(EDIT: Sorry, kids. This took way longer to write than I anticipated, so it’s a little late. But only by a day, so shut up and read it. – SkeleTony)
Whichever name you may know him by, be it Richard Bachman, John Swithen or Stephen King, we members of the horror community know at least one of “The King of Horror’s” works. In my life, I’ve read a good number of them. Not all of them, mind you, but a good number. My dad, on the other hand, has read just about every word that King has written, as listeners to the show well know.
Today, Mr. King is 69 (tee hee) years young, and to celebrate his special day, I’ve collaborated with my dad to put together a list of our top five King novels that you should definitely be reading.
WARNING: The Dark Tower novels are not on this list, because…there just aren’t enough hours in the day to write about those, guys.
Honorable Mention: Doctor Sleep
The 2013 sequel to one of King’s fan favorites, The Shining, Doctor Sleep catches the reader up with Danny Torrance, now going by Dan. After the events at The Overlook Hotel in his childhood, Dan’s life spiraled out of control. Losing his twenties and thirties in a haze of drugs and booze to quiet the spirits and visions that his “Shining” brings, he finally cleans up as a middle-aged man and finds a niche helping guide the dying patients of a hospice home into the afterlife using his shine. Dan begins to receive messages via Shining Post from a girl named Abra, who informs him of a sinister group of vampires that essentially feed off of the essence of people with the Shining.
King stated that the idea for the novel sprouted from numerous fans constantly asking, “Whatever happened to that kid from The Shining?” In 2009, he put it to the fans via a poll on his website, allowing them to decide which novel he would write next; the sequel to The Shining, or the next Dark Tower novel. Doctor Sleep won by less than 100 votes.
It’s not often that a sequel is done as well as this one. It captured elements of The Shining, paralleling it in many instances, but making it a clear and separate feature. I’d go as far as to say that it stands well enough on its own, that a reader might not even need to read the first book. If you do read both however, you do get to witness the growth of King as a novelist, being that The Shining is one of his earliest novels, and Doctor Sleep is one of his most recent.
#5 Pet Sematary
While teaching at the University of Maine, King’s family lived in a home on a busy road, which had killed many an animal, and even his own son had a near miss. So many pets had been lost, that the neighborhood kids created a pet cemetery near the King residence.
This inspired King to tell the story of Louis Creed and his family. After relocating to become resident MD on the U of M campus, the Creeds move into a quaint home on the side of a busy road frequented all hours of the day by speeding semi trucks. After their neighbor Jud shows them a pet cemetery behind their home (ARE WE SEEING THE SIMILARITIES YET?), a raging disagreement spurs between Louis and his wife, Rachel, about how death should be explained to their children, Ellie and Gage. After Ellie’s cat is killed in the road, in order to shield her from the realities of death, Jud guides Louis to an ancient Indian burial ground beyond the pet cemetery where it is believed that if the dead are buried within its soil, they will live again. Louis quickly realizes what a mistake this is as his mind and relationships with his family are warp and spin out of control as he is haunted by his actions.
Pet Sematary is multi-layered, like so much of King’s work. On the surface, it’s purely a horror story about the walking dead and a man’s fragile sanity. But digging deeper, it is also a commentary about coping with death, going through the proper stages of grief, and also commentary on the upbringing of children and explaining important things like death to them. The story, I assure you, does not have a happy ending. It gets darker and darker as things go on to a point where the reader’s level of despair might come close to matching that of the characters. Highly recommended, if…you know…you’re into that kinda thing.
#4 The Shining
Only King’s third novel, The Shining has been regarded by many as one of his best works over his entire career. I suppose it’s up to interpretation whether it’s good or bad to have a 40 year career and have one of your earliest books be considered one of your best. I think it’s the former, showing how much incredible skill King had right out of the gate
Published in 1977, The Shining introduces the ill-fated Torrance family. Jack is an alcoholic, floundering playwright and disgraced private school teacher. Unable to find decent work after an indiscretion, he takes the job as an off-season caretaker of the luxurious Overlook Hotel, located in the isolating mountains above Sidewinder, Colorado. With him are his wife Wendy, and his son Danny. Danny is a special kid because within him exists an ability to see things no one else can. This ability is dubbed the “Shining” by The Overlook’s cook, Dick Hallorann, who shares this ability. When the hotel is shut down, and the hard Rockies winter sets in, Jack begins to struggle with his sobriety and cabin fever, while the spirits within the hotel begin to creep in to his mind, driving him slowly insane.
This is one of the most tense books I have ever read. Having seen the film adaptation long before ever reading the book, I knew the basic story going in. But the film is simply no substitute to the sheer terror and anxiety that King provides in this novel. I read with bated breath, wanting, even NEEDING to know what was on the next page. It is truly no wonder why this is regarded as one of his best.
On occasion, King will step outside his usual focus of horror and thrillers to explore other genres. The Green Mile series, Firestarter, and The Dark Tower series. Most recently, he released his historical fantasy masterpiece 11/22/63. Yes, that date does sound familiar, doesn’t it? It was the date that President Kennedy was assassinated and the United States changed forever.
