Christmas is fast approaching, so chances are you’ve probably started thinking about Yuletide-themed stories already. I’m also willing to bet there’s at least one Christmas tale you’re planning to revisit once again this festive season that most people would consider a little… unconventional.
For me, it’s The Breathing Method, the fourth and final novella in Stephen King’s 1982 collection Different Seasons. The moving account of a young woman’s unfathomable dedication to her unborn child, The Breathing Method isn’t just King’s most criminally overlooked short story – it’s also an unexpectedly perfect Christmas story, too.
The Breathing Method is a period joint. Sure, it’s bookended by a fun present-day framing sequence that ties into King’s wider fictional universe (and allows him to explore the relationship between stories and those who tell them). But the bulk of the page count is devoted to a supposedly true yarn spun by elderly physician Emlyn McCarron, which details a bizarre phenomenon he experiences in the 1930s while treating Sandra Stansfield, an unmarried pregnant woman.
A warm (yet platonic) relationship quickly develops between the young McCarron and his patient, who comes to appreciate Stansfield’s wit and courage in the face of a society unwilling to accept a woman carrying an illegitimate child. Fully invested in the well-being of Stansfield and her baby, McCarron proscribes a revolutionary breathing technique designed to make childbirth more manageable – a fateful decision that pays off spectacularly when the story reaches its tragic, bittersweet conclusion.
I mentioned earlier that The Breathing Method is disappointingly underappreciated, and it’s an easy claim to back up. After all, it’s the only novella in Different Seasons that hasn’t been adapted for the screen (yet) – the other three short stories in the collection served as the basis Apt Pupil, Stand By Me, and The Shawshank Redemption – yet it’s easily as well-crafted as those efforts.
Take the period setting, for instance. King has demonstrated time and again throughout his lengthy career that he’s a master of world-building, and The Breathing Method is no exception to this. The celebrated scribe deploys carefully selected details small and large to bring the 1930s setting to life and make it feel real, and it’s this sense of verisimilitude (plus a healthy dose of signposting early on) that makes it easy for us to swallow the impossible events described during the finale.
It also doesn’t hurt that we’re fully emotionally invested in The Breathing Method’s characters by that point, either. When the unthinkable – and I mean that in every sense of the word! – finally occurs, we’re rooting for likable leads McCarron and Stansfield to pull through, and we’re so captivated by their struggles that The Breathing Method’s potentially laughable ending is hauntingly beautiful, instead.
OK, that’s all well and good – but why is The Breathing Method also a first-rate Christmas story?
The most obvious answer points to the novella’s superficial elements. There’s the young woman doing whatever she can to deliver her child despite the scorn of almost everyone around her, the Christmas trappings of the pivotal childbirth scene, the magical realism involved, and so on. But it goes deeper than that. The real reason why The Breathing Method is the perfect Christmas story is that it’s about love.
Sure, King doesn’t shy away from depicting the double-edged nature of maternal love; how its intensity is to be feared almost as much admired. But he also provides an unforgettable illustration of how that love can make miracles happen – even in a magic-deficient world like our own. And really, what could be more Christmassy than that?