The sheer number of page views for my Top Ten Stephen King Books and my Ten More Great Stephen King Books blog posts from January, 2015 and April, 2015, respectively, surely say more about my readership’s love for King’s writing than for my own.
I recently breezed through Mr. King’s most recent novel, “Finders Keepers,” as well as his latest short story collection, “The Bazaar of Bad Dreams.” Good reads both. I am currently reading, for the third time, King’s third novel, “The Shining,” and will likely follow that up with its stellar 2013 sequel, “Doctor Sleep.” In other words: I simply can’t get enough of SK’s writing.
I thought I would continue my literary ranking of his body of work with the next ten best Stephen King books. To whit:
21. Duma Key (2008): This sucker punch of a novel never found much of an audience when it was released in 2008 – at least, not in comparison to Sai King’s usual readership. The book deserves better. “Duma Key” is the vibrant, scary, heartwrenching tale of what befalls Edgar Freemantle, a Minneapolis contractor who loses an arm, his marriage, and a considerable amount of his sanity, in a site accident. He moves to the sparsely-populated Florida isle of Duma Key (population: 3!) to recuperate, and fights his phantom limb torment by becoming a painter of haunting, brilliant images. But what is driving him to paint such monstrous images? Is it memories of his past life, or is it something from the ocean, something evil? “Duma Key” is one of the author’s best works in years, and while its 611 pages don’t always move at the fastest pace, the words on them are worth savoring, slowly…in a well-lit room.
22. Black House (2001): No one asked for a sequel to the Stephen King/Peter Straub co-authored horror/fantasy novel “The Talisman,” but all the same, no one complained when the pair released this sequel in 2001. Young Jack Sawyer, the cross-country, dual-dimension traveling child hero of the 1984 original, is all grown up. He has found early career success as an LA homicide detective, and he appears to have forgotten all memory of the bizarre events of his childhood. Inevitably, though, he must return to the Territories when a series of child abductions in the sleepy Wisconsin town of French Landing hit Sawyer below the belt. It is great to see Jack Sawyer back in action, but he plays second fiddle, in a way, to the more interesting supporting characters around him, such as Morris, the articulate blind deejay, Beezer St. Pierre, the well-read town heavy, and Charles “Burney” Burnside, French Landing’s especially cranky town geezer (that’s putting it lightly).
23. The Dark Tower VII: The Dark Tower (2004): All epics must eventually end, and the 845-page behemoth that is Book VII of “The Dark Tower” is simultaneously long-awaited and much-dreaded. The book begins where Book VI, “Song of Susannah,” ended, and doesn’t skip a beat. Jake Chambers, Father Callahan, and Oy the Billy-bumbler enter the Dixie Pig in pursuit of Susannah Dean, impregnated by a demon and about to give birth to man-spider Mordred, while Roland of Gilead and Eddie Dean journey to New York City on a mission to save a single red rose in a vacant lot that represents the Tower in our world’s incarnation. To say that not all of these characters will make it to the end is hardly a spoiler; still, you must brace yourself. As for the Tower itself: the book’s conclusion is strictly of the love-it-or-hate-it variety, and while there is some excess fat that could have been trimmed along the way, methinks the last five pages are perfection. Indeed, there simply isn’t any other possible ending that could have done justice to this mammoth (~4,000 pages all told) tome.
24. Joyland (2013): The second book by SK in the “True Crime” noir series (the first being the undercooked, anticlimactic “The Colorado Kid”), “Joyland” is pure King nostalgia, like something he would have written in the 1980’s. The protagonist/first person narrator is Devin Jones, a virginal college boy who takes a summer job at a 1970’s South Carolina oceanfront amusement park, the “Joyland” of the title. Here, he saves at least two lives, finds lust – but not love – and faces an honest-to-Pete ghost story. The supernatural ghost story aspect, about a nubile coed whose spirit haunts the funhouse in which she was murdered many years prior (her killer never apprehended), is pure window dressing, though, for what is basically a coming-of-age tale. Damn you, King, for writing such likable, relatable heroes. What young American male hasn’t had his heart broken, gotten blue balls, or worked his butt off at a summer job that was as much fun as it was work? I can’t think of a better beach read than “Joyland.”
25. Pet Sematary (1983): The scariest book on this list, “Pet Sematary” is downright disturbing. The misspelling of “cemetery” is intentional; the “sematary” of the title is a burial ground by children for pets who died before their time. Perhaps they wandered too close to the busy highway? ‘Tis that fate that befalls Church, the Creed family’s cat. Louis Creed, the new university doctor in town, discovers the cat pancake while his wife and children are out of town, visiting in-laws. He opts to bury the cat in the sematary, almost as an afterthought. Instead of that, though, his well-meaning friend Jud Crandall suggests, why not inter poor kitty at the old Micmac burial ground instead? The ground there is hallowed, Jud says, so perhaps Church will come back from the dead! This being an SK novel, it should come as no surprise that Louis is an idiot, and that sometimes dead is better. Oh, and that ending. “The voice was grating, full of dirt. ‘Darling,’ it said.” <SHUDDER>
26. Thinner (1984): King wrote seven novellas under the pen name “Richard Bachman,” all of them save one (“The Regulators”) in the 1970’s or early 80’s. The common denominator is that these tales are dark, dark, dark! Most Constant Readers would likely cite “The Long Walk,” a sort of precursor to “The Hunger Games,” as their favorite. To me, though, “Thinner” is Bachman’s best work. A fast and frightening read, it tells of the terrible curse that befalls Billy Halleck, a morbidly obese Connecticut lawyer who accidentally strikes – and kills – an old gypsy woman with his car. The woman’s impossibly-old father confronts Halleck outside the courthouse where the case is conveniently swept under the carpet, and with one word, “Thinner,” casts a spell that leads to rapid, unstoppable weight loss. King went on record for hoping that John Candy would be cast in the film role. “It could save his life,” the author insisted. Alas, Candy died of a heart attack in 1994; a screen adaptation was released two years later with B-actor Robert John Burke as Halleck. Incidentally, the original hardcover release of “Thinner” in 1984 led to Bachman being unmasked as King; observant readers couldn’t help but recognize the similar prose.
27. Full Dark, No Stars (2010): Like the aforementioned “Thinner” and the other Richard Bachman books, SK’s most recent collection of novellas, 2010’s “Full Dark, No Stars” is every bit as dark – as black – as its title suggests. Three of the four stories here are grounded in reality, but they deal with subjects as bleak as rape, serial murder, and pre-Depression-era poverty. One of them, the Maria Bello-starring “Big Driver,” was made into a Lifetime Channel movie, if you can believe it! The best story here, and one of SK’s finest literary efforts in years, is “1922,” a first-person narrative about a poverty stricken farmer who murders his ill-tempered wife and attempts to hide the body with the assistance of his guilt-ridden son. The son grows to hate the old man and the father loses not only his wife but also his farm’s prized milk cow, his son’s respect, his fortune…and his sanity.
28. Finders Keepers (2015): In 2014, SK released the first in a series of detective novels that would later become known as The Bill Hodges Trilogy. That novel, “Mr. Mercedes,” followed the return to grace of suicidal Ohio ex-cop Bill Hodges, given new lease on life when the killer responsible for an unsolved mass murder some months earlier gets the urge to kill again, and proceeds to taunt the weary cop. Last summer’s follow-up, “Finders Keepers,” has Hodges being a mere background character in a violent cat-and-mouse tale that finds ex-con Morris Bellamy trying to recover some valuable literary manuscripts now in the possession of 12-year-old Peter Saubers. Although the novel clocks in at just 434 pages, it is an epic that covers three decades and a dozen interesting characters. While most novels would suffer from having their protagonist delegated to supporting player, “Finders Keepers” gifts us with Bellamy and Saubers, two of the most interesting SK characters in many a moon. Coming next month: the trilogy’s coda, “End of Watch!”
29. Cycle of the Werewolf (1983): The shortest book on this list, “Cycle of the Werewolf” is more of a graphic novel than anything else. And by “graphic,” I refer of course to the Berni Wrightson illustrations. Wrightson, a Maryland-born comic book artist most famous for inking “Swamp Thing” as well as the occasional assignment for DC Comics, brings an evocative realism to his 12 full-color drawings here. Each drawing corresponds with one month in the story’s tale (and in the titular werewolf’s life). The first few months are little more than two-page events, detailing the killing – or discovery – of one unfortunate soul (and several beheaded pigs) each month during the full moon, in and around the town of Tarker’s Mills, Maine. The story flushes out when summer finally rolls around, as ten-year-old Marty suspects the local preacher, who hasn’t been himself lately. Marty, who is confined to a wheelchair and treated with disdain by his father and sister, may have to turn to old grandpa (played by Gary Busey in the 1985 movie “Silver Bullet”) for moral support. “Cycle of the Werewolf” is hard to find today, but very much worth reading; doing so won’t take you long.
30. Desperation (1996): King attempted a bold literary experiment in the mid-1990’s when he published two novels that “mirror” each other and feature characters with the same names but not necessarily the same backgrounds. One was the Richard Bachman novel “The Regulators,” about a band of half-western, half-alien outlaws that attack a single city block in a residential Ohio neighborhood one summer afternoon, their mission being to “take out” an autistic child. The other: “Desperation,” a grisly page-turner about the fate that befalls a series of travelers passing through a remote Nevada town. The town is called “Desperation” and the sheriff is named Collie Entragian. Both have been overcome with a sort of plague that emanates from an abandoned local mine and that turns them into homicidal maniacs. The action begins on page one, with one family of RVers noticing the “Welcome to Desperation” sign being adorned with a dead cat, hung in crucifixion style. The pace rarely lets up. Indeed, “Desperation” may be the swiftest 600-page novel that you’ll ever read.
Although I’ve already gotten to number 30, this list doesn’t even encompass half of SK’s literary canon. What do you think of my latest rankings? Do you prefer early SK works like “Pet Sematary” and “Cycle of the Werewolf,” or are you as rapt with his later, sadder stories? For these, I am referring to “Duma Key,” “Joyland,” and “Full Dark, No Stars,” to name just a few. Personally, I’m torn. You?