As you may know, I do not currently have the financial wherewithal to do the kind of travel that I yearn to do. I’m working on changing that, but in the meantime, the head-in-the-clouds dreamer that I am often passes the time by reading.
I frequently go through genre/author phases when I read. Five or so years ago I went on an “American classics” kick (think J.D. Salinger and John Kennedy Toole). One summer I devoured those dystopian sci-fi masterpieces from the mid-20th century (Brave New World, Fahrenheit 451, and 1984 – my favorite novel of all time). I read all seven Harry Potter books in just 12 days. During my late teens I raced through several political yarns by the late Tom Clancy. I even convinced myself a few years ago that Russian literature should be my next foray into classical literature…but I failed after just one book – Boris Pasternak’s snail-paced Doctor Zhivago.
My favorite author is – and always has been – Stephen King. I first discovered his writing in the late 1980’s when, as a teenager, I went through a serious horror phase. I subscribed to Fangoria and Cinefantastique magazine and I rented every grade-D slasher movie that I could get my hands on – never mind the fact that I was under 17. In fact, I was only 13 when I first saw Mr. King’s Pet Sematary on an end cap at the local Waldenbooks. The cover art – which showed an angry cat and the silhouette of a man carry a dead body towards a cemetery – spoke to me. I figured that the word “sematary” was deliberately misspelled, but why? I parted with five dollars of my hard-earned paper route money, bought the book, and was hooked.
The prolific King was probably the best-selling author of the 1980’s. His rabid fans bought his books with such devotion that King coined the term “Constant Reader” to describe their faithfulness in reading his books. I no doubt subconsciously thought of King when I first used “Loyal Reader” to affectionately address my own blog followers (although I could only dream of the kind of writing success that King himself has been afforded). I have read all but two of his books…most of them twice. Each one is an international bestseller!
Here, for your discovery and reading pleasure, are my top ten favorite Stephen King books:
- It (1986): I own three editions of this book: The original mass-market paperback. A hardbound, red-and-gold “library” edition. And Es, the German-language translation. All three copies are well-worn. This 1,200-page behemoth of a novel is King’s masterpiece, and is the single greatest horror novel ever written. There is a lot of meat in this pie: Every 30 years or so in the fictitious city of Derry, Maine, a monster awakens to wreak havoc, cause large loss of life, and then lie dormant for three more decades. First to fight back are Bill, Stan, Richie, Eddie, Ben, Mike, and Bev – seven wrong-side-of-the-tracks pre-teens who bond together in 1958 and take a blood oath as “the Losers’ Club” that they’ll kill It if they can and come back to face It 30 years later if they only succeed in driving it away…which is exactly what happens. (Don’t worry, that’s not a spoiler – it’s printed directly on the book jacket.) The genius in this book comes in three forms: 1) the world that King builds – Derry seems like a town you’ve known all your life; 2) the characters he creates – good and bad, young and old; and 3) the many faces of evil – infamous Pennywise the Clown is just one manifestation that the Losers’ Club must confront. Side note: I’m no fan of made-for-TV movies, but the four-hour ABC-TV mini-series adaptation of the book in 1990 was surprisingly literate, anchored by Tim Curry’s scene-stealing turn as Pennywise. He owns that role.
- The Stand (1978): This plus-sized über-novel is post-apocalyptic fiction, two decades before the genre became popular. Many Constant Readers proclaim The Stand their favorite King work, and would surely chastise me for having the nerve to put so low as #2! My defense is this: the book has some problems in its last 75 pages – a too-brief final confrontation between good and evil and then 50 anti-climactic pages. Nearly every page leading up to that point, however, is the work of a storytelling genius. A devastating superflu, also known as “Captain Trips,” has wiped out over 99% of the world’s population. The action in the novel focuses on the U.S., where survivors are driven by visions to re-settle in either Boulder, Colorado or Las Vegas, Nevada. Although many survivors notice the benefits (cities finally have clean air – what with no one left to occupy them)…they search for leadership…and answers. Stu Redman, a level-headed Texan, may be that leader…but it could also be Randall Flagg, a charismatic mystery man of the ages – centuries, perhaps? This long but never boring read contains some of King’s richest characterizations. An extended edition was released in 1990, adding almost 400 pages, including a new beginning and ending. If you can believe it, The Stand: The Complete & Uncut Edition is an even better version than the original 1978 bestseller! M-O-O-N, that spells “epic storytelling.”
