My buddy John just got through reviewing the just-released comics adaptation of Stephen King’s THE DARK TOWER — which can be read at his blog — and his words were not what I would call kind. This came as no surprise because I’m a King fan and have read many of his works, but THE DARK TOWER is the only book of his that I couldn’t finish, making it about halfway through the damned thing before I relegated it to the trash in disgust. I found it dull and pretentious, and while the resulting series does have its fans, judging from what I was able to read in the first volume I’m at a loss to explain how that’s possible. Maybe the subsequent books improved, but I’ll never attempt them.
But as I said, I am a King fan, and it’s easy these days to forget that he once was a wordsmith of considerable merit before churning out novels seemingly every other week. I discovered his stuff just about thirty years ago, and as a young horror fan I couldn’t get enough of his well-told, truly horrifying yarns, enjoying his writing in exactly the same way that I enjoyed hearing a hair-raising campfire yarn from a skilled raconteur. So what I’m going to do here is give you my list of the King books you should read — and you really should read them — plus a few of his books that outright sucked and therefore need to be flagged as trash.
This tragic tale of an unfortunate teen misfit who must endure the endless torments of adolescence, her evil peers, and her over-the-top-abusive psycho/religious nut mother is a real page turner, but the need to read it was rendered null and void by Brian DePalma’s excellent film version. The only reason to give the book a look is to see the title character as King originally intended her to look; Carrie White is described as fat, ugly, and cursed with terrible acne, and Sissy Spacek’s version in the movie is actually kind of cute, if not a little odd, so it’s hard to understand why she’s considered unattractive. The film builds audience sympathy by making the cruelty of the world surrounding Carrie downright unbearable, and if you can’t feel for her while watching the flick, then you simply have no heart.
SALEM’S LOT (1975)
The first great vampire novel of the latter twentieth century — way better than the limp-wristed, non-scary foofery of Anne Rice’s INTERVIEW WITH THE VAMPIRE — , King really starts feeling his narrative powers here, and the results are creepy like a motherfucker. I won’t even go into the story because you really should experience it for yourself, but it has some of the most frightening sequences I have ever read, some of which stand among the high points of the author’s career. Very strong stuff indeed.
THE SHINING (1977)
This claustrophobic ghost story is the very definition of the word creepy, and Jack Torrence’s descent into madness as the dire forces that infest the Overlook hotel influence him is harrowing in the extreme. Definitely worth your time, and much better than the admittedly atmospheric but not-scary film by Stanley Kubrick, a flick that polarizes horror geeks to this very day.
NIGHT SHIFT (1978)
This collection of short stories was my first exposure to King and I would recommend it as a perfect staring point for the newbie. There’s something for everybody in this grab bag of chills, and while there are a few clunkers, the gems really shine.
THE STAND (1978)
Gargantuan when first released and then later expanded into a “director’s cut” version, this epic about a plague that wipes out most of the global population and sets the stage for the final confrontation between Good and Evil is a rich and compelling page turner with a large and fascinating cast of characters — Nick Andros and Tom Cullen steal the book — and some truly unforgettable sequences, but the otherwise excellent story gets flushed down the toilet by one of the most trite and contrived gimmick endings in recorded history. It’s still worth reading, though, but be prepared for that asinine, quite literal “deus ex machina” of a closer.
THE DEAD ZONE (1979)
The tale of John Smith and his psychic “gift” is a strong contender for the best book King ever wrote and that’s not a statement to take lightly. Heart-breakingly sad and human, THE DEAD ZONE is an emotional roller coaster and a half, and from the moment that the hero emerges from a coma of several years with the ability to infallibly see the future you just know this book will not have a happy ending. During the course of his adventures, John Smith tries to discern why he was given his power, and when the answer is revealed it’s like a sledgehammer to the heart. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.
The first of King’s throwaway pieces, this sleight page-turner is fun nonetheless, but it doesn’t begin to approach the entertaining heights of the previous books. This story of a little girl with pyrokinetic abilities and her mind-controlling dad, both on the run from a top secret and very sinister government agency, reads like THE FUGITIVE with super-powers, and if any of King’s books was a natural for adapting into a comic book, this is it. This book was also adapted into a truly terrible film starring Drew Barrymore, and if it comes on cable throw your TV out the fucking window.
DANSE MACABRE (1981)
For the academically-minded horror fan, this non-fiction entry is a scholarly and thoroughly entertaining history of the horror genre, so if you care at all this is a must read. It’s great, but I would really like to see an updated edition that addresses the changes within horror since the 1980’s. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.
Allegedly penned while King was so coked-out that he doesn’t remember writing it, this is a taughtly-paced story of a mother and son trapped inside a stalled car in one-hundred-plus heat by a rabid St. Bernard. However, the novel-length format is definitely not warranted for this material and the whole thing would have been much better as a short story or a novella. And the movie’s merely so-so.
DIFFERENT SEASONS (1982)
This is a collection of three novellas and one short story, each supposedly highlighting the spirit of the four seasons. The short story, “The Breathing Method,” is reminiscent of an E.C. Comics TALES FROM THE CRYPT shocker, only if they’d been able to get away with the twisted image of a woman who’s just been beheaded in a car accident valiantly defying death just long enough to give birth after properly performing the breathing technique she learned in prenatal care classes, her severed head soldiering on several feet away from her laboring body. It’s the weakest entry in the collection, but that’s okay considering the heavy hitters it’s up against. “Apt Pupil” is a chilling character study of a young boy who discovers that an old man in his neighborhood is a Nazi war criminal and blackmails him into telling him the details of his time as an overseer in a WWII concentration camp. The two feed off of each other in a horrifying symbiosis and the result is one of King’s darkest, most disturbing non-supernatural yarns. “The Body” is a reminiscence of a group of adolescent boys and their bonding experience while on a quest to view an actual corpse and is quite good, but the book's main event is surely “Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption,” the excellent account of an innocent man’s decades of incarceration and misery in a corrupt and torturous prison. Absolutely riveting, the story was adapted into THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION, the movie that many feel is the best King flick ever made, and they just may be right.
