One of the clearest signs that you’re reading a young writer is when an ending is too neat, when subtlety is eschewed in favor of the obvious. This is a tendency that plagues nearly all young writers, and Stephen King’s early work is no different. Since Night Shift is a collection of his earliest published (and unpublished) work, it’s no wonder that many of the stories seem to skirt the edges of greatness, so often falling just short.
Like “The Mangler,” “Sometimes They Come Back,” and “The Boogeyman” before it, “Strawberry Spring” suffers from a lack of imagination at the crucial moment. What begins as a solid world-building exercise, showing how a small community can devolve into panic with a little injection of chaos, turns into a strange gotcha finale that is somehow both unearned and wholly unoriginal, even by 1970’s standards.
One assumes that King was interested in exploring the duality of the self, that one might be unable to fully understand oneself. While that’s certainly an area of exploration for horror, given how terrifying the idea of committing crimes you don’t remember is, the problem is that in his attempt to obscure the potential for the narrator to be the murderer, he commits the reverse of Chekhov’s apocryphal rule about writing and story, and which King himself wrote about in On Writing:
“If in Act I you have a pistol hanging on the wall, then it must fire in the last act.”
In “Strawberry Spring,” there are almost no hidden clues that the narrator is the murderer, save for his being present outside during the first murder, so when the reveal happens it’s seems like a bizarre, unnecessary twist. There’s no indication he owns the murder weapon or that he’s studying something that would place him in proximity to the victims. There’s no mention of mental instability, or what the bizarre strawberry spring weather might be doing or mean to him. Essentially, King builds this wonderfully-articulated community and an external, mysterious terror and suggests the horror is in how the community reacts, and then in the last paragraph suddenly reveals it was actually about the horrors of individual disassociation. It’s a total disaster, but more than that, we’re shown almost nothing about the narrator’s internal dialogue, meaning it’s not even a good examination of psychosis. It’s a tacked-on Twilight Zone ending that, sadly, ruins all that preceded it.
But what “Strawberry Spring” proves is that Stephen King always understood how to build dread and tension from a few key ingredients, and it’s still a pleasure to see the building blocks of one of modern literature’s greatest imaginations, even in his first, timid steps.