I’m working on a reflective, retrospective story right now, so I went back to Different Seasons to see how Stephen King handled reflection and retrospection in “The Body.” I wanted to revisit the narrative to see how he handled dialogue particularly, as it strikes me as a little slippery in reminiscences but, as always, new eyes led me to notice new things.
All the gestures of artifice and artfulness are there, and it’s hard (having read King’s On Writing more than once) not to notice debts to geography and biography in King’s work. But what caught my eye most this time around were the plotting and the violence, especially in terms of how the story portrays pain.
I won’t spoil too many features of the narrative, but I think it’s fair to say the plot is broadly mimetic in its effort to capture memory. Although we know the narrator, Gordie, has grown up to become a writer, the piece follows the contours of his remembrance, which is a kindly way of saying it’s sprawling. But it sprawls revealingly, catching at all the moments that Gordie has attached to the singular experience of traveling down the train tracks with three friends to see a dead body. In short, until they reach that body and live out all the consequences of doing so, not much happens. They buy supplies, they swim, they walk and talk. We get glimpses of how Gordie sees the world along the way. King spikes the journey with thrills and horrors, as one might expect, but the walking and talking is paramount.
And at story’s end we get a grim epilogue. If you’ve seen the film adaptation, Stand by Me, you might imagine that the focus of the conclusion is on remembered friendship, a bit of misty-eyed nostalgia offered by an older, wiser man who sounds a lot like Richard Dreyfuss. In the narrative, however, the ending centers on pain. Most vivid, I think, is the depiction of the beatdowns the reader is led to expect. Older bullies, thwarted in their ambitions earlier in the story, pick off the members of the quartet one by one. Blood is shed and bones are broken, and King catches at the harm done vividly and viscerally.
More haunting, however, is the manner in which King threads other kinds of pain through Gordie’s reflection. We learn a great deal about how life treated these four boys after this pivotal event–about the changes they underwent, about the kinds of young men they grew to be. Gordie’s story fixes particularly on the fate of Chris, his closest friend, and reflects on his short life in a clear-eyed, almost declarative way. But pain–felt pain–comes through. It’s subdued, understated, and tinged with the matter-of-factness that characterizes Gordie’s point of view most of the time. It’s a pain that lingers, however, that lasts after the wounds have closed and the bones have mended.
I think that’s one of the elusive qualities that elevates King’s stories in the eyes of his audience. Over the past few weeks I’ve binged on quite a bit of cinematic horror, and in those stories it’s easy to see both how fragile and durable our bodies are (at least on the silver screen). Between Scream 5, the Fear Street trilogy, and a few other flicks I’ve seen at least twenty slashings and a great deal of blood loss. Those moments shock and appall, just as you’d expect.
But the stories, like “The Body” itself, take on depth and complexity when viewers and readers see costs and losses, when they plug into characters with sympathy and imagination and try to envision what a life would be like with all those absences, with all that trauma. Those costs and losses, when reckoned well, seem to me more meaningful, more momentous. At least a couple of the films I’ve screened have thrown in an extra knife wound or two just to remind the viewer that no one is safe, that no one comes through the experience without shedding a little blood. But to me, at least, those casual stabbings are gratuitous in a suggestive way. We don’t need to see them to know that the characters we care about are leaving the screen harmed and scarred, with the sort of aches and pains that will haunt them all their lives.