It is mid-July as I write this, and summer is in full swing. What better author for summertime beach reading than Stephen King? The prolific Maine writer of more than 70 novels, hundreds of short stories, several screenplays, and even a few non-fiction pieces has no shortage of material from which to choose.
There are several different types of King books – genres within genres. Take his short stories. These range anywhere from 5 pages to 50, let’s say. Most are all-out horror, but not all have “horrifying” endings. Or novels. Some, like The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon, are just over 200 pages, while others – The Stand: For the First Time Complete & Uncut – exceed the 1,000 page mark. Some, like Pet Sematary, are quick-turning and gory. Others, such as the terrific 11/22/63, are dense and thought-provoking.
The list you are about to read includes a good variety of King works. His first published novel, Carrie, makes the cut, as does his most recent collection of short stories, The Bazaar of Bad Dreams. The first volume of his massive Dark Tower mega-novel, The Gunslinger, is on here, as is his personal favorite piece of his own writing, Lisey’s Story. Of these, my favorites are listed in rank order, as decided by my admittedly-amateur entertainment critic-self.
So with that, here are (still) another ten good Stephen King books:
41) Nightmares and Dreamscapes (1993): This mammoth tome, 816 pages in its first edition, holds 24 short stories within its covers. These tales represent some of King’s best mid-career work, with my favorites being “Crouch End,” about an American couple that gets lost in a very, very offbeat neighborhood in residential London; “You Know They Got a Hell of a Band,” which borrows a song lyric from the Righteous Brothers as it tells of the fate that befalls an Oregon couple as the scenic route that the husband insists on taking during their road trip leads them to a literal ghost town – one inhabited by dead musicians; “Rainy Season,” a disturbing tale of a honeymooning couple that should have heeded the advice of their vacation rental home’s owner and stayed somewhere else for the night; “Head Down,” a charming, non-horror tale about one season in the life of King’s son Owen, who plays Little League during a time when the parents are often more competitive than the players themselves; “The Night Flier,” a gory tale – and, later, a movie – about a pulp journalist chasing a vampire who flies about the east coast by private plane; and “Chattery Teeth,” a darkly funny tale about a traveling salesman who buys a pair of metal chattery teeth as a gag gift, only to find them possessed. Of timely interest: “Chattery Teeth” was originally published in Cemetery Dance anthology; the magazine’s publisher, Richard Chizmar, recently co-authored King’s latest book, the novella Gwendy’s Button Box.
42) Carrie (1974): Of the dozens of film and telefilm adaptations of King’s novels and short stories, there are perhaps five occurrences when the film is better than the source material. The Shawshank Redemption is perhaps the best example. Stand by Me also joins that list, as well as, arguably, the aforementioned 1408. And Carrie. This is the observant story of an introverted teenager bullied by her peers at school and by her fanatical mother at home. Young Carrie White’s first menstrual cycle activates previously-dormant telekinesis, which fascinates, rather than scares, the wallflower, leading to tragedy all around. Carrie, King’s first published novel, is as topical today as it was at the time of its first printing, 43 years ago. As novels go, it is a thin volume that can be read in a single sitting. But its occasional narrative clunkiness, so typical for many first-time writers, keeps it from cracking the top 40. The original 1976 film (its 2013 remake, less so) omits a few of the most fantastical passages, and, combined with Brian DePalma’s masterful direction and a perfect, double-Oscar-nominated cast, brings Carrie’s torment to unforgettable life, earning audience’s sympathy, and – courtesy of its brilliant final scene – their screams as well.
43) The Dark Half (1989): This gruesome tale, a sort of hard-boiled supernatural murder mystery written in the style of Ernest Hemingway, is about promising Castle Rock novelist Thad Beaumont…and about George Stark, the pen name that Thad “buried” so he could move on to more serious work. Stark, who (as his mock tombstone reads) is “not a very nice guy,” comes back from the dead and won’t stop his killing spree until Thad agrees to write another Stark novel. Problem is (as if that isn’t enough, ha!), Thad never liked the person he became while writing under the Stark pseudonym, and fears that if goes down that dark road one more time, he may never come back. Improbable yet intriguing, furious yet funny, The Dark Half is a minor King classic. It is also notable for introducing readers to Castle Rock Sheriff Alan Pangborn, who became the main character in SK’s next novel, Needful Things.
44) Lisey’s Story (2006): There isn’t a more polarizing novel in King’s impressive literary canon than this intimate, haunted love story about the before, during, and after of an enduring marriage between a tormented novelist and his level-headed wife. On the one hand, SK proclaims this his favorite self-authored book, and it features such passages as: “The sun, brilliant orange, stood above the horizon at the end of the seemingly endless field of lupin. Looking the other way, Lisey could see the first rising arc of the moon – one far bigger than the biggest harvest moon she had ever seen in her life.” On the other hand, words and phrases such as “smucking,” “bad gunky,” and “Boo’ya Moon” seem like too much baby talk. Of those phrases, “Boo’ya Moon” is actually the name of an alternate world where the novel comes to most colorful life (as the first edition hardback’s cover art demonstrates). More of that world, please.
