Saturday, November 2, 2013

Oh Dear God, I Think So Too: A Review of "Strawberry Spring"

Stephen King published nine short stories while in college, and when the time came in the late '70s to compile his first story collection, Night Shift, only two of those made the cut: of those two, "Strawberry Spring" is the earliest to see publication.

One way to interpret this would be to say that as his stardom began to truly sink in, King viewed "Strawberry Spring" as being perhaps the earliest example of his fiction really working, and being able to exemplify what his short-fiction work was all about for a readership that had quickly become very large indeed.

I think a case can be made for both "Cain Rose Up" and "Here There Be Tygers," which had appeared in the Spring 1968 issue of Ubris, but if someone were to argue that "Strawberry Spring" was the moment in which -- in terms of talent, if not readership -- Stephen King was born, I don't think I'd put up much of an argument.


the Fall 1968 issue of Ubris (image borrowed from http://www.akyle.f2s.com/pre_carrie.html, which seems to be the collection of some lucky King fan)

"Strawberry Spring" was, like "Cain Rose Up" and "Here There Be Tygers," published in King's college literary magazine, Ubris.  It appeared in the Fall 1968 issue, a semester later than the previous two stories, and the jump in King's skill between the Spring and Fall publications is significant.  (I say this based on the story as it appears in Night Shift, of course; any revisions King made for its collection in that book will not be accounted for in this review.)  Not as significant as the jump had been between "The Glass Floor" and "Cain" and "Tygers," but significant nevertheless, and reading the four stories in sequence, one cannot help but be struck by the extent to which King seems to have grown in the year spanning the four stories.  It is somewhat dizzying to contemplate, and I would indeed argue that the end of that year found King in possession of the raw talents he would develop over the next few decades.

Which is to say, I guess, that "Strawberry Spring" is an important story.


The title refers to a Northeastern concept of a phantom spring, i.e. a period of warm weather which comes earlier than expected and does not last, eventually giving way to another period of freezing cold.  This is similar to the concept of an Indian summer (a recurrence of summer-like warmth during the fall season).  While rereading the story, I began wondering if Northeasterners actually use the term "strawberry spring," or if it was something King himself came up with.  Urban Dictionary seems to feel the latter is a possibility.

I suppose it doesn't make a huge difference either way, but it'd be nice to know for sure.  I've posted that question at the StephenKing.com forums; if that yields any sort of definitive response, I'll try to remember to come back and update this post.

The story is a simple one: a man recalls the events of eight years ago, when he was a college senior at New Sharon Teachers' College, a fictional school in the town of New Sharon (which I assume to be the real town of New Sharon, Maine, though it is not specified).  During those events, a serial killer struck the New Sharon campus, claiming four victims.  The killings coincided with a period of "strawberry spring," and the killing stopped when the weather turned again to winter.  The killer (dubbed Springheel Jack) was never caught, and the end of the story strongly implies that our narrator -- never named -- is probably he.

The ending is a twist, of course, and I'd wager that it is what most readers remember about the story.  Much of that is due to the simple, effective way King presents it:

[...] I’ve been thinking about the trunk of my car – such an ugly word, trunk – and wondering why in the world I should be afraid to open it.
                I can hear my wife as I write this, in the next room, crying.  She thinks I was with another woman last night.
                And oh dear God, I think so too.
 

So much of writing depends for its power on how the perspective is presented.  In that final line, we are given the perspective of someone who is almost certainly a serial killer, but one who is not entirely aware of his own actions.  He suspects he might be guilty; but he is keeping just enough of the truth from himself to make the final line plausible, on a plot level.

The difference between this and what might have been is enormous.  It would be perfectly possible to imagine some other writer ending the story in a manner that actually spelled things out more firmly.  Imagine if the final line had instead been, "And I was; I killed her, you see.  Because strawberry spring had returned, and with it, the monster inside me: Springheel Jack."  Or some nonsense of that sort.  It's certainly easy to imagine a college student writing the story that way.

King didn't, of course, and the difference between the two approaches shows what he was after as a storyteller: in his method, we are left with an unsettling tale of murder and madness; in other, we have the sort of mask-removal technique to be found on Scooby Doo.  Revelation, as opposed to mere surprise.

The question that follows on the heels of this assessment is: does the rest of the story play true with the idea?  By that, what I mean is a two-fold question: (1) does the story successfully mask the reveal on a first read and (2) does the story successfully allow for the twist upon rereading?  Both are equally important, and in both cases, I would argue that King achieved the intended result.  Not, arguably, without a hitch in his step on occasion, but mostly.

Here is a descriptive passage that comes early on in the story:

                At New Sharon, the strawberry spring began on March 16, 1968.  The coldest winter in twenty years broke on that day.  It rained and you could smell the sea twenty miles west of the beaches.  The snow, which had been thirty-five inches deep in places, began to melt and the campus walks ran with slush.  The Winter Carnival snow sculptures, which had been kept sharp and clearcut for two months by the subzero temperatures, at last began to sag and slouch.  The caricature of Lyndon Johnson in front of the Tep fraternity house cried melted tears.  The dove in front of Prashner Hall lost its frozen feathers and its plywood skeleton showed sadly though in places.

