Tuesday, November 17, 2009

My top 5 Stephen King novels

While surfing the internet recently I encountered something quite surprising: A post from a well-read genre fan who had just experienced Stephen King for the first time. In a reply to this post, someone wrote that they had also only recently read King, and through a few of his newer works (On Writing, Cell, and Lisey’s Story).

Having grown up on King, and at one point believing that the publishing sun rose and set on his novels, I’m still a little stunned when I see exchanges like this: I have the habit of assuming that everyone has read everything King ever wrote.

For a long time, I did just that. Starting in the mid-80s and running through the early 90’s, I was immersed in King’s world, enthralled with its big terrors lurking in small Maine towns, tractor-trailers and laundry machines come to horrifying life, and Walking Dudes. My first encounter with King was The Shining, which I plucked off my grandfather’s bookshelf as a curious kid, and proceeded to scare myself half to death (while loving every second of it). From there I diligently read his entire backlist, starting with his debut novel Carrie (1974) up through Cycle of the Werewolf (1985) or thereabouts.

When I was done with everything King had written, I proceeded to read each new King novel as fast as he wrote them. For a while King was pumping them out every year, or even quicker, but I ate up titles like Misery, The Eyes of the Dragon, The Tommyknockers, and The Dark Half with insatiable gusto.

But eventually, King fatigue set in. My tastes changed and broadened. The king of horror eventually lost his grip on me.

While I still read King from time to time, I’m no longer obsessed with him, and have skipped some of his newer stuff entirely. I can no longer lay claim to having read every Stephen King title (Hearts in Atlantis, Under the Dome—has anyone read these? Any good?), but I still count him among my favorite authors, for the simple fact that he’s given me more pleasure than just about any other author I’ve read. And, his prose has always been so damned readable.

But the aforementioned internet exchange got me to thinking: Maybe King’s shadow is starting to wane. I know that he’s still very widely read today, but he doesn’t seem to be quite the unstoppable juggernaut who once had a stranglehold on the bestseller lists. For a 10 or 12-year window—I’d place it at 1977-89—King was the undisputed King of Horror. Maybe now he’s a mere Emperor of Terror, or a (Dark) Lord, perhaps—still with an enormous clout and following, but a step below the popularity and penetration of writers like J.K. Rowling and Stephenie Meyer. Also, newer readers are coming into the fold that may very well be oblivious to King, or at least disinterested in what they perceive to be the voice of an older generation (like I used to think of writers like Norman Mailer or Herman Wouk).

So for those coming to King for the first time, or for those who can’t get enough of King (I still adore his older stuff, and readily sing its praises) I thought I’d put together my top five list of favorite King works. Here they are, in no particular order:

1. The Stand (Complete and Uncut, 1991). At 1,140 pages in paperback, The Stand is King’s post-apocalyptic version of The Lord of the Rings. A killer plague wipes out 99.4% of the world’s population. The survivors band together and are eventually drawn into opposing camps by two spiritual leaders—the forces of good under Abigail Trotts in Boulder, Colorado, and the forces of evil under Randall Flagg, aka. the walking dude, in Las Vegas. My favorite parts of the book are the early stages, in which King describes the spread of the plague and the terrible chaos following the collapse of society. The terror is palpable as the breakdown gets really bad, and barbarism and end-of-the-world excess are rampant. The Stand is also noteworthy as a tour-de-force of diverse characters. Flagg is a terrifying figure and a recurring villain of later King novels, and the book is peppered with a host of likeable and memorable personalities, including the deaf-mute Nick Andros, the mentally handicapped Tom Cullen, the fatally flawed Harold Lauder, and the raving, likeable lunatic Trashcan Man, among many others.