- 11/22/63 (2011): Many cold weather King fans opine that he lost his magic after that horrifying moment in June, 1999, when King was struck by an out-of-control van while walking near his Bangor, Maine home. The monument time-travel tome 11/22/63, published in late 2011, is proof that King is still well in control of his literary mojo. It remains one of the greatest books I’ve ever read. The plot – a school teacher travels back in time to avert the Kennedy assassination – sounds lurid and opportunistic, but it is engrossing, topical, and well-researched. (It supposedly took King 30 years to flush out the story and its semantics.) Jaded English teacher Jake Epping learns about the existence of a wormhole in time and literally stumbles from the dying Maine town of Lisbon Falls in the present to the same place in the lively, nostalgic, Kodachrome-flavored 1958. He moves to the Dallas suburbs, awaiting his date with destiny some five years later. Resist the temptation to flip to the end of the book and find out whether or not Jake succeeds; the several-hundred-page journey to that moment is one of the more wonderful tales in King’s literary canon. Jake changes his name, falls in love, has his doubts, and learns – rather cruelly, in the SK tradition – that time is obdurate…it doesn’t want to be changed.
- The Dark Tower II: The Drawing of the Three (1987): Some Constant Readers don’t share my sentiment, but I adore the Dark Tower series so much that I could easily put five of its eight books on this top ten list. With diversity in mind, I’ll settle for just including two of them. The second entry in the series, The Drawing of the Three, is arguably the best. If the first installment, The Gunslinger, seemed a bit aimless in its pacing and unconventional in its prose, Book Two moves things right along and clarifies the narrative drive. Roland of Gilead, haunted by his selfish actions in the first book, is delirious with madness, thirst, and pain – the book opens with seaside creatures called “lobstrosities” biting off two fingers from his shooting hand! He isn’t quite sure what to make of three doors that literally open onto our world – specifically New York City in three different whens. It is here that he “draws” three complicated companions for his journey – a heroin addict with a serious case of withdrawal, a paraplegic Civil Rights activist with multiple personalities, and a sadistic gangster. And the Tower is closer.
- Skeleton Crew (1985): Before King was a successful novelist, he paid the bills with short story writing. His earliest efforts are on display in the chilling collection Night Shift. This follow-up is even better. The tales are equally creepy, and the writing is noticeably better this time around. There isn’t a dud in the bunch. A few of my favorites: “The Mist” is the longest story in the book and possibly the scariest. The taut plot revolves around a supermarket whose customers and employees are trapped inside as a mysterious mist envelops everything outside the store…with deadly unseen creatures lingering in the fog. It is the stuff of nightmares, and was a made into a terrific horror film in 2007. “The Raft” was featured as one installment from the 1987 cinematic curiosity Creepshow 2. It is a simple, terrifying tale. A group of teens are partying on a wooden float in the middle of an isolated lake when monstrous black oil oozes across the lake and swallows anyone who attempts to swim to safety. “The Jaunt,” about instantaneous travel through time and space, is more sci-fi than horror, with an ending that is the stuff of nightmares. Bravo, Mr. King.
- On Writing (2000): This is King’s second non-fiction book (the first being the dated Danse Macabre). Many King fans have given it a miss, likely turned off by the title. That is unfortunate, because On Writing is a never-boring read about the process of writing, about important grammar basics (remember: never boring), and about King’s own life, particularly his early financial struggles and his painful recovery from the debilitating roadside accident of 1999, from which King was lucky to have survived. This originally was supposed to be one of his last books before his planned retirement, but few people were surprised when he continued producing great work (no fewer than 20 books since On Writing was first published). King is brutally honest about the travails of the publishing world, yet the more you read, the more you can’t help but see why he couldn’t give it up: writing is a drug – an addiction, an obsession, and a medicine that surely helped nurse King back to health. We are the better for it.
