his fingers.
I was still laughing, still groping. My hands had found her fully dilated.
The attendant stared down at Sandra Stansfield’s headless body with wide eyes. I don’t know if he realized the corpse was still breathing or not.
“Stop staring at her and get me a blanket,” I snapped at him.
He wandered away, but not back toward the ambulance. He was pointed more or less toward Times Square. He simply walked off into the sleety night. I have no idea what became of him.
Rather than slowing down, the locomotive breathing had actually begun to speed up…and then her body turned hard again, locked and straining. The baby crowned again. I waited for it to slip back but it did not; it simply kept coming. There was no need for the forceps after all. The baby all but flew into my hands.
I watched [the nurse] half-walk, half-run back to the hospital with the child and watched the crowd on the steps part for her. Then I rose to my feet and backed away from the body. Its breathing, like the baby’s, hitched and caught…stopped…hitched again…stopped…
I began to back away from it. My foot struck something. I turned. It was her head. And obeying some directive from outside of me, I dropped to one knee and turned the head over. The eyes were open—those direct hazel eyes that had always been full of such life and such determination. They were full of determination still. Gentlemen, she was seeing me.
Her teeth were clenched, her lips slightly parted. I heard the breath slipping rapidly back and forth between those lips and through those teeth as she “locomotived.” Her eyes moved; they rolled slightly to the left in their sockets so as to see me better. Her lips parted. They mouthed four words: Thank you, Dr. McCarron.
…only serves to make me appreciate “The Breathing Method” that much more.
It’s an astounding sequence—and I believed every damn word of it.
Looking back, I’m rather surprised that King never revisited the mysterious brownstone at 249B East 35th Street and the old men who make their club inside its endless rooms and hallways.
I sure hope he does one day.
* * *
I can’t pick just one, so I’m going with Apt Pupil…the whole damn thing.
Apt Pupil, as I mention above, is King at his darkest and most cynical. Two human monsters—one impossibly young, one much older—drawn together to create an unforgettable nightmare of violence.
The deer scene from The Body:
I was about to get up when I looked to my right and saw a deer standing in the railroad bed not ten yards from me.
My heart went up into my throat so high that I think I could have put my hand in my mouth and touched it. I didn’t move. I couldn’t have moved if I wanted to.
What I was seeing was some sort of gift, something given with a carelessness that was appalling.
We looked at each other for a long time…I think it was a long time. Then she turned and walked off to the other side of the tracks, white bobtail flipping insouciantly.
She didn’t look back at me and didn’t need to; I was frozen solid.
It was on the tip of my tongue to tell them about the deer, but I ended up not doing it. That was one thing I kept to myself. I’ve never spoken or written of it until just now, today.
There’s more to this subtle and graceful scene, but I didn’t want to excerpt the whole damn thing. I’ve experienced a handful of special, private moments like this in my life – I think most writers have – and I’ve never spoken or written of them since.
One day I will.
Think I’m going to cheat on this one and pick a favorite line from each of the four novellas…
“Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption” – That’s how, on the second-to-last day of the job, the convict crew that tarred the plate-factory roof in 1950 ended up sitting in a row at ten o’clock on a spring morning, drinking Black Label beer supplied by the hardest screw that ever walked a turn at Shawshank State Prison.
(There are at least a half-dozen other lines I could have picked from Shawshank, but this one wins for today. Ask me tomorrow, and I’ll probably give you a different answer).
“Apt Pupil” – It was five hours later and almost dark before they took him down.
(And that’s all I have to say about this one.)
“The Body” – I never had any friends later on like the ones I had when I was twelve. Jesus, did you?
(Truer words have never been written—at least in my eyes. This little exchange comes in a distant second — They chanted together: “I don’t shut up, I grow up. And when I look at you I throw up.”
“Then your mother goes around the corner and licks it up.”)
“The Breathing Method” – Always more tales.
(Three simple words that pretty much define my life.)
SCENE THAT STILL MAKES ME CRINGE…
Oh, boy, this is a tough one. I could have easily chosen the rape scene or the crawling-through-crap scene from Shawshank or the leech scene from The Body or the climatic, decapitated-momma-giving-birth scene from The Breathing Method—but, in the end, I went with this nasty little number from Apt Pupil:
It was a uniform. An SS uniform. Complete with jackboots.
He looked numbly from the contents of the box to its cardboard cover: PETE’S QUALITY COSTUME CLOTHIERS—AT THE SAME LOCATION SINCE 1951!
“No,” he said softly, “I won’t put it on. This is where it ends, boy. I’ll die before I put it on.”
Ten minutes later he stood fully dressed in the SS uniform. The cap was slightly askew, the shoulders slumped, but still the death’s-head insignia stood out clearly.
Not an old man spinning away his sunset years watching Lawrence Welk on a cruddy black and white TV with tinfoil on the rabbit ears, but Kurt Dussander, The Blood-Fiend of Patin.
“Get those feet together!”
He did so, bringing the heels together with a smart rap, doing the correct thing with hardly a thought, doing it as if the intervening years had slipped off along with his bathrobe.
He snapped to attention, and for a moment Todd was scared—really scared. He felt like the sorcerer’s apprentice, who had brought the brooms to life but who had not possessed enough wit to stop them once they got started.
The old man living in genteel poverty was gone. Dussander was here.
Then his fear was replaced by a tingling sense of power.
In my humble opinion…as chilling and dark-hearted as any scene Stephen King has ever written.
CHARACTER I WOULD LIKE TO KNOW WHAT HAPPENED TO…
Cheating again on this one, folks. Too difficult to pick one character over the other, so I’m going with both Andy Dufresne and Red.
START DATE – September 11, 2015
FINISH DATE – September 29, 2015
The complete list of the books we’ll be reading can be found on the Stephen King Books In Chronological Order For Stephen King Revisited Reading Lists page. To be notified of new posts and updates via email, please sign-up using the box on the right side or the bottom of this site.