2. Night Shift (1978). I’ve long maintained that King might be a better short-story writer than a novelist. Night Shift is his first collection and is not only studded with a number of terrifying gems, but it demonstrates his versatility and range as a storyteller. There’s certainly terror in spades here: “The Boogeyman” makes you never want to sleep with your closet door open, not even a crack, while “Children of the Corn” is a story of a couple who drive into an isolated Nebraska town corrupted by an ancient fertility god, its children driven to sacrifice and murder. “Trucks” and “The Mangler” are fun tales of mayhem in which heartless, murdering machines rise up against mankind. But there’s also surprising depth here, such as “The Woman in the Room,” King’s heart-felt examination of aging and death, and “The Last Rung on the Ladder,” a well-written tale of friendship, faith, and loss.

3. Different Seasons (1982). If pressed to name my favorite work by King, short story, novel, non-fiction or otherwise, I would probably settle on Different Seasons. It consists of four novellas, one of which, I think, is rather a dud (“The Breathing Method”). The other three, however, are pure gold: “Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption,” “Apt Pupil,” and “The Body.” All three were made into well-done films (“The Body” was re-titled as “Stand by Me”). Some of King’s finest writing can be found here. “Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption” is a profound affirmation of faith and hope, and “The Body” never fails to bring me back to my childhood. Both stories are really about the bonds of friendship: Andy Dufresne and Red are the pumping heart of hope in “The Shawshank Redemption,” while Chris and Gordie’s fall from innocence binds them closer together in “The Body.” The same theme of friendship (albeit black and twisted) continues in “Apt Pupil,” the story of a blonde-haired, blue-eyed, all-American boy corrupted by a Nazi war criminal, whom he blackmails into telling the worst stories of the concentration camps. The story is all the more disturbing because Todd Bowden and Arthur Dussander share an uncomfortable amount in common with each other.

4. Pet Sematary (1983). For my money this is King’s scariest story. It’s also among his most uncomfortable to read. Louis Creed lands a job as Head of Medical Services for the University of Maine and relocates with his wife and two children. Behind their home and hidden in the Maine woods is a Pet Cemetery, and beyond that an old Indian burial ground, the soil of which is rumored to have the property of restoring the buried dead to life. The moral of Pet Sematary is that some things are worse than death, and that death is a mystery and should be kept that way. Of course that doesn’t stop Louis from raising the coffin lid and mucking around in the afterlife anyway. Like a slowly unfolding tragedy, you can see the train wreck coming, but we—like Louis—are helpless to stop, or to turn away. And when the horror comes home to roost for Louis, even though we know what’s going to happen, King’s execution is letter perfect and terrifying. King is not known for his great endings, and some of his otherwise brilliant novels land with a disappointing thud, but “Darling,” it said, still fills me with unspeakable horror and dread.

5. It (1986). “They float,” it growled. “They float, George, and when you’re down here with me you’ll float too—.”

It is wonderful book, containing arguably King’s scariest villain (Pennywise the Clown), an epic storyline spanning decades, and a memorable cast of characters. From the opening chapter in which a boy disappears down a sewer, grabbed by something sinister, It seizes you and never lets go, despite its length (1,090 pages, paperback). It tells the story of eight children who unite to stop a horrible monster terrorizing the town of Derry, Maine. Thirty years later, they return as grown men and women to destroy It for good, summoned by a spiritual call to right a monstrous wrong. By the grace of some power which King never fully explains, the adults have forgotten their childhood encounter with It. But when Pennywise is reawakened, the same force brings them to back together again, and terribly, their memories of the monster return as well. Though he commonly takes the shape of a monstrous clown, Pennywise can transform into your worst fear, rendering him all the more terrible. The town of Derry is so rich and detailed in its landscape and history that it becomes another character, right alongside memorable King-ian personalities like stuttering Bill Denbrough, asthmatic Eddie Kaspbrak, tough and resourceful Beverly Marsh, and the overweight, thoughtful Ben Hanscom. King explores the themes of growing up in It, and the importance of turning the page on your childhood in order to move on. This novel marked the end of a phase for King, one in which he moved away from traditional horror and into more psychological fare. Although he’s written some excellent novels since, I’ve always felt that King’s decline began post-It.

Honorable mentions: The Dead Zone, ‘Salem’s Lot, The Shining.

