Tuesday, October 23, 2018

Novella King: Different Seasons and The Mist by Stephen King

I've been on a bit of a Stephen King kick lately.  I'm five books into The Dark Tower series.  I even taught Pet Sematary in a class on philosophy and horror.  I've read at least 16 of his books (according to my count on Goodreads), and I've added most of the rest to my to read list.  And here are a few coincidences: I found a stand-alone copy of The Mist at the used book store a couple months ago, I saw The Shawshank Redemption on TV a month ago, and I saw a copy of Different Seasons at the public library a week later.  Due to these coincidences (or was it ka?), I thought I'd check out some of King's novellas.

Different Seasons

This collection of four novellas is essential for any Stephen King fan or anyone who likes the movies The Shawkshank Redemption or Stand By Me.  As King explains in the afterword, he wrote most of these novellas after completing full length novels (he says he finished each of those novels with enough gas left in the tank for a novella). But novellas are tricky beasts: too long to be short stories but not long enough to be full length novels.  He was also trying to show that he's not just a horror author (although any die hard King fan could tell you that now, this wasn't as obvious in 1982 when this was first published).  I enjoyed each novella for different reasons although the theme of friendship runs through them all (more on that in a bit). Let me discuss the novellas individually.

Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption

As you can guess, this is the basis for the film The Shawshank Redemption.  I recently watched the movie again in one of its incessant runnings on basic cable, which is what made me pick up the novella.  The movie follows the novella closely with a few minor exceptions.  The novella is about Andy and Red forming a friendship at Shawshank State Prison in Maine (of course) over the years and Andy's 25-year plan to escape.  I personally found the novella a bit more emotionally engaging (I teared up as I finished it), but maybe the movie wins because I read the whole thing in Morgan Freeman's voice.

Philosophically, both the movie and novella delve into the importance of hope and friendship in difficult times, things that are not merely nice to have, but essential for human life or living the good life (I know this sounds old-fashioned and naïve these days.  Whatever.).  What do you need to live a good, meaningful life?  Could you live a good life in non-ideal circumstances?  That this novella can bring up these questions while being so damn engrossing just shows you how good King is.

The issue of friendship is explored an excellent essay called "Stephen King and Aristotelian Friendship: An Analysis of The Body and Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption" by Bertha Alvarez Mannien, which appears in the volume Stephen King and Philosophy.  I direct readers to that essay for more on friendship.

Apt Pupil

This is the longest of the novellas, sliding into short novel territory.  It's also my least favorite.  Not that it's bad.  It's pretty good vintage King with despicable, yet engaging characters, but it maybe goes on a bit longer than the story should (a problem King came to have to a greater degree later in his career once he started writing doorstoppers).  Apt Pupil was also made into a film with the same title, although I haven't seen it.  The novella focuses on a former Nazi living undercover in the 1970's in a California town.  He befriends a young all-American boy, who of course turns out to be just as demented as the old Nazi.  Good one, Stephen King!  The boy discovers the Nazi's secret, and they form a weird relationship ... "friendship" isn't the right word, since it relies more on mutual blackmail than mutual admiration.

Unlike the previous novella, which focuses on the redeeming qualities of hope and friendship, this one takes some horrific turns in showing a sort of deranged "friendship" and detailing the effects of hate instead of hope.  Sure, it's not supernatural horror, but I'll go ahead and call this horror, anyway.  The horror is moral, focusing on the dangers in the derangement of the human heart.  And if a Nazi in hiding and a demented teenager don't scare you, I don't know what will.

You can find an interesting take on the teacher-student relationship in this novella in an essay called "Propaganda and Pedagogy for Apt Pupils" by Michael K. Potter and Cam Cobb in Stephen King and Philosophy.

The Body

This one is the basis for the film Stand By Me, a movie I loved as a kid.  The movie follows the story closely, although I think you get more detail (much of it heartbreaking) in the novella.  This was another great one.  Four 12-year-old boys in Maine go in search of a dead body, complete with chase scenes, encounters with bullies (of the kid, adult, and canine variety), stories-within-stories, and deep thoughts on the meaning of life (no, really).  Again, the theme of friendship looms large.  We find out that the narrator is a writer and this is his memoir.

