2017 is forecast to be a good year for Stephen King. Last month saw the release of his latest Castle Rock novella, Gwendy’s Button Box, co-written by Cemetery Dance magazine editor Richard Chizmar. The April posting of the latest It Part One theatrical trailer set an online record for the most views, and before the year is out the big screen will also see the release of the long-gestating Dark Tower movie. The trailer for that also looks great, albeit very, very different from the 4,000-page anthology. If that isn’t enough, later this year Spike TV will host a 10-episode mini-series remake of The Mist. Here, too, is the trailer for that. Enjoy!
As I sit here, about to read The Stand for the third time, I want to note that few authors merit a top ten list, let alone four top ten lists! But then, few authors have the cumulative body of work that Mr. King has, with roughly 75 novels, collections, collaborations, screenplays, and non-fiction pieces. There may be a few pieces of rotten meat in that literary smorgasbord, but the list you are about to read takes us to number 40 and the books on said list are still good, perhaps even great.
So with that, here are yet another ten good Stephen King books:
31) Mr. Mercedes (2014): I won’t call Mr. Mercedes and the two other books that comprise The Bill Hodges Trilogy “hard-boiled, Chandler-esque fiction,” but there is a taste of noir in the series, particularly in this, the first entry on Part Four of this blog series. Mr. Mercedes introduces us to the newly-retired Hodges, an overweight, past-his-prime in some unnamed Great Lakes city. When we first meet him, he is suicidal, bored to tears and guilt-ridden that he was unable to solve what turned out to be his last case, about a deliberate hit-and-run accident (the Mercedes of the title) that killed dozens. The killer, still at large, is as bored as Hodges is, takes comfort in the anonimity of the internet, and taunts the technology-averse detective into putting his fedora on one last time. (In the true noir tradition, there really is a fedora, as well as a romance with a much-younger female.) Like all books, Mr. Mercedes isn’t perfect. King’s frequent penchant for non-PC humor is especially apparent here, and the actions of the supporting players, several of whom who will return in Finders Keepers and End of Watch, aren’t always believable. Still, its 436 pages race by, and you can tell that SK had as much fun writing it as you will have reading it.
32) The Green Mile (1996): This heartrending drama, with a touch of fantasy, remains one of King’s most beloved novels. There are, I think, two reasons for this: 1) You would be hard-pressed to find someone who doesn’t like the 1999 movie that it spawned. Directed by Frank Darabont of Shawshank Redemption renown and starring Tom Hanks, it earned four Oscar nominations including Best Picture. 2) In a publishing stunt, the book was release piecemeal, in six separate volumes, each of which had a cliffhanger ending. The thin volumes sold out quickly, and by the time I got a copy, the “novellas” were already bound into a single tome. The story? Paul Edgecombe, a death row prison guard at Cold Mountain Penitentiary, must question everything he knows when his latest prisoner, a gentle giant known as Frank Coffey (“Coffey like the drink, only not spelled the same”), is placed in his care, awaiting his date with Ol’ Sparky. Instead of the characteristics typical of a hardened criminal – for Coffey’s crime is very bad – the taciturn inmate appears to possess a Jesus-like gift of healing. The melodrama is almost too much at times, but if you’ve never read the book nor seen the movie, The Green Mile is guaranteed to surprise you.
33) The Bachman Books (1985): The four novellas here that were written – all during the late 70’s-early 80’s – by King under the pseudonym Richard Bachman are hard to find in print form today, except in this compilation. One of them, the crazed-high-school-gunman potboiler that is Rage, is virtually impossible to find. “Now out of print, and a good thing,” King stated, many years later. The fourth, The verdict? Rage, which SK decided not to republish in today’s post-Columbine world, is intense but too short. The two middle tales, The Long Walk and Roadwork, are among the best works in the early SK canon. The Long Walk, an eerie pre-cursor to The Hunger Games, follows a group of young males in a totalitarian near future as they embark on a literal march-to-the-death reality competition. The very intimate Roadwork is a tragic tale about the human cost of progress, and the fourth tale, The Running Man, is a supremely bleak piece of sci-fi (and about another cruel reality competition) that is most memorable for spawning an Arnold Schwarzenegger vehicle of the same name. You might find rare editions of Rage on eBay, and you can surely find the others on Amazon, but the combined volume also includes the enlightening introduction “Why I Was Bachman,” a tell-all by SK himself. My favorite novella of the four? Roadwork.
34) The Eyes of the Dragon (1984): As one of King’s Constant Readers, I sometimes get questions from parents who want to introduce their children to the author’s work but aren’t sure where to begin. I always recommend starting with The Eyes of the Dragon, as the fantasy novel is short, devoid of sex and profanity, and has a child as its protagonist. In the medieval kingdom of In-World (where everything is protected by the Dark Tower), noble pre-teen Peter, future ruler son of King Roland, is scholarly, fair, and athletic. This displeases the king’s advisor, Flagg (of The Stand, remember him?), and the dark wizard has young Peter framed for Roland’s death-by-poisoning, and imprisoned in the castle’s tallest tower. Thus begins this old fashioned quest for truth. Literate and thrilling, this novel, which features terrific first edition cover art and illustrations by Kenneth R. Linkhauser, is one of King’s most underrated novels. Many fans rejected it upon its initial release in 1984, yearning for more horror and less fantasy. Time has been kind to the book, and it is now considered a minor classic. Connections to other works in the SK universe certainly help…although prior knowledge of all things Flagg are not necessary for first time readers.
35) The Dead Zone (1979): This early King novel is less “supernatural” than “parahuman,” to use a 21st-century word that describes otherwise-ordinary humans who possess special powers, be they pyrokinesis (Firestarter), telekinesis (Carrie), or, as is the case here, precognition. Johnny Smith, a lauded small town high school teacher has it all, including the woman of his dreams…until a near-fatal car accident leaves him in a coma for several years, awakening a long-dormant ability to see another person’s future, thereby drawing the attention of all sorts of kooks. The action alternates between Johnny’s story and that of Gregg Stillson, a far-right politician who began his career as a traveling salesman and whose Middle American charisma masks a deadly ambition. The lives of Smith and Stillson eventually collide, with tragic consequences. Like many King books, the horror of The Dead Zone is more psychological than anything else, making this novel, suspenseful and tragic, a good choice to introduce apprehensive non-Constant Readers to SK’s work.
36) The Dark Tower: The Gunslinger (1982): “The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed.” With those typed words, so began a ~4,000-page literary odyssey about obsession, duty, and redemption. Two parts western, one part fantasy, and one part horror, The Gunslinger, Volume One, introduces us to Roland Deschain, the last remaining all-out gunslinger, descended from royalty in a world that has “moved on.” Roland seeks the titular Dark Tower, but he doesn’t entirely know why. He heads across endless hard pan desert in search of an elusive sorcerer who may have the answers he seeks. Along the way he meets slow mutants, a crazed female minister, and Jake, the boy from our world. Sound weird? It is. True confession: I disliked The Gunslinger upon my first reading (but have since read it two more times). It is different than anything King had written up to that point, and the prose, while gorgeous, reads differently than his usual style. But it is a fast read, and if some plot developments don’t read as clearly as they should, take comfort that the proceedings are easier to follow – albeit much, much weirder – in subsequent volumes.
37) Revival (2014): Finally, an all-out horror novel. Like many other King tales, Revival is told in the first person, and follows the parallel lives of Jamie Morton and Charles Jacobs. Jamie, an audio engineer, is just six when we meet him, a kid playing in the dirt outside his rural Maine home in 1962. Jamie narrates the strange tale of his recurring encounters with disgraced evangelical minister Charles, who, after the horrifying (I told you!) deaths of his wife and son, shuns God and worships electricity instead. The reclusive Charles uses lighting and other forms of electricity for healing purposes, and Jamie, who suspects Charles of otherworldly intentions, wonders where all of this is leading to (the book’s title provides a hint). While the character of Charles is, somewhat frustratingly, kept at arm’s length from the reader for most of the book’s 405 pages, Jamie, who is estranged from his siblings and who struggles with drug addiction, is one of SK’s more memorable protagonists. As for the “horror” that I mentioned earlier, the last 100 pages include some of the most frightening passages King has ever written.
38) Everything’s Eventual (2002): Every six years or so, SK’s publishers release a compilation of short stories, some recent and some rather dated, many of them accompanied by author’s notes about how they came to be. Everything’s Eventual, the penultimate King book before his short-lived retirement circa 2003, is one such book. Interestingly enough, most of the tales between its covers are not all-out supernatural, but scary in an everyday context. “Lunch at the Gotham Cafe,” for example, details the bloodbath that ensues when a divorcing couple starts bickering over their lunch.” “Luckey Quarter,” the most curious of the lot, was originally published in USA Weekend, and follows a waitress who wonders what will happen if she drops a coin in a slot machine. One of the more unsettling stories, “The Man in the Black Suit,” was actually published in The New Yorker, and won an O. Henry Award for Literature in 1996. To me, though, there are three standouts: “1408,” about a haunted hotel room (and later made into an excellent horror movie starring John Cusack); “The Little Sisters of Eleuria,” about wandering gunslinger Roland Deschain; and the title entry, “Everything’s Eventual,” which takes us into the world of future beam breaker Dinky Earnshaw. Two Dark Tower stories, yes!
39) The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon (1999): Nine-year-old Trisha, whose parents are divorcing, grows so tired of her family’s constant bickering that, when yet another argument escalates during a hiking trip through what almost certainly are the Maine woods, Trisha simply turns the volume up on her headphones and gets lost in her thoughts. She also loses the trail, and quickly finds herself alone in deep woods, where berries are poisonous and where a monster lurks in wait. Though resourceful in her own way, Trisha is malnourished, dehydrated, and hopelessly lost. Facing death, she has just one thing to fall back on: her idolation of baseball player (and crush) Tom Gordon, then a pitcher with the Boston Red Sox. An absorbing page-turner, The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon stands alongside The Eyes of the Dragon as a perfect introduction to younger readers of King’s work. As if to illustrate the point, an abridged, pop-up book version of the same was released in 2004, this one featuring imaginative, full-color artwork by Alan Dingman.
40) Cujo (1981): An early Castle Rock novel, the rip-roaringly fast-paced Cujo follows young Donna Trenton and her four-year-old son Tad as they attend to the simple process of taking their past-its-prime car to the Camber farm on the edge of town for repairs. Adman Vic, Donna’s husband, is out of town, and the Cambers don’t seem to be home, either (mom Charity and son Brett are visiting relatives out of town, while dad Joe is dead…killed by his own dog, a giant St. Bernard named Cujo, thus spawning several decades worth of “Cujo” jokes any time a St. Bernard appears on television). Cujo, while scary, is as much a victim as he is a killer; he was friendly and beloved until getting bitten on the nose by a rabid bat while chasing a rabbit into a small cave. What elevates the book in my opinion is the telling of several passages from Cujo’s POV, a funny and sympathetic touch. But don’t be misled; Cujo is a taut, scary read.
With this and the previous lists (here, here, and here), we’ve gotten through half of King’s published work. Are there any worthy candidates that I have thus far excluded? Leave a comment and let us know!