The last couple of days I’ve been revisiting some vintage Stephen King, namely the novella “The Body” from his Different Seasons collection. If you’re not familiar with it, it’s the basis for the wonderful movie Stand By Me, Rob Reiner’s breakthrough directorial effort starring Wil Wheaton, River Phoenix, Corey Feldman, Jerry O’Connell, and Keifer Sutherland.
In both the movie and the novella, the story is told to us in first person by Gordon “Gordie” Lachance as a memoir of an event that happened when he was twelve years old. In its essence, a local kid named Ray Brower disappeared about a week before, and one of Gordon’s friends, Vern Tessio, says he overheard his older brother and a friend talking about discovering Brower’s body while necking with some girls. They can’t tell the authorities, though, because they’d stolen a car to do it.
So the four boys—Gordon, Vern, Teddy Duchamp, and Gordon’s best friend Chris Chambers, decided they’ll go “discover” the body and become heroes. Most of the novella is a coming of age story that relates the things that happen to them on the way to find the body.
I’m re-reading this story for a couple of reasons. First of all, I love vintage Stephen King. If you’ve followed this blog, you know he’s one of my major influences, one of the first writers to show me you don’t have to sound like a writer to tell a good story. Yes, it took me a long time to realize that, but I can see it quite easily in hindsight (can’t we always?).
The other reason for this, though, is that because of this story and his novel It, I’ve wanted to try something similar. Not in plotline, but in capturing a segment of my childhood in such a way that, even if you were born in, say, 1986, you’ll still get a feel for what it was like to grow up in the late seventies. For me, reading “The Body” and It take me into the fifties in a way no documentary could ever do. Mr. King manages to convey what it was like to grow up back then to such an extent that I feel like I know what it was like, even if only vicariously. So I’m reading “The Body” to try and get a feel for how he did this. I may well re-read It as well (such a horrible fate to have to re-read my second-favorite Stephen King novel).
But back to my main point.
Partway into the narration, Gordon tells a story to his friends. It’s a story of revenge, about a fat kid named Davie “Lard Ass” Hogan. Of course, it should be obvious that any kid with the nickname Lard Ass gets picked on regularly.
Lard Ass has entered the local pie eating contest, but he hasn’t done it to win. He’s done it to get revenge. And the way he gets it is by drinking most of a bottle of castor oil
prior to the contest. Then, when his stomach can’t take anymore, he pukes chewed up blueberry pie in front of everyone, which cause the chain reaction he was hoping for. The story ends with Lard Ass grabbing the mic and saying the contest is a draw.
When Gordie finishes telling the story, the first words out of Teddy’s mouth are, “And then what happened?”
Gordie isn’t sure what to say. That’s the end of the story. Teddy and Vern—who aren’t exactly the sharpest tacks in the box—don’t get it. Chris does, but there’s no way to explain it to Teddy and Vern. They love the story, but think the ending sucks.
Have you ever had that happen to you? I mean, you craft this wonderful ending that very subtly but—to you, anyway—still obviously makes a certain point. You show the story to someone. They get to the end, and, unlike Teddy and Vern, they like the ending…but get a totally different message. One that you might not even have thought about.
“But,” you say, “this is what I was saying with that ending,” and your friend says, “Oh, yeah, I got that, but it wasn’t that important to me,” and you’re left flabbergasted. Not important? Not important?! It was the whole flippin point!
I can remember sitting in group one time and listening as a couple of writers talked about an sf story my friend had written. One of these guys is an English/literature instructor, and he remarked how one of the characters in my friend’s novel was a Christ figure.
“What?!” My friend couldn’t quite believe what he was hearing. A Christ figure? Where the hell had he written that into the story?
But it’s a fact of life that people will see things in your writing that you never intended. JRR Tolkien contended with that all his life. He said he hated allegorical stories, and yet The Lord of the Rings has continually been held up as an allegory for World War II. My personal take on this is that he wrote LOTR during the war, and I don’t see how he could’ve kept such a major even out of his fiction. So, unintentional as it may have been, I think there’s allegory there. Much as Professor Tolkien would probably roll over in his grave at that thought.
My own novel Spree, which I’ve always thought of as a Bonnie and Clyde type of story, has been billed as a modern day Robin Hood story because they’re robbing banks
and stores to get money for an operation. One person even compared it to Breaking Bad for much the same reason, a thought that never even crossed my mind while writing it. The bottom line is, they’re right. Steve and Eddie are doing a bad thing—stealing money—to get a good result—an operation to remove Eddie’s brother’s brain tumor.
For me, that was just an excuse to get them to rob their way across the country.
I don’t know that there’s a true point to this post, other than it being some random musing about this craft we practice and pretend we have a handle on. But it’s something to think about. And make you wonder, sometimes, if you ever really get what the author wanted you to out of any given story.