17 comments:

David J. West said...

I absolutely plan on reading The Stand and Different Seasons and on your recomend Night Shift. Thanks to my wife we own all of these. She has always been the King fan.

Under the Dome was only released last week.

Falze said...

2 short story collections in a list of 5 "novels"? tsk tsk - taking some liberties, aren't we? ;)

Hearts In Atlantis is worth reading. I read it after seeing the movie, which only touches on the first part of the book I was surprised to find. It has backstory to the Dark Tower in it. I honestly don't remember a lot of what happens and I don't recall it being a horror novel. It reads like a novella collection, I don't remember if he ties them together at all or not.

I actually just set aside Pet Sematary to donate to the library while emptying, sorting, and refilling bookcases. Did nothing for me and I know I won't read it again. I like the others on your list. It also has the distinction of being one of the worst movie adaptations (and that's saying a lot)...I still can't figure out why Stan, the jewish kid, wore a cub scout uniform through the whole movie.

Brian Murphy said...

David: Do read them and let me know what you think! Your comment about Under the Dome just goes to show you how much of my "King-Fu" that I've lost. I thoughtit had been out for a few months.

Falze: D'oh! I can't believe I used the term novels. Brain fart.

I do remember It (the film) being pretty darned bad, save that Pennywise was creepy and well-played by Tim Curry.

Didn't like Pet Sematary? I guess I'll just chock that up to different strokes for different folks.

Falze said...

It's like (seemingly) everything else, apparently. We'll like the same album, but my favorite song does little for you and your favorite song is the one I dislike. I guess the same goes with authors...who knew? I'm thinking if we went to a museum we'd gravitate to the same exhibit, but like different pieces within that exhibit.

I just found 'Pet' too predictable. Joining it going to the library is Gerald's Game and maybe a couple of others along with a pile of 6 or 7 of EE Knight's "Vampire Earth" books, unless you're interested in giving them a read. Let me know.

Anonymous said...

undoubtly Pet sematary is the better novel by King and along with The ceremonies by T.E.D. Klein and Song of Kali by Dan Simmons the three best horror novels... or at least my favourites...
others of my king's favourites are Carrie... the first I read in 1990... being Pet sematary the second... Cujo... a... I don't know thew words in English... when you can't stop something... tragedy... one by Richard Bachman in the field of s/f The long run... and some anthology... Dreamscapes and nightmares or Night shift... or the novel Christine...
I find It too overrated... but I think like you that this novel was the cenit for King...
what about Lisey's story and Duma Key... have you read it...?
by the way King's fans in Spain think he is the author with worse translations to Spanish... someone told me that the translations lost great part of the effect of the book...
Francisco...

Scott D said...

Great list, except "Salem's Lot" and "The Shining" are missing from it. Both great books. If this was my list, I'd remove "Night Shift" and "Pet Sematary" and replace them with these two.

Like you, I haven't read all of King's newer stuff. I've only read two of the Dark Tower series. The premise for "Under the Dome" really intrigued me, so I grabbed it immediately. I'm not too far into it, so the jury is still out, but I'm enjoying it.

Eric D. Lehman said...

I wish King hadn't rushed through the Dark Tower series 4-7. He had something beautiful there, perhaps his best work, but the whole fourth and fifth act of it feels rushed.

I thought the very ending, which some hated, was absolutely perfect. But the lead-up to that was strangely weak. I'll keep The Stand at the top of my list.

Brian Murphy said...

Francisco: The Richard Bachman book you're referring to is The Long Walk, which is excellent and contains absolutely taut, compelling storytelling. The Bachman Books has two excellent stories (The Long Walk and The Running Man), one fair (Rage), and one (Roadwork) which I never liked. Well worth owning but not quite in the same class as Different Seasons, IMO. I haven't read Lisey's Story or Duma Key.

Scott: I actually have both The Shining and Salem's Lot listed as honorable mentions... see end of post. Both could be a top 5 selection on another day, depending on how I'm feeling.

