Stephen King’s Fictional Serial Killer From 1968 — An Analysis of Strawberry Spring
Stephen King has never written a lot about serial killers. He’s not that conventional. So, it’s interesting to look back through Stephen King’s short fiction to 1968 when he wrote about female college students being picked off by “Springheel Jack” in the short story Strawberry Spring. This is an analysis of the version which would later appear in Night Shift.
Publication History of Strawberry Spring
Stephen King first published Strawberry Spring in the Fall 1968 edition of Ubris, which was the University of Maine’s literary magazine. This is the third short story King published in Ubris, the first two being Cain Rose Up and Here There Be Tygers. Copies of the magazines are hard to come by, but if you live near the Raymond H. Fogler Library at the University of Maine at Orono, you’re in luck, because you can visit there and copy the original.
The second time Strawberry Spring was published was in Cavalier magazine in November 1975. Rocky Wood describes the edition published then as “substantially rewritten.” He indicates that this version also appeared in Gent magazine in February 1977. Both of those magazines have nudity on the cover. I’m not sure what it says that all three times Strawberry Spring was published in a magazine, it was in a magazine with an at least partially nude woman on the cover.
The fourth publication of Strawberry Spring was another publication of the revised edition in Night Shift. It is that edition of this short story that I am analyzing here.
Finally, Cemetary Dance published a beautifully illustrated version of Strawberry Spring, collected in The Secretary of Dreams (Volume Two) in 2010. The illustrations were done by Glenn Chadbourne, and a sampling of them can be seen here.
As always, if you have not yet read Strawberry Spring, now is the time. This will not be a spoiler-free review. It is relatively short, even as short stories go.
Rocky Wood describes the two versions of Strawberry Spring to be very similar, aside from the name of the college involved. In the original edition in Ubris, Wiscasset College was the setting. In the version published later, the setting is New Sharon Teachers’ College.
It is March of 1968. What Stephen King describes as “strawberry spring” has set in. It is a name for a premature warming that comes about once every 8–10 years, but it doesn’t settle in, because there’s more of winter left behind it. It creates a very foggy setting for the story. The narrator of the story is looking back eight years to his time in college, remembering what happened.
A series of brutal murders of women occur on campus, all presumed to be the work of one individual, who was never caught. Now, eight years later, “strawberry spring” has set in again. Another murder occurs. King very strongly implies, in a bit of a twist ending, that the narrator, now married, is the killer.
Analysis of Strawberry Spring
First and foremost, Bryant Burnette absolutely knocked it out of the park with his analysis of Strawberry Spring back in 2013. It is tempting to refer you there and leave it at that, but I have some thoughts of my own to throw in here, and even a few responses to Burnette.
Burnette correctly points out that Strawberry Spring is the first story from Ubris to be included in Stephen King’s first short story collection, Night Shift. He feels that this might be a statement from King that King felt this was the first time his abilities were truly demonstrated. If that is the statement from King, then I agree with it. Burnette seems not so sure, and feels that Cain Rose Up and Here There Be Tygers also fit this role.
I agree that there is more than meets the eye with both Cain Rose Up and Here There Be Tygers, but I disagree that they fit with Night Shift. Both of those other Ubris stories contain extremely blunt storytelling, and I don’t feel like that is what King was going for with the overall tone of Night Shift. Maybe that’s an essay for another day.
A general point on which I agree with Burnette is that King’s prose in Strawberry Spring is best described as “lyrical.” There are several portions of this story that sing to you. The rhythm to the words and vivid descriptions by King are beautiful.
King’s Political References
King makes political references in the story, but I think those references are nothing more than scene setting, a reminder of the time in which the story was written, and perhaps a head nod. However, they are worth discussing briefly.
Specifically, King mentions President Lyndon Johnson’s caricature crying melted tears, Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), and campus conservatives.
All three of these references would have been ready in the minds of educated readers in 1968. Lyndon B. Johnson was, of course, the President at the time, but his melting tears likely signified the end of President Johnson’s time in office. Richard Nixon would ultimately win the election to succeed him.
