The Breathing Method

Review: The Breathing Method isn’t just an overlooked Stephen King gem – it’s a surprisingly perfect Christmas tale, too

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 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.

What is The Breathing Method about?

We’ll get to The Breathing Method’s Christmas connection in a moment, but first, let take a closer look at the novella’s plot.

The first thing you should know is that The Breathing Method is ultimately 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 experienced in the 1930s while treating Sandra Stansfield, an unmarried pregnant woman.

A warm (yet platonic) relationship quickly developed between the young McCarron and his patient, as he came to appreciate Stansfield’s wit, courage and defiant dignity in the face of a society unwilling to accept a woman carrying an illegitimate child, financially or personally.

Fully invested in the well-being of Stansfield and her baby, McCarron proscribed a revolutionary breathing technique designed to make childbirth more manageable – a decision that proves crucial as the events of the elder McCarron’s story reach their tragic, bittersweet conclusion…

What makes The Breathing Method King’s best lesser-known short story?

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.

By the time the unthinkable – and I mean that in every sense of the word! – occurs, we’re rooting for likeable 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.

Why is The Breathing Method a good Christmas story?

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; 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 because 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?

Final verdict

The Breathing Method is a brilliantly told short story that deserves a bigger audience – especially among those who’ve become bored with more traditional Yuletide fare.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Agree? Disagree? Let me know in the comments below, or on Twitter or Facebook!

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