                And when night came the fog came with it, moving silent and white along the narrow college avenues and thoroughfares.  The pines on the mall poked through it like counting fingers and it drifted, slow as cigarette smoke, under the little bridge down by the Civil War cannons.  It made things seem out of joint, strange, magical.  The unwary traveler would step out of the juke-thumping, brightly lit confusion of the Grinder, expecting the hard clear starriness of winter to clutch him . . . and instead he would suddenly find himself in a silent, muffled world of white drifting fog, the only sound his own footsteps and the soft drip of water from the ancient gutters.  You half expected to see Gollum or Frodo and Sam go hurrying past, or to turn and see that the Grinder was gone, vanished, replaced by a foggy panorama of moors and yew trees and perhaps a Druid-circle or a sparkling fairy ring.

 

This is lovely, lyrical stuff; not revolutionary in any way, but evidence that even this early in his career, King was already a more than competent stylist.  It's more than that, though: it's also characterization for our unnamed narrator, as we are being painted a word-picture by a fellow who obviously sees the world as a semi-magical place.  And remember, this already comes in the context of looking back on things from a vantage point of eight years farther down the road.

Our narrator, clearly, is a romantic.  (Perhaps even a Romantic.)  By giving him this characteristic, King is allowing himself to use dramatic, surreal flourishes on occasion, and I think that that approach serves to throw first-time readers off the scent.  Our narrator, by virtue of his way or looking back at the world he once inhabited, seems like a haunted man; if anything, we are probably expecting to learn that someone close to him was killed during that fateful strawberry spring.  
  
I first read the story toward the end of 1990, I believe, and since we're talking the better part of a quarter-century there, I no longer remember anything of what my reaction to it might have been.  I can guess at it, though; to this day, I remain more or less incapable of picking up on plot twists before they happen.  I might sense one coming every now and then, but that's about it.  That isn't a regression, either; it's not like I used to be good at spying a twist in advance, and lost the ability at some point.  No; I've never had much talent for it, and I prefer it that way.  What that tells me, though, is that I almost certainly got fooled by the story in 1990.

Let's have a look at another romantic passage, just for the sake of doing it:

                The fog came again that night, not on little cat’s feet but in an improper silent sprawl.  I walked that night.  I had a headache and I walked for air, smelling the wet, misty smell of the spring that was slowly wiping away the reluctant snow, leaving lifeless patches of last year’s grass bare and uncovered, like the head of a sighing old grandmother.
                For me, that was one of the most beautiful nights I can remember.  The people I passed under the haloed streetlights were murmuring shadows, and all of them seemed to be lovers, walking with hands and eyes linked.  The melting snow dripped and ran, dripped and ran, and from every dark storm drain the sound of the sea drifted up, a dark winter sea now strongly ebbing.

Good stuff there.  On a reread, there are clear signals that something is amiss; the narrator's headache, his description of the night as "beautiful" even with the retrospective knowledge that a brutal murder occurred that night and in that fog, his description of people as shadows.  But on a first read, it likely plays merely as romanticism, and we have been conditioned to expect such from this narrator.

A few paragraphs prior to these, however, there has perhaps been a clue that is stronger than it ought to have been.  Let's have a look:

                Half a dozen State Police cars crawled onto the campus, most of them parked in front of Judith Franklin Hall, where the Cerman girl had lived.  On my way past there to my ten o’clock class I was asked to show my student ID.  I was clever.  I showed him the one without the fangs.

I don't entirely understand what's going on in this passage.  The next sentence involves the policeman asking our narrator if he has a knife, and the question is attributed with the addition, "the policeman asked cunningly."  I believe the intent there is to imply that the question is not, in fact, cunning; that it is in fact the most obvious possible question.  The idea, then, seems to be that our narrator is simply anti-police, in the way that a great many campus students would have been in 1968.  With that in mind, I assume that the narrator saying "I showed him the one without the fangs" is meant to be seen as a bit of ironic overstatement.  I'm not entirely sure it works, though, and either way, it is an odd manner in which to phrase things.  I don't want to make a bigger deal out of it than it is; it simply struck me as being out of place, somewhat.

That moment aside, though, I think the lyrical romanticism works quite well, and enables that moment at the end of the story to land solidly: "My wife is upset," our narrator tells us.  "She wants to know where I was last night.  I can't tell her because I don't remember.  I remember starting home from work, and I remember putting my headlights on to search my way through the lovely creeping fog, but that's all I remember."  By this point, we've certainly caught on, and the next bit clinches it.  "I've been thinking about that foggy night when I had a headache and walked for air and passed all the lovely shadows without shape or substance," we are told.  "And I've been thinking about the trunk of my car -- such an ugly word, trunk -- and wondering why in the world I should be afraid to open it."