The boys' desire to see the dead body may sound morbid, but I think it's actually the way they (or at least the narrator as an adult) think through issues of how to spend what little time we have in a universe hell bent on killing us, probably while we are busy making other plans.  This isn't quite the deep pondering on death you get in Pet Sematary, but it's getting there.  Also, the story of a group of kids echoes a lot of what King did in IT with our identities as kids and as adults, albeit sans inter-dimensional clowns.  But The Body stands on its own as a solid work well worth reading even if you've seen the movie.  I also recommend the Mannien essay I mentioned above in the review of Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption for more on the issue of friendship in this novella.

The Breathing Method

I wasn't sure what I was going to think of this one, the only one that hasn't been made into a film (although a film project seems to be stuck in development hell).  I enjoyed it a lot, mainly because it has a definite Lovecraftian flavor (only if Lovecraft's prose wasn't quite so weird and he admitted that women exist; also, the Lovecraft homage has got to be deliberate since Weird Tales magazine is mentioned at one point!).  The Breathing Method is also the only one of the four novellas that may have a hint of supernatural (or maybe science fictional?) horror.

A man is invited to a mysterious private club in New York City (one of those rich, white dude affairs I've only ever seen in movies with a private library, brandy snifters, a butler, etc.).  Once again, we get a novella involving the importance of friendship and camaraderie in human life.  The gentlemen at the club amuse themselves by telling stories.  One of the older men, a doctor, tells a story of an intriguing woman he helped during her pregnancy back in the 1930's.  He was her doctor, but they also became friends.  I don't want to spoil that story, so I'll leave it there.

My favorite touch in the frame narrative is the private club's library full of books that have no records of existing anywhere else in our world.  Any story that involves trips to the library as essential to the plot gets a lot of points from me (and adds a lot of Lovecraftian points, too).  I've occasionally had trouble locating bibliographic information for old books I've come across, which makes me wonder...

The Mist

I happened to see the movie version of The Mist several years ago and really liked it.  Then I saw the TV series of The Mist, which was okay but went downhill.  So I've been keen to read this one for awhile.

This is definitely one of King's more overtly Lovecraftian stories, what with all the eldritch creatures bursting into our world for unfathomable reasons (although funnily enough, at one point the main character tells us that the creatures aren't Lovecraftian, but he means this for a very specific reason, which I won't spoil).

What works: the eeriness of the mist itself, the dread of the creatures (especially the fact that we don't see them for quite awhile), the Lovecraftian absurdity of the whole situation...

What didn't work as well: the main character, David, is neither very interesting or likable (which is odd for King who usually does characters so well), the novella is in the first person so we're kind of stuck with him, and the story takes awhile to get going and then ends when it starts to get interesting.

Maybe I was ruined by having read Different Seasons right before this.  Those are some of King's best, so maybe they created unrealistic expectations for me.  I don't think The Mist is King's best work, but it's well worth reading for fans of King or interesting takes on Lovecraftian horror.  I'd put it about on par with the movie, which I remember really liking although it's been awhile.  The novella is better than the TV show, which took one unlikable character and added an ensemble of unlikable characters doing endless Walking Dead-style side quests.  I don't know what happened there.

Since one thing I didn't like about the novella was the rather abrupt ending, would The Mist have worked better as a full length novel or even one of King's latter-day door-stoppers?  If the TV series is any indication, I'd say not, but you never know.

I've also grown a bit tired in recent years of the whole motif of "people are all evil bastards without the comforts of civilization" (this is why I stopped watching The Walking Dead and don't really like "edgy" grimdark stuff in general).  People can be bastards in stressful situations, but they can also pull together and help each other and retain some sense of nobility or at least keep trying to be good people.  This is, after all, how humans have survived for tens of thousands of years.  Granted, this is to some extent what happens in The Mist (they do form groups and help each other), but things go full on Lord of the Flies a bit too quickly, I think. Or maybe the problem was that the main character's motivations were never entirely clear and some of his actions really don't make much sense.  As much as I like the story and the atmosphere, I often had trouble identifying with David as a fellow human being.

Or maybe King's point is that human beings are the truly unfathomable Lovecraftian horrors?

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