Eric: I've only read the first two Dark Tower books... I thought they were decent enough, but I wasn't overwhelmed. Still, the DT series is something I plan to attempt one day. I'm intrigued by the fact that King considers them his Magnum Opus (which I'd give to either The Stand or It, myself).

Falze said...

Do what I did - get the audio books if the library has them of the Dark Tower, much easier to get through that way.

Eric D. Lehman said...

Brian: Yes, I would say The Stand and IT are both superior to the Dark Tower series.

Authors are usually the worst judge of their own works. :)

E.G.Palmer said...

King's The Mist, is the only story to ever actually give me nightmares.

Jaime said...

Needful Things was one of my favorites. It has been years since I read it, but it made me really think about the way we as humans covet our material possessions. What would you do to get or keep a material possession that you covet? Unknowingly sell your soul to the devil by filing unnecessary lawsuits, blackmail, or worse? People do such things all of the time, so Needful Things really struck a chord with me.

Ryan K Lindsay said...

Mate, I've just come to this blog and it's impressive. This post is fantastic (and I may just do one of my own) so I'll keep the comment brief(er than it could be).

Hearts In Atlantis is an anthology of sorts, and I rate the novella in it, titled Hearts In Atlantis, to be flat out one of the best things I have ever read. It's got nothing to do with the film, and I have read that one story a half dozen times easy. It's brilliant.

I liked Pet Sematary but could never read it again. I felt way too drained by the end of it.

My top picks would be, in no particular order...yet: The Shining, The Stand, The Dead Zone, 'Salem's Lot, Night Shift, The Long Walk, It, and On Writing.

I'm almost finished Under The Dome now and it's good, but not great, Enjoyable but missing that literary greatness King once owned.

I've also read the whole Dark Tower series and it was pretty damn good. Epic, for sure, and though I felt it lulled a bit in 3 and 4 (though 4 is pretty decent) it really ramps up to the end, and I rate The Drawing Of The Three as the best by far. That book was very, very well done.

Thanks for a great post and I look forward to stick around.

Brian Murphy said...

Hi Ryan, thanks for stopping by and I'm glad you're enjoying my blog.

I haven't written too much on King, and I've largely moved away from reading him, but I really do consider him one of my favorite authors. He tells stories as well as anyone I've ever read, and he's also great at creating memorable characters. That makes him a very good, if not great, author in my book.

I'm with you on The Shining, The Stand, The Dead Zone, 'Salem's Lot, Night Shift, The Long Walk, and It. And I'm really glad you mentioned On Writing--I think it's one of the best things King has ever written. Absolutely fascinating.

One day I may give the Dark Tower a go, and you've sold me on giving the Hearts in Atlantis novella a try.

Dave said...

You have to read Duma Key.

It ranks up there with the best of them for me. I did exactly the same thing as you with Stephen King novels. Starting at the same time, reading pretty much the same first novels and then following him earnestly and going to the bookstore to see if a new one had arrived. Then the fatigue. Would be interesting to figure out when that came on. I'm not sure, but I drifted or he drifted.

But I really enjoyed Duma Key and I listened to Under the Dome as an Audiobook and I thought it was prime King. I haven't read all of the Dark Tower novels and forget where I was...maybe those were the ones to bring on the fatigue. I'm going to listen to them shortly, as Audiobooks. I'm pretty much an Audiobook fanatic now. It's different, but sometimes much better if you can pay close attention while listening.

Dave said...

I just read Ryan Lindsay's post and am thinking I got as far in the Dark Tower series as he mentions where it lags. Maybe that's where I drifted.

But, Stephen King is responsible for me wanting to be a writer and having written 350 pages of my first novel (hopefully to be published). So is Dean Koontz and a bunch of other exciting action/adventure/mystery/horror writers. But mostly Stephen King while I had months off before University and decided to spend it reading.

Brian Murphy said...

Hi Dave, okay, I'll try to try Duma Key. You've convinced me.

Best of luck with your novel.