So there it is: how I re-learned to love short stories. But before moving on to a list of stories-I-just-like, one final foray into autobiography. As I look back over my teens and 20s, the other unforgivable absence from my personal literary canon is, unquestionably, the work of Stephen King. As with short fiction, this absence was based on unreasoning prejudice. Somewhere along the way, in my teenage years, I came to identify myself as someone who didn’t like horror. This was based in part on the genuine terror I felt in the wake of reading Nicholas Fisk’s SF-horror mash-up, Grinny, at an impressionable age (the cover of the 1980s edition still gives me the heebie-jeebies). But it was also based – and it pains me to admit this – on the embossed covers. I think I had some notion that embossed covers indicated a lack of seriousness, and I took myself *very* seriously, back then. I realise now, of course, that taking against a cover in this way makes me not so much serious as a pompous, but we live and learn. Anyway, luckily for me, I hooked up with my husband in my 30s, and among many other good qualities (including, of course, an encyclopaedic knowledge of short fiction) he possessed a full back-catalogue of Stephen King, and a desire to get me to read all of them so we’d have something to talk about. I read The Stand, nearly passed out from fear, and was hooked.
And so: ‘The Body’. Yes, it’s technically a novella, but it’s a mere minnow by Stephen King’s standards, and this is my list, so you’ll have to suck it up. I loved King’s work for its ability to exude menace and build tension, and on occasion scare you out of your wits, but I love it most, I think, for its contribution to the project of writing the US. He’s the undisputed laureate of smalltown America: of Main Streets and gas stations and high schools, and of the people who inhabit them. And he’s also a mastercraftsman at the art of reaching back through time and writing childhood – again, that specifically late-20th American childhood which was free from external threats, and so, when it was looking for conflict, turned on itself, waged internal wars.
‘The Body’ exemplifies all of this, perfectly. Told in flashback by an author, now grown up, it’s the story of four friends, on the cusp of adolescence, who overhear talk of the body of a dead boy, apparently by the train tracks outside of town, and set off to find him. It’s a coming of age story, set in the torpid, empty days of summer, as all such stories should be, and overlaid with an odd, twisted quest-narrative: over the course of their journey, the boys dodge speeding trains, avoid junkyard dogs, and come out of a pool of standing water covered in leeches. In the cultural memory, it lives on in the saturated colours of Rob Reiner’s excellent film of the book, Stand By Me, but it’s King’s version that has stayed with me. The writing is superb, the psychological investigation far deeper and richer, and the final line is one for the ages; grief for childhood, and innocence, and old friends, cast in unsentimental vernacular. “I never had any friends later on like the ones I had when I was twelve,” says the narrator. “Jesus, did you?”
Originally published in Different Seasons, Viking Press, 1982