"Is horror all you write?" In the illuminating afterword to Different Seasons, King reveals that it's a question he hears a lot ... and is unable to tell whether the response is relief or disappointment when he says no.
That King wrote beyond the boundaries of the horror genre should have been obvious, even before Different Seasons. A duo of stories in King's Night Shift collection - "The Last Rung on the Ladder" and "The Woman in the Room" - feature no visceral horror, even though both stories deal with tragic death. The Dead Zone, while utilizing supernatural elements, is essentially a mainstream book, and Firestarter hews closer to science fiction than horror. Additionally, King was working behind the scenes, publishing decidedly non-horror novels under the Richard Bachman name, most notably Roadwork.
While the novellas in Different Seasons are chiefly non-horror and non-supernatural (with a single exception), the basic thrust of King's fiction remains the same: ordinary people in extraordinary situations. The novella length - between 25,000 and 40,000 words, longer than a short story but shorter than a novel - allows King to grow and develop his characters, but also to focus his stories, telling only what he needs to. As with Night Shift, the selections here are arranged deliberately; utilizing the title as a guideline, each tale is set against the backdrop of a different season, with the element of the passage of time important to each of the four novellas. (Similarly, time would later feature as an important facet of King's later novella collection, Four Past Midnight.)
"Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption," subtitled "Hope Springs Eternal," tells the story of wrongly imprisoned Andy Dufrense, and his struggle for survival against overwhelming odds. Narrated by Andy's friend Red (a style King would later incorporate in Christine), "Shawshank" depicts prison life as an almost relentlessly brutal experience. Corrupt wardens, sadistic guards, and the constant threats of violence and rape are vicious facts of life. Andy Dufrense undercuts this simply by refusing to give up hope. Even early in the story, Andy achieves almost mythic status - Red allows that he's "describing someone who's more legend than man" - but King never loses sight of Andy as a living, feeling person, one of "Shawshank"'s greatest strengths. So powerfully fantastic are these elements in a realistic setting, King would later transmute them into the realm of the supernatural in The Green Mile.
Time as a tangible thing becomes one of the most important aspects of "Shawshank." Similarly, time is central to the story of "Apt Pupil," the second novella of Different Seasons. Subtitled "Summer of Corruption," "Apt Pupil" concerns itself with Todd Bowden, a young boy whose Great Interest is the Holocaust. At the outset, Todd is presented as a perfectly normal young boy, with a supportive family structure and an upper-middle-class lifestyle. His life and his Great Interest coincide when he discovers a fugitive Nazi named Kurt Dussander living in his town. Armed with effortless confidence, Todd entraps Dussander, forcing him to tell stories about his time heading the concentration camps; "all the gooshy stuff," Todd says. Slowly but implacably, the stories Dussander tells influence Todd negatively, preoccupying him to the point that it affects his performance in school as well as his emotional state. The relationship between Todd and Dussander grows mutually parasitic, and we witness the repercussions of immorality: corruption, madness, and eventually murder.
"Apt Pupil" is one of King's most powerful and disturbing works of fiction. Its themes of pleasant suburban America as a cover for things amoral and sinister ripple throughout King's work, most obviously in It and Thinner. A deeper reading of the first sentence betrays Todd's motives: "He looked like the total All-American kid..." Looked like is important; even before meeting Dussander, Todd's interest in the Holocaust sets him apart from his peers. His obsession with Dussander's stories grows disturbingly erotic, suggesting Arnie Cunningham's almost lustful relationship with his car in Christine and the passion for objects in Needful Things.
Time in "Apt Pupil" works on multiple levels, foremost the notion of past evil rising up to damage the present (a theme King would explore more literally in It, Bag of Bones, From a Buick 8, and Duma Key). Further, as we watch Todd's growth from a boy to a man, we are also witness to his spiritual decline; by the time he first commits murder, we are shocked but not surprised.
"The Body," King's most autobiographical tale to date, also explores the themes of past and present, but on a far different level. Though the dead body of a young boy is central to the narrative, "The Body" is not as overtly frightening as "Apt Pupil." As an adult, Gordon LaChance narrates the defining moment of his childhood, a quest to find the body of Ray Brower he and his friends undertook when they were twelve. Subtitled "Fall From Innocence," "The Body" - as with King's later novel It - struggles to understand the uneasy transition of children into adults, and the events which lead us there.
As important as time is to "Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption" and "Apt Pupil" (and, to a lesser degree, "The Breathing Method"), it is fundamental to "The Body." Gordon memorializes the past without necessarily sentimentalizing it. Revealing that he is a popular novelist, he shares two early short stories ("Stud City" and "The Revenge of Lard-Ass Hogan"), commenting on their relative strengths and weaknesses from a more mature point of view. Friendships that once seemed eternal fade, and bullies that once seemed mythic age. The thread of bittersweet melancholy running through "The Body" grows more rueful toward the end, as Gordon lists the people he once loved who have died; King would revisit this sort of sequence later in The Green Mile, with equally affecting results.
Only one of the novellas in Different Seasons can strictly be called a horror story: "The Breathing Method" is a tale within a tale, both concerned with the supernatural, both frightening and in some ways illuminating. Coming at the end of the collection, "The Breathing Method" is subtitled "A Winter's Tale," and in some ways picks up on threads begun in "The Body." As "The Body" mourned the passage of time as a young man looking back on his childhood, "The Breathing Method" reveals the inner lives of older men, and their fears of loss of usefulness and vitality. In some ways, the men of the gentleman's club at 449B East Thirty-Fifth Street - especially our narrator, David Adley - prefigure Ralph Roberts, the elderly hero of King's Insomnia. The men of the club (never given a proper name) meet to tell stories, and the story told before Christmas each year is always a ghost story. The tale of the breathing method spins out in the center of this final novella, and though gruesome, it is in its way as uplifting and optimistic as "Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption."
The wraparound story, David Adley's tale of the club itself, implies moments of Lovecraftian horror (echoing the tone of "Jerusalem's Lot," if not the language) without becoming overt. This use of restraint is remarkably effective: simmering fear and excitement comes from suggestion of the supernatural. Sounds Adley cannot explain sounds slithering behind the walls, and books that may or may not exist in this world line the shelves of the club - a concept King would update much later, utilizing new technology in "Ur." Stevens, the ostensible butler (and clever play on King's name) assures Adley, "Here, sir, there are always more tales."
The technique of storytelling is important throughout Different Seasons. While most explicit in "The Breathing Method," "Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption" finds Red making a myth out of his friend Andy, the central tale of "The Body" is only one of several Gordon LaChance tells, and Dussander's stories of the Holocaust are the catalyst for Todd Bowden's breakdown. It is the tale, not he who tells it reads a keystone in "The Breathing Method," and is also the epigram of Different Seasons as a whole. Underlining the importance of storytelling in these four novellas, this quotation also asserts what King seems to be saying in his afterword: when it comes to writing, the story that wants to be told - regardless of type, genre, or authorship - comes first. (Unfortunately, this otherwise illuminating afterword also finds King unnecessarily disparaging his work: "my stuff ... is fairly plain, not very literary, and sometimes ... downright clumsy." It is also the first time King compares his fiction to a Big Mac and fries. Following such a strong collection of work, this seems egregiously self-deprecating. Only in 2000's On Writing does King recant these remarks: "I have spent a good many years ... too many, I think ... being ashamed of what I wrote.")
Different Seasons was King's first collection of shorter fiction to hit #1 on the New York Times bestseller chart, proving that by 1982, his readers would devour anything he wrote, regardless of genre. While two fantastic movie adaptations (Rob Reiner's Stand By Me, adapted from "The Body," is the first feature film based on a King work to receive an Academy Award nomination; Frank Darabont's The Shawshank Redemption is the first nominated for Best Picture) threaten to overshadow the source material, the novellas here are so effective that they continue to stand as separate entities. Each tale is taut, well-written, and resonant, with believable characters and memorable storylines. As individual stories, the novellas that make up Different Seasons are some of King's strongest; as a collection, Different Seasons ranks among King's best books.