Starting in present-day (2011 at the time), Jake Epping is an average, unassuming high school English teacher. A frequent patron at Al’s Diner, he has developed a tenuous friendship with the owner, Al. One day, Al mysteriously asks Jake to come to the diner after hours. Despite his apprehension, Jake returns to the diner later that day, only to find a rapidly-aged Al. He explains to Jake, that back in the darkest corner of the diner’s pantry, exists a rift in time that will transport a person to 1958. Ridiculous sounding, I know. Jake thought so too. That is, until he tried the “rabbit hole” out for himself. Al then took the opportunity to ask Jake to complete the task that he himself became too sick to complete; stop the assassination of John Fitzgerald Kennedy. After some reluctance, Jake agrees to live the next five years of his life in the past, preparing for November 22nd, 1963. Jake adapts to life in the mid-20th Century, but quickly finds out that changing the past has implications beyond what he can fathom, and the past fights back.
I was absolutely floored reading this book. The weaving of fiction and historical fact is practically seamless and one can tell that King must have done an immense amount of research to tell this story in such a way. In fact, this idea first came to King in 1971, but it was shelved when he came to the realization that the concept would be research-intensive and would need more literary know-how than he felt he possessed at the time. As a time travel nut, this story was right up my alley. It perfectly melds elements of adventure, espionage, romance, and fantasy. Utilizing the concept of the “Butterfly Effect,” you’ll constantly be wondering what Jake’s actions will do to the future world. And also there is a tie-in to IT that made me squee like a little girl.
#2 The Stand
Any reader of the Holy Bible is familiar with the Book of Revelation. In it, is a description of Armageddon, or the End of Days. The time when all men will be judged and be spirited away to Heaven, or be condemned to Hell. The Stand is King’s fifth published book, detailing his version of the end of the world. No doubt drawing from his Christian roots, he tells a vaguely religious story from the perspective of two groups, opposite in ideology, but similar in conviction.
In 1980 (later 1990, after a King update), a weaponized strain of the flu, nicknamed “Captain Trips” is accidentally released, causing a worldwide pandemic that ultimately kills over 99% of the world’s population, taking with it governments and society in general. The story is told from the perspective of multiple survivors with a natural immunity to the virus. As the world slowly crumbles into ruin, remainders of the human race venture across what remains of the United States, slowly meeting up and snowballing in size, eventually developing into two factions. The clear depiction of the “faithful,” led by Mother Abigail (who is herself much like an embodiment of God or Jesus) in Boulder, Colorado, wish to rebuild the world without making the mistakes that led to war and the cause for developing something like Captain Trips in the first place. The group that may be interpreted as the “damned” take base in Las Vegas, Nevada and are led by “The Walking Dude,” a man with hellish abilities and powers that goes by the name of Randall Flagg (who is the clear depiction of Satan). Their goal is create a world led by desire and opulence, and to eradicate any that oppose them.
I’ll admit that this novel is a bit of an endurance trial. It is a loooooong book and is the epitome of King’s loooooong character descriptions and emphasis on minute details. Several chapters are spent on minor, seemingly insignificant characters. But my god does it pay off in the end. While I’ve never been religious, I’ve always been a fan of fiction that incorporates religious dogma, particularly about the apocalypse. While the religious elements are there, they aren’t heavy-handed and shouldn’t scare away the non or anti-religious crowd. The story is told in such a way that you are sympathetic to both the followers of Mother Abigail and Flagg because you know that they are just people, scared and unsure of where there lives go from here and like most people, are looking for someone to lead them. King really explores the depths of the human psyche and the desperate acts people will commit in order to survive.
Here it is, folks. The novel that arguably is most associated with Stephen King. Published in 1986, IT defines novelized horror. King was inspired to write this story based on the most basic concept of a bridge troll. Only instead of living under a bridge, it lived under a town in its sewer system.
The story takes place at two places in time, set 27 years apart, interspersed with each other two tell the tales simultaneously. Both points in time follow a group of seven children, later adults, dubbed “The Losers Club” and their battle with the embodiment of their greatest fears. The creature has lived for millennia, living in the sewer system under their small town of Derry, Maine, preying and literally feeding off of the fear of people and of children in particular. With the ability to read thoughts and shapeshift into anything it desires, it haunts and taunts the Losers Club into tracking it into the sewers and seemingly destroying it. Almost three decades later, the Losers have moved away and carried out normal lives, all mysteriously forgetting the horrific events of their childhood. That is, until they are all called back to Derry by more strange deaths and disappearances, reminiscent of their childhoods. As they all return to their hometown, and slowly remember the events of 27 years ago, they begin to realize that IT lives and they must venture into the sewers again for a final battle. But, as they prepare, they begin to realize the wisdom and experience of age may be less of a help, and more of a hindrance.
I’ll say it; this is the best book ever written. You got a problem with that? Well then come at me, bro. While this is a horror story through and through, it’s much deeper than that. IT taps on the nerve endings that we all have exposed after childhood traumas. Whether it’s a case of coulrophobia, movie monsters, scary old houses, or the death of a loved one, King attacks them all and leaves you feeling like that same little child that had the fear to begin with. Beyond that, he also tackles things such as the raw power that exists in childhood friendships, the endless limits of imagination and the tragedy of letting those things go as one moves into adulthood. Also very apparent is the concept of dirty secrets that sometimes live just under the surface of even the smallest little towns. The depth that King put into every character is incredible, to the point where each person forms their own personality and voice inside of your head. Even IT/Pennywise has a fully fleshed out agenda. I honestly can’t speak highly enough about this book. Anything I say just won’t be enough. I just have to encourage you to read it for yourself and experience Stephen King at his best.
Alright, well, that was a lot of writing. I know most of you have at least heard of most of these books, but if you haven’t read any or ALL of them before, I hope that I’ve done something to encourage you to pick one up. I guarantee you that it will be well worth your time. And hey, you’ll be able to tell people that you read a book! How often do people say that nowadays?!