Stephen King’s best, what do ya got?

Posted: May 3, 2012 by shawnfury in Uncategorized
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My mom got me started reading Stephen King, years after she gave up on him.

She read all his early books. Night Shift. The Shining. The Stand. The Dead Zone. Carrie. But her reading of King ended with Cujo, as she swore off his books when the horror master killed off the little boy at the end. Maybe she pictured her own young son succumbing to dehydration while hiding out from a rabid St. Bernard or maybe the whole cruelty of the book — which King later said was written during his alcoholic years – was just too much. But she stopped reading him for years. Still, those old books remained in our house. Dusty hardcovers of The Shining and the original version of The Stand. Tattered paperback versions of Night Shift and Christine.

Eventually, when I was about 10 or 11 — a good age to start reading King, according to 78 percent of unlicensed child psychologists — I picked up one of those books. I think Night Shift, his classic short story collection, was the first. In the next few years I read all the ones my mom had stowed away in the basement and eventually started buying all of the other ones for myself. I devoured them, finishing the books in days, and even went back and read the re-issued, even longer version of The Stand.

All told I’ve read 30 of them. I had no idea how many I had read until last week, when New York Magazine’s Vulture column used the release of King’s latest novel as an excuse for running a superb feature that ranked all 62 of his books. They rank ‘em all, full-length novels, short-story collection, books written as Richard Bachman, nonfiction works, serial novels, everything. Vulture compiled the list the week King’s latest effort — The Wind Through the Keyhole, part of the Dark Tower series — was released.

No. 62 on the list? Rose Madder.

No. 1? The Stand

Like any subjective ranking, this one is interesting but ultimately meaningless. There’s no right ranking. Your rankings surely differ — maybe you’re outraged that Nightmares & Dreamscapes didn’t crack the top 30. But the list is still entertaining, especially if it gives you the opportunity to reflect on the work of a writer like King.

TV first exposed me to King’s world. CBS aired the Salem’s Lot miniseries in 1979, when I was four years old. This movie gave me nightmares for about the next three years and my parents might still be in therapy for the fact they didn’t put me in therapy after allowing me to stay up watching it. Three specific moments still stand out, still make my stomach churn: Ralphie Glick, a child vampire, floating outside his brother’s window, scratching, asking to be let in; Ralphie’s brother, Danny Glick, sitting up in his coffin at the end of Part 1; gravedigger Mike Ryerson – also a vampire – rocking in a chair upstairs in the home of a local English teacher. My grandpa’s farmhouse had steps that I believed the production staff for Salem’s Lot used as inspiration for the ones the teacher walked up before confronting the undead gravedigger. For years every time I walked up them I wasn’t quite sure what would be waiting for me.

I read numerous King books before I finally picked up Salem’s Lot. I must have been 14 or 15 when I read it. The book managed to terrify me all over again, even though I knew the plot, knew what was hiding in the shadows and in the caskets, knew the vampire villains and their human heroes. The small-town setting had something to do with the terror. I could picture vampires taking over Janesville, slowly, methodically, with help from townsfolk, and I could picture specific people from my town who would be just like the characters in the book. I’d of course be the kid who fought off the vampires, just as long as the Ralphie Glick of the town didn’t get me. It remains one of King’s scariest books. As I read it I again found myself checking the windows and looking at the farmhouse steps with a bit of fear. And now, if I would draw up a list of favorite King books, Salem’s Lot probably slides in at No. 2.

My favorite, and the one I think is his best work? It. Vulture put It at No. 3. Both It and The Stand are more than 1,000 pages long, but both grab you from the outset, as readers are introduced to an evil force that preys on children and a virus that preys on the world. Again, perhaps it’s the small-town setting that makes me biased toward It, but it is also scarier and has more heart.

Like Salem’s Lot, It became an above-average miniseries – anyone who saw it remembers Tim Curry’s killer clown – and like so many of King’s books, many people first think of the movies before the words, primarily because the films have produced so many memorable performances. Sissy Spacek in Carrie, Jack Nicholson in The Shining, Kathy Bates in Misery, Tim Robbins and Morgan Freeman in The Shawshank Redemption, which was a novella called Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption. People might forget the sources of those movies, or never realize the quality of the books.

Misery the book is in my personal King top 5, and if I have to fill that list out I’d add Different Seasons to Salem’s Lot, It and The Stand. Different Seasons contains four novellas, and, again, you might be more familiar with the movