I was twelve going on thirteen when I first saw a dead human being…
It’s a short novel about finding a dead body in the woods! It features a group of middle-school boys with dysfunctional home lives! It has a terrifying scene set on a railroad trestle! It contains several chapter-long vignettes that digress from the main plot! It concludes with the revelation of a shocking death!
Yes, it is the one you’re thinking of.
I always associate Coming Of Age By Finding A Dead Body In The Woods as a summer pastime, but this is the only one of the three we’re looking at that takes place in entirely within a summer- The Dead Man in Indian Creek was a Halloween tale, Dreamland Lake opened in March and ran through the following fall.
As told by grown-up novelist Gordon LaChance, it recalls a series of events that took place very specifically over Labor Day weekend in 1960, when he and three of his friends intercept some disturbing news about the fate of a boy from a neighboring town who had disappeared three days earlier, and set out on a literal-and-figurative journey, from which they expect to return as heroes.
Gordie’s fascination with death is clearly rooted in his crappy homelife and the personal tragedy that befell his family some months earlier when his beloved, much-older brother, Dennis, was killed in a car accident while in Basic Training at Fort Benning. Having always lived in Denny’s shadow anyway, grief has transformed him into the invisible boy as far as his parents are concerned.
Residing lower on the social scale are Gordie’s friends, who are plain old white trash: Teddy DuChamp, whose D-Day veteran father came home with a bad case of shell shock and horrifically burned off Teddy’s ears as young boy; Vern Tessio, who lives in fear of the beatings doled out by his hoody older brother; and Chris Chambers, who is regularly hospitalized by the beatings doled out by both his father and older brothers, which the entire town turns a blind eye to:
If Chris was being truant and Bertie (as we called him- always behind his back, of course) caught him, he would haul him back to school and see that Chris got detention for a week. But if Bertie found out that Chris was home because his father had beaten the shit out of him, Bertie just went away and didn’t say boo to a cuckoo-bird. It never occurred to me to question this set of priorities until about twenty years later.
It’s a rough world to be 12 years old in- not just suffering through the physical and mental abuse at home, but also the contempt of most other adults in town who are regarding you in the light of your older brothers’ delinquency. By “finding” the body of missing Ray Brower, they hope to claim some glory for themselves.
It is Vern who gets the ball rolling when he overhears his older brother discussing the fact that he had stumbled across Ray Brower’s corpse while he was out joyriding in a stolen car, fearing that reporting it to the police will result in being questioned about how he got so far out of town.
After concocting a story about camping out at Vern’s, the boys set out to walk the “twenty or thirty miles” from Castle Rock to Harlow, where the train tracks meet a dead-end road and Vern’s older brother stumbled across the corpse.
As they leave civilization, the boys are chronically unable to keep a low profile, as they have a run-in with a grocer who tries to short their change (and it is revealed that Gordie is running on an extremely short fuse as far as adults are concerned); with the local junk man and the junk yard dog that was the subject of many urban legends among the junior high set (“[I] got my first look at the famous Chopper- and my first lesson in the vast difference between myth and reality”); and twice with the GS&WM railroad, as first Teddy plays chicken with a freight train, and then Gordie and Vern are trapped on a single-track trestle when a second train comes along.
And there are other dangers as they get farther into the Maine wilderness, most notably when they discover that a dammed-up pond that they stop for a swim in is full of freshwater leeches, and Gordie discovers one attached to a most sensitive part of his anatomy.
Along the way there is time for deep thoughts and deep talk- Chris and Gordie share an especially strong bond, as Gordie tries to deal with his brother’s death and his parents’ neglect, and Chris, while bright enough and driven enough academically, struggles with the knowledge that whole town is against him, and his family may very well kill him:
“All they give a fuck about is whether you behaved yourself in grammar school and what the town thinks of your family. All they’re deciding is whether or not you’ll contaminate all those precious college-course douchebags. But maybe I’ll try to work myself up. I don’t know if I could do it, but I might try. Because I want to get out of Castle Rock and go to college and never see my old man or any of my brothers again. I want to go some place where nobody knows me, and I don’t have any black marks against me before I start. But I don’t know if I can do it.”
“People. People drag you down. Your friends drag you down, Gordie. Don’t you know that?”
While the boys are successful in locating Ray Brower’s body, they are met there by the gang of older boys, including Chris and Vern’s brothers, resulting in a stand-off over who has “dibs” on the promised glory. While Gordie and Chris (with the pistol that he purloined from his father) are able to scare off the gang, they ultimately decide that neither group has dibs on finding the body- and the younger boys pay a high price after the school year starts.
I think it’s unlikely that anybody reading The Body at this late date has not seen Rob Reiner’s film version, Stand By Me (1986) first. I rewatched it for the first time in about 20 years and am glad to say that it really holds up. The screenplay tightens up some of King’s excesses and adds some “hanging out” dialogue (“If Mickey’s a mouse, Donald’s a duck and Pluto’s a dog…. What the hell is Goofy?”) and has wonderful performances from a once-in-a-lifetime cast. While Wil Wheaton and River Phoenix (as Gordie and Chris) garner most of the praise, I found myself really enjoying Corey Feldman’s full commitment to the role of “Crazy Teddy DuChamp” and Jerry O’Connell’s deft comic timing as Vern, which really adds some much-needing leavening to the film.
The biggest change in Reiner’s adaptation is completely doing away with the any suggestion of the supernatural in the story. A major plot point involves the four boys tossing a “goocher” (four tails up) when they flip coins to decide who is going pick up the groceries. When they flip again, only Gordie gets heads-up, losing the coin toss. But at the end of the book Gordie reveals that the other three friends met gruesome ends before they reached their mid-20s: Vern and Teddy in accidents, Chris (having achieved his dream of going to college and on to law school) is stabbed to death when he steps in to break up a fight in a fast-food restaurant. In the film, only Chris dies, while Vern and Teddy remain stuck in dead-end jobs in Castle Rock.
King also allows for a little more mystery surrounding the death of Ray Brower, whom is supposed to have got lost in the woods and hit by a train in the darkness. But adult-Gordie is still troubled by the condition the body was in when they find it- hardly smashed by a speeding freight. And Gordie remains preoccupied by the fact that it was well-known that Ray Brower had been out berry-picking when he went missing, and there was no sign of his berry bucket at the site of the accident.
The Body originally appeared in King’s 1982 “non-horror” collection Different Seasons, where it appeared alongside Apt Pupil and Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption, both of which were also filmed and are famous (or infamous) for their own reasons. In hardcover, The Body runs exactly 150 pages, and includes two shorter stories within the narrative. The first, “Stud City,” was supposedly published by Gordie as a college undergrad, both shows how he developed as a writer (it’s bad) and how he used writing to continue to work through his feelings surrounding his brother’s death. The second is “The Revenge of Lard-Ass Hogan,” which memorably made it into Reiner’s film, as a fat kid wrecks revenge on his whole stupid town for years of abuse at their annual pie-eating contest, which in the film is rendered with truly spectacular pyrotechnics. Best watch it on an empty stomach.