Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption is the first and most famous of the stories, having been made into what many people consider to have been one of the finest movies ever made. It tells the story of a quiet man who is wrongfully imprisoned, and spends much of his life incarcerated, but rather than become institutionalised and resigned to a lifetime behind bars he finds ways to enrich life for himself and those around him. The story is told from the point of view of one of his friends in gaol, and has a twist to its end which is truly uplifting.
While reading the novella, I couldn't help thinking about the film and realising just what a wonderful adaptation it is. Nothing from the story is missed out, in fact one of the best scenes - the one where opera music is played and all the inmates stop to listen - is not even present in the book. Though it's a good story and I enjoyed reading it, this is one of the extremely rare occasions when I would say the film is actually better.
Apt Pupil is the second story, and probably my least favourite of the four (it took the longest for me to read which is always a sure sign). In it, a young boy develops a fascination for the Second World War and, in particular, the concentration camps and the horrific experiments the Nazis performed on many of the inmates. When the boy finds out that he is living near an ex-Nazi officer, rather than reporting him to the authorities, he begins visiting him and blackmails him into revealing the truth about the atrocities he presided over.
At first the old man is horrified and doesn't want to think about things that he has kept buried for so long. But as time passes he feels himself getting stronger as he remembers the fearsome man he used to be, and soon he feels the urge to commit hideous crimes once more. The boy, too, becomes ever more desensitised to the Nazi's stories and we soon realise that, beneath his grinning happy-go-lucky kid exterior, he is a psychopath in the making.
The next story is called The Body - familar to most as the film Stand by Me. Personally, I never much enjoyed the film, but found King's story much more absorbing. It's a coming-of age tale of four friends, aged about 12, who hear of a dead body in the woods and set off together on a two-day expedition to find it.
The Body is one of those stories where nothing much happens, but it's King's descriptive writing which really brings it alive. My own upbringing was a million miles away from 1960s America, but the writing made me remember perfectly what it's like to be a kid, with a long hot summer stretching ahead of you and a group of good friends to spend it with.
The last story - The Breathing Method - was my favourite, and is the only one with a supernatural tone. It tells of David Adley who is invited by his boss to his club. Though set in New York, you'll imagine it in London, as at first sight the club is straight from P.G. Wodehouse, with a huge library stuffed with beautifully bound tomes, a roaring fireplace and a perfect Jeeves-like steward in quiet attendance. But David feels, without being expressly told, that this is a club with a difference; a secret place that mustn't be spoken of outside. David becomes a regular at the club, and looks forward particularly to Thursday nights, when the members gather by the fire to tell each other stories.
The highlight of the year at the club is the Thursday before Christmas, when the story to be told must be of a supernatural nature. One Christmas, the club's oldest member tells a strange tale which is related in King's novella as a story-within-a-story.
I loved The Breathing Method. It was a very English sort of story, given its author, and would be perfect reading for a warm fireside on a winter's night, with a generous tot of whisky at your elbow. My only criticism is that it left me desperate to hear more about the mysterious club and its secrets. Many years have passed since Stephen King wrote this story so I'm afraid any hope for a sequel is probably a vain one. Although hard-core King fans could probably find a place for this tale in the Dark Tower saga....