It is an effective twist, because King has embedded the truth in the story without tipping his hand and pointing at it too strongly (that one bit about the fangs being a mild possible exception).  Many a writer would have fumbled the ball before crossing the goal-line with it; King didn't, and the resultant victory was one of many others to come over the course of the next forty-five years.

A few other things of note:
  • "They say it happens once every eight or ten years," the narrator says on the subject of strawberry spring.  "What happened at New Sharon Teachers' College that particular strawberry spring . . . there may be a cycle for that, too, but if anyone has figured it out, they've never said."  Of course, as the story reaches its conclusion we will discover that in this case, the cycles are one and the same.  We might also have recourse to recall that we were told right up front that the narrator is looking back on events that occurred eight years previously.  (I'd also like to add that in It, King introduces a formalized -- though not 100% strict -- cycle for the murderous entity that terrorizes Derry.  And you could also think of Cycle of the Werewolf as being reminiscent of the same idea.)
  • Beginning with that mention of a melting Lyndon Johnson, King introduces some mild political subthemes into the story.  Elsewhere, he mentions that a faction of the campus feels the murders to be a statement by the campus's wing of the SDS (Students for a Democratic Society), and that right-wingers immediately begin looking for "outside agitators."  There is even a graceful moment in which the narrator mistakes the tumult resulting from the second murder for the tumult resulting from someone having been drafted; and of course, in 1968 a great many people in colleges would have viewed being drafted as being only one step removed from being murdered.  Or, perhaps, from becoming a murderer.  These elements of the story are kept in the background; they are allowed to inform it, but not to overwhelm it.
  • The first victim is found in the parking lot of the Animal Sciences building.  That's a nice detail; it implies savagery, coldness; it is clinical in some way.
  • The killer is dubbed "Springheel Jack," a bastardization -- one that King presumably intended -- of "Spring-heeled Jack," a very odd semi-mythological figure from British folklore.  The repetition of fog throughout the story creates a London-esque atmosphere anyways, as does the mention of the killings' similarity to the Jack the Ripper case; so it makes sense for the murderer to be given a moniker that also links with British culture.
  • The narrator talks to his roommate on a few occasions, and I was reminded ever so slightly of "Cain Rose Up," which also involved college students having lived alongside a killer without suspecting a thing.  The two stories come to very different conclusions, of course; but still, the idea of murder and death lying in secret on a college campus was obviously on King's mind during 1968.
  • I was struck by this passage, which refers to the final of the four original victims: "Why she had been out and alone is forever beyond knowing -- she was a fat, sadly pretty thing who lived in an apartment in town with three other girls.  She had slipped on campus as silently and as easily as Springheel Jack himself.  What brought her?  Perhaps her need was as deep and as ungovernable as her killer's, and just as far beyond understanding.  Maybe a need for one desperate and passionate romance with the warm night, the warm fog, the smell of the sea, and the cold knife."  I am reminded of a couple of things here, the first of which is the scene in Cycle of the Werewolf in which the lonely, pregnant woman is spared suicide by the murderous embrace of the wolf.  The second is of a bit from Alan Moore's Jack-the-Ripper-centric From Hell, which involves -- in his appendix-style notes, I believe -- makes mention of women being quoted in the press of the time as speaking wistfully of imaging themselves being murdered by the Ripper.  I looked for the relevant section in the notes, but did not find it.  I assume that I either overlooked it, or that it instead hails from some interview with Moore I read; but the possibility that I dreamed it cannot be left unmentioned.

That's about all I have to say about "Strawberry Spring," I suppose.  It's a good story, and one that continues to send a bit of a frisson up spines to this day.

When next we speak -- with the likely exception of the good old weekly Haven review -- we will discuss Tabitha King's first novel, Small World.  I probably ought to read it first, though, so: to the reading chair...! away...!

5 comments:

  1. That's a really nice quote you lifted there, at the end of this review. King's lyricism is so often overlooked, but he has certainly turned a small reservoir of great phrases.

    As a Northeasterner (albeit in exile) I can say I've never heard the term "Strawberry Spring," so I assume it's an "Alice" (i.e. the offseason hurricanes in "Duma Key") or another King-invented phrase, although I'll say that the slang up in Maine is probably different from county to county, much less from the rest of New England, so it's a possibility it's legit and just more localized.

    I had to see where I ranked this one when I covered the short stories, as it remains a strong finish in memory. (4th for Night Shift overall and into the quarterfinals for all-King-short-fiction where it was knocked out by "The End of the Whole Mess.") Great little story.

    I don't know what to make of the "the one without the fangs" bit either, but I dig it.

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  2. "can't say I've never" should read "can't say I EVER." oops.

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  3. I posted the question at the King forums, but so far that hasn't yielded much in the way of clarification. Shocking, I know...

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  4. Thanks for sharing your thoughts with us! Made me look for clues in the story leading to Jack that I hadn't noticed.

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    1. You are welcome -- thanks for reading it!

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