- Different Seasons (1982): I managed to read this non-supernatural collection three times, and it holds up remarkably well. The book’s four novellas are remarkable stories of discovery, of determination, of days gone by, and of the horrible things that everyday human beings do to one another. Three of them were made into films that rank among the top of King’s filmography; The Shawshank Redemption (from the novella “Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption”) and Stand by Me (from the novella “The Body”) each received Oscar nominations, with Shawshank maintaining the #1 position on IMDB’s fan favorites list. “Shawshank” – about male bonding and jailhouse perseverance – is the most surprising. “Apt Pupil” – about a lonely teenager who discovers that the reclusive old man in his neighborhood is a Nazi fugitive – is the darkest. “The Body” – a coming-of-age tale involving four outcast teens on a quest to discover a dead body – is the most resonant. The final tale, “The Breathing Method,” is the shortest and most curious of the lot, and defies easy description. It, too, is terrific.
- The Dark Tower IV: Wizard and Glass (1997): This long-awaited mammoth tome and its even longer-awaited (and even more mammoth) follow-up, Wolves of the Calla, are guilty of the same thing: making too-little forward progress in the journey of gunslinger Roland and his ka-tet towards the titular Dark Tower. To me, this hardly matters, as Constant Readers of the DT saga no doubt yearn to learn more about Roland’s world. Wish granted. Wizard and Glass begins with Roland, Eddie, Susannah, Jake, and Oy trapped on Blaine the Mono as the train’s computer goes insane, leading them towards certain death unless they beat him in a contest of riddles. (This really happens, and is more interesting than it sounds.) Soon enough, we’re transported back in time to Gilead of the past, as teenage Roland and his fellow gunslingers Cuthbert and Alain journey to the Barony of Mejis, where dark deeds are afoot and where true love awaits Roland. His romance with young Susan Delgado is sure to be doomed (that’s not a spoiler; it’s something we’ve long known), but it’s an engrossing tale. The book’s climax includes the most epic gun battle of the eight-book series, and a tragic ending for the ages.
- Needful Things (1991): Billed as “the last Castle Rock novel,” Needful Things is a darkly funny swan song to the fictitious Maine town that has featured so prominently in so many King works. We meet seemingly everyone in town as they pay a visit to the one-of-a-kind curio shop of the title, a place in which you can get anything you want…for a price. The enigmatic shopkeeper, Leland Gaunt, is one of King’s better villains, and I would love to hear from his character again in other King novels, though this hasn’t happened…yet. (Max von Sydow was perfectly cast as Gaunt in the 1993 movie adaptation.) Like so many King novels, the build-up towards the very end of the book is nearly apocalyptic in scale. This time around, King isn’t guilty of what he sometimes does – rambling on for another 50 pages following the final confrontation. In fact it is quite the opposite; I would’ve liked a bit more closure. Small nitpick, though. Reader’s tip: Needful Things works better if you think of it as a black comedy. A really, really, really black comedy.
- ‘Salem’s Lot (1975): This rip-roaringly fast read is King’s only “true” vampire novel. I say “true” with quotation marks because he incorporated vampires into his later Dark Tower books…but they were not the traditional blood-sucking, coffin-dwelling, daylight-fearing creatures of lore but something quite different (though no less terrifying). ‘Salem’s Lot kicks off when writer Ben Mears moves to the small Maine town of Jerusalem’s Lot at about the same time as reclusive wealthy Austrian Kurt Harlow. As Ben woos local coed Susan Morton, bodies start disappearing and Ben discovers that a centuries-old vampire may be responsible. Whoever could it be? ‘Salem’s Lot is the earliest example of King’s lack of sympathy with regards to killing off beloved characters – and children – in a way that J.K. Rowling could only dream of. The book is ruthless…and scary as hell.
Are you a fan of the writings of Stephen King? If so, what do you think of my rankings? What are yours?