A partial return to form in full-length storytelling, this creeper about a high school loser’s eerie transformation once he acquires the title antique car isn’t bad, but it will be largely forgotten not long after you read it.
PET SEMETARY (1983)
Horror is a visceral genre, an avenue of storytelling that brings to the fore our deepest, most primal fears, and if properly conveyed that can be a thing of storytelling beauty and awe, and with the shattering PET SEMETARY King wrote what I consider not only his best work, but also one of the masterpieces of the entire horror genre. The truly nightmarish narrative introduces us to a sweet couple and their adorable toddler when they move to a town in Maine that houses an ancient Indian burial ground deep within its backwoods. Local legend has it that if you bury your recently deceased there they will return from the hereafter, and when the family cat is killed on a dangerous highway across the street from the family’s house, the legend is put to the test and yields a hideous reality… And that’s just the start of a maddening descent into family loss of the worst kind imaginable, and the unimaginable depths that a parent can sink to in the throes of crippling, irrational grief. Without question one of the bleakest books ever written by anyone, PET SEMETARY scared the living shit out of me when I first read it twenty-four years ago, and its impact has not diminished after the four times I’ve read it since. Seriously, read this one and know the truest, darkest meaning of the term “horror story.” HIGHEST RECOMMENDATION.
CYCLE OF THE WEREWOLF (1983)
I love me some werewolf stories and when I heard that King was undertaking a lupine yarn I was over the moon, so to speak. Until I read the book. CYCLE is definitely a tossed-off piece, offering alleged chills that wouldn’t pass muster in an issue of HOUSE OF SECRETS on its worst day, the only redeeming feature of which is some post-FRANKENSTEIN art by horror comics legend Berni Wrightson, and since he definitely burned out much of his genius illustrating those beautiful pieces, what’s on display here is only of note for Wrightson completists. Almost as complete a waste of time as the film version, SILVER BULLET.
SKELETON CREW (1985)
More short stories, but this collection doesn’t come close to the glories found in NIGHT SHIFT, save for the unbelievably gruesome SURVIVOR TYPE, an account of a castaway on an island totally devoid of food and the lengths he goes to in order to stave off hunger.
For some reason this vastly overrated novel is enshrined by many as King’s finest hour, and I just don’t understand why. It’s about a group of adults who shared a terrifying experience as children, and when signs point to the same baleful presence rearing its head again in their hometown, they reunite for final combat with a creature that feeds on the fear of kids. It’s not badly written but it simply isn’t as good as I’d been lead to believe, and I was particularly put off by a tasteless kiddie gang bang scene that does figure into the plot but is just plain squirm-inducing on several levels. And the revelation of exactly what the Big Bad is falls thuddingly flat, especially after meeting it the guise of Pennywise the evil clown, or having read anything by H.P. Lovecraft. This book was the one that made me more or less give up reading every King novel when they came out, and from this point on I would only check in occasionally.
A cracking good yarn about a romance novelist who ends up held captive by a psychotic fan, this is very enjoyable stuff. And while the film version was very good, it tones down a lot of what the book’s creepy vibe puts out, especially in regard to the “hobbling” sequence.
GERALD’S GAME (1992)
The only reason I read this was thanks to a good friend who hated it so much that she forever swore off King after it offended her to the core, so I was curious to see what was so godawful. It’s about a woman who gets handcuffed to a four-poster bed as part of an S&M game and gets intentionally left there by her bastard of a husband in hope that she’ll die in the middle of nowhere (the house is in a secluded location and no one knows she’s there). The rest of the book is her trying to figure out how to escape and it’s just not worth the effort to get through.
THE GREEN MILE (1996)
Loved by many, met with apathy by me, this story about a condemned gentle giant with Christlike healing powers is maudlin in the extreme. The black, Christlike version of Lenny from OF MICE AND MEN is a cliché character that I thought had died out in the late 1950’s, but obviously I was mistaken.
BAG OF BONES (1998)
Of the later King books, this is far and away my favorite. It has supernatural overtones but it’s actually a moving love story disguised as a tale of hauntings and old wrongs in need of being righted, and I was actually quite saddened when I reached its conclusion. It’s about a writer whose wife is killed in a car accident who returns to his childhood home in order to heal and get his life/career back on track. He soon meets a lovely young woman and her sweet little girl, and things start looking up for our hero until he discovers that the woman exists in a world of awful shit, and must endure for the sake of her kid. Surprisingly, one bright spot in the guy’s life is that the unseen spectre of his wife followed him to his retreat and communicates with him via a bunch of those alphabet fridge magnets; she still loves her husband, and approves of his potential involvement with a new love, but then things take a major turn for the worse… HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.
HEARTS IN ATLANTIS (1999)
I’d like to fill you in on this one, but I didn’t like it and have honestly forgotten what it was about. All I recall is that it’s a few short novellas or some shit… Feh, whatever.
So there's my two cents on the works in the Stephen King catalog that I've read. What do you have to say, dear reader?