We were also still embroiled in the Vietnam War (and would be for another seven years). SDS was a campus activist organization formed in 1960 and dissolved not long after Strawberry Spring‘s publication.
The term “outside agitators” was a term used by conservatives like Alabama Governor George Wallace in response to the civil rights movement. The running theme was that the protesters in the south were not truly in favor of the civil rights movement, but rather those people saw demonstrating were either communists with an agenda or those who the communists managed to rile up. Governor Wallace argued that African Americans in the south preferred segregation over integration. More recently, the “outside agitators” label was placed on demonstrators in Ferguson, Missouri.
In any event, it’s interesting to look back on the Strawberry Spring setting from a time nearly 50 years later. This is not a story that King wrote in retrospect. He created the setting while living in the setting, and it merely feels removed from it all, reading it now, because it’s been so long.
The Relationship with Nature and The Fog
The narrator’s relationship with nature is evident throughout this story. There are times when it seems as though he is being intoxicated by the fog that the unusual weather brings:
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.
It seems that this story might, in part, be one of King’s takes on the conflict of man vs. nature. It is certainly in part also man’s conflict with himself.
The Killer’s Cycle
Burnette is correct in pointing out that there is a cycle of killing here that is similar to the cycles in Cycle of the Werewolf and IT. The killer’s cycle in Strawberry Spring is not a cycle strictly tied to time, but instead to an event. This peculiar weather is something which happens every eight years or so, but not specifically eight years on the button.
In other words, the killing is tied to the coming of strawberry spring and the fog that it brings. The killer’s relationship to nature is what determines the cycle, not time. It just so happens, however, in the story that the two strawberry spring events occur eight years apart after determining that strawberry spring is something that happens approximately eight years apart.
Does the Twist Ending Work?
I agree with Burnette that this is King’s effective use of a twist ending.
Here’s what’s really interesting about this story, as a whole, though: Once you know that the twist ending exists, the story remains an enjoyable read. The reason for this is that if you read this from the perspective of the narrator now (or in 1976 as it would be), you can read this story as the narrator, now married, putting together, upon reflection, that he is the killer.
The narrator is slowly reflecting over the events of 1968 and now 1976, and he reaches the conclusion that is startling to the reader on a first read, and to him at all times:
This morning’s paper says a girl was killed on the New Sharon campus near the Civil War cannons. She was killed last night and found in a melting snowbank…
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.
Where Does the Fear Come From?
That brings us to something I would like to touch upon in most of these short story analyses — the question of where the fear comes from.
The answer with regard to Strawberry Spring is obvious to me. The horror lies in realizing that you are a serial killer. At the conclusion of the short story, the narrator reveals that he is not simply telling a story, but that he is writing a story.
And a person who comes to this realization and is truly horrified by it might be writing what amounts to a confession.
And that’s what I think Strawberry Spring amounts to: a confession.
King would later mirror where this fear comes from in the novella A Good Marriage, which is contained in the short fiction collection Full Dark, No Stars. That novella was about a wife discovering that her husband is a serial killer.
Feminist Response to the Slaughter of Women
This topic came up on The Losers’ Club Podcast when they covered Night Shift. One of the members pointed out that in at least two of the stories contained in Night Shift, King is killing off women. I don’t read much into this.
With regard to Strawberry Spring, in particular, I don’t see how this can be perceived as a slight against women. It is a portrayal of a character, not a personal desire of the writer. King does not indicate, in any way, that he admires or is advocating for the narrator. Further, there have been plenty of serial killers in every stage of American history who primarily or exclusively killed women.
There is a reasonable argument to be made that King sympathizes with the narrator. However, this merely brings us back to what is discussed above with regard to where the fear comes from. If there is sympathy to be had, it comes from the narrator’s apparent discovery that he is a serial killer, and the horror that he feels from that discovery.
I do not see a sound argument that King is engaging in anti-feminine advocacy.
Originally published at stephenkinguniverse.com on May 5, 2017.