IT'S NOT OFTEN that a single individual puts you in mind of both J.B. Priestley and Yogi Berra, but when someone does you might as well pay attention. An extraordinary occurrence. But then Stephen King, who managed this paradoxical feat, is not an ordinary writer. Though, to further confuse the issue, it is precisely King's remarkable ordinariness that makes him what he is, one of the world's best-selling authors--and one who pretty well dwarfs the meager talents with whom he customarily shares the tops of the lists. Before I further complicate my observations on King and his new collection of novellas, Different Seasons, let me get back to Priestley for a moment.
Priestley, in his working prime, which spanned 40-odd years, seemed all but unable to stop the flow of words from his pen. Most of the words were particularly well chosen, and as the cataract poured forth he built remarkably detailed, realistic worlds, novel after novel, play after play, however fanciful the themes. We were chatting about this enormous output one snowy spring day in his comfortable study and he fixed me with what must always have been intended by the expression "a gimlet eye" and said: "Gifford, the important thing is to do the work, keep writing, whether you feel like it or not. Just keep it coming, let nothing get in your way."
I was reminded of this stricture recently as I regarded the apparently bottomless well of Stephen King's word supply. Like clockwork they come, The Stand, The Shining, Cujo, on and on, richly observed, full of the particular ordinariness of our lives and times -- and worlds are built within each work, built and then dismantled in spasms of horror which have become his trademark. A Lovecraft for our times. Ozzie and Harriet and Beaver and Wally with brain tumors, and things that eat people held back by fraying ropes in damp cellars.
Now with Different Seasons, works written at different times following the completion of one novel or another, he's doing a kind of Yogi Berra, showing he can hit the off-speed curve, the change- up well off the plate, and still drive a fastball to the opposite field. Let me explain. Berra used to say he could hit it if he could reach it. King has done some reaching--not to be confused with stretching, as in "stretching" his talent -- and drilled some liners off the green monster of his own particular muse.
Each of the novellas herein reflects a slightly different tone, thus the "seasons" of the title, but the devoted will not be disappointed: each has a decidely macabre quality. The first, and best, "Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption," has some really lovely things in it -- the story of two men in prison for a very long time, one unjustly convicted of murder and the other who has long ago paid for the murder he committed. How they deal with their lives, their friendship, and the quirky fate life has chosen for them makes for the kind of story that sticks in your mind.
The second story, "Apt Pupil," is the most overtly startling of the four: a nightmare in which a teen-aged all-American lad discovers a Nazi relic, a war criminal, living in his idyllic California village. The symbiosis which develops between them is not subtle, not psychologically sophisticated, but utterly pathological. And it does make a hell of a story. The other two stories don't require description; they are more King. Which is sort of dumb sounding, but there is a crucial point about King.
He is obsessed by the piling up of words, incident, a clich,e locked in time, values which represent a year unlike the years on each side of it, the rubbing of personalities upon one another -- all the values of the traditional storyteller. His art lies in his artlessness. His prose style is utterly conversational: he is literally telling you the story. The constant references to pop culture, which might irritate in another writer, don't irritate here because King is pop culture, an artifact himself. He speaks the vernacular, the patois, and it informs his thought.
What can I say to make this point clearly? Try this: he is the storyteller his readers would want to be if they were indeed storytellers. In A Man's a Man, Bertolt Brecht says of Jeriah Jip, his Everyman hero, "He is one of us!" which explains everything, all the appeal. The important thing to acknowledge in King's immense popularity, and in the Niagara of words he produces, is the simple fact that he can write. He can write without cheapening or trivializing himself or his audience. You may or may not enjoy these stories but you won't feel cheated or demeaned by them. They will entertain; they may disturb you only slightly, superficially. You will feel as if you've just stepped into a time warp and seen a new episode of TV's Alfred Hitchcock Presents or The Twilight Zone or The Outer Limits. I am convinced that King is aiming roughly at that response.
Wait. Let me try again. I think I've got it. Think of Stephen King and Steven Spielberg; work on that simple equation. One with words, the other with images. Elemental story values, broad strokes. You begin to grasp an explanation of both phenomena. E.T., Poltergeist, Close Encounters, Jaws, Carrie, The Shining, Firestarter, Cujo . . . Raiders of the Lost Ark, Different Seasons.
Such popular phenomena represent accomplishments and impulses our culture has no need to be ashamed of. And these days that is cause for rejoicing.