45) The Dark Tower VI: The Song of Susannah (2004): Three separate storylines propel this fragment sixth installment of King’s magnum opus, The Dark Tower. Roland and Eddie, separated by other members of their ka-tet, journey to our world to secure the vacant lot in which a single, world-saving rose grows. Meanwhile, Eddie, Oy, and Father Callahan attempt to track down Susannah, who, possessed by a demon while pregnant, abandoned her fellow gunslingers. You could say that Oy’s phenomenal sense of smell helps with tracking. Finally, Susannah struggles to win the mental battle with Mia, the demon mother who believes that Mordred, the not-quite-human beastie growing inside Susannah’s belly, is hers. A lot happens in just 432 pages. Nevertheless, most readers proclaim that Volume VI is their least favorite in the series. This may have to do with the element of meta-fiction present in the book; Stephen King himself shows up as a character that many Constant Readers felt was the author “jumping the shark.” For me, it was moreso because Susannah, who often gets shifted aside by King in favor of humorous male bonding between Roland, Eddie, and Jake, finally gets a book of her own, yet isn’t fully realized as a character. Susannah-Mia and Susannah Dean are two completely different beings, after all. Still…the Tower is closer.
46) Insomnia (1994): This mammoth novel, 787 pages all told, is, like the aforementioned Lisey’s Story, one of King’s more polarizing works. For most Constant Readers, Insomnia is strictly of the love-it-or-hate-it variety. On the sliding scale of literary criticism, however, the book falls somewhere in the middle. Your love of the book, which follows Derry septuagenarian Ralph Roberts, who has had trouble sleeping and who believes that ghost-like “bald doctors” he sees in the wee hours of the night may in fact be agents of Death (or of the Crimson King), may depend in part on whether or not you are a fan of the Dark Tower books. More than any other non-DT King book, Insomnia – its last 250 pages in particular – functions as a sort of companion piece to that world. Insomnia is also, pre-11/22/63, King’s most political novel, although its subplot, about an abortion clinic that literally comes under fire, may be merely a plot device and not a statement of any kind by the author. For what its worth, I found Ralph Roberts to be one of King’s most memorable protagonists, and any excuse to revisit Derry (where things definitely go bump in the night) is a good one.
47) Four Past Midnight (1990): A dark counterpoint to SK’s humane 1982 collection Different Seasons, Four Past Midnight features four more King novellas, all with a sinister and/or supernatural bent. Quality varies. “The Langoliers,” the first, is a crackerjack tale about a group of airline passengers, including the requisite psychopath, who wake up from their in-flight nap to find that everyone else on board has vanished. “Secret Window, Secret Garden,” every writer’s nightmare, follows novelist Mort Rainey’s literary fight (to the death?) with John Shooter, who claims that Rainey plagiarized his novel; you may remember the so-so movie Secret Window, which starred Johnny Depp and John Turturro. “The Library Policeman,” the third story, has a terrific premise: if you don’t return your library books before they become overdue, the titular Library Policeman will come after you; the story itself goes to some really dark places and is nearly unreadable. Finally, “The Sun Dog,” once billed as “the last Castle Rock story,” tells what happens when a boy’s Polaroid camera produces just a single image regardless of what the camera is aimed at: a vicious dog in mid-leap who grows closer to coming out of the frame with each photo snapped.
48) The Regulators (1996): This bizarre tale, which was published under the (already unmasked) pseudonym Richard Bachman on the same day as King’s Desperation, also featured overlapping characters and complementary cover art. (In fact, the first edition hardcover illustration starts on one book and finishes on the other.) Except for the fact that all things serve the Tower, the two books otherwise couldn’t be any more different as regards settings. Where Desperation took place in a dying Nevada mining town, The Regulators takes place on a single city block in Wentworth, Ohio. The neighborhood residents are being wiped off by a series of assault vehicles with weapons that resemble something drawn by a child…a very autistic child, as it happens. The regular narrative is punctuated with seemingly nonsensical newspaper clippings and diary entries. I won’t spoil the whole story except to say that you need to read those extraneous bits as well. Frustrating, fascinating, and ferocious.
49) Firestarter (1980): More sci-fi than horror, this early King novel resembles Carrie and The Dead Zone in that its protagonist/victim has a sort of para-human superpower that is as much of a liability as it is an asset. In fact for Charlie McGee, the pre-teen title character (played by a post-E.T. Drew Barrymore in the 1984 movie), her “talent” – spontaneous combustion – is more of a curse than anything else. She and her father, who participated in a series of mind-altering experiments while in college, have been chased by the sinister agents of The Shop for as long as she can remember. Charlie can hurt people, and The Shop sees her as the ultimate weapon, but all she wants is to live in seclusion. A long-abandoned family cabin, owned by distant relations and miles from anywhere, may be their last chance at a quiet life…emphasis on “may be.” This absorbing read shouldn’t take more than a few sittings to finish, although it seems a bit slight compared to other entries on this list.
50) The Bazaar of Bad Dreams (2015): This list began with a short story collection, and shall end with one as well. The 18 stories and two poems in the latest such publication by SK, from 2015, are roughly 50% supernatural and 50% non-supernatural, but as you know by now, there is often times more terror in everyday life than there is from things that go bump in the night. Case in point: “Morality,” a stinging piece of work about the slow decay of a marriage, brought about by a third party and an act of seemingly mild violence. Or “Herman Wouk is Still Alive,” an imaginatively-titled harsh lesson about not drinking and driving. But the all-out horror stories have their usual nasty bite, too. “Obits” details what happens when an obituary columnist for a tabloid rag learns that any satirical, pre-death obituaries he writes turn into the real thing. “Ur,” first published electronically for Kindle, is about one such device – a pink (!) e-reader that serves a certain Dark Tower. I give a shout out to two particular tales, though – one supernatural and one not: “The Bone Church,” a haunting, multi-stanza poem about death that is clearly inspiring by Robert Browning’s 1855 “Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came;” and “Blockade Billy,” a dark tale about baseball that is filled with remarkable period language and insight.
I will probably conclude this series with today’s entry. Call these 10 entries, and the 40 before them, the “Essential Stephen King” collection, if you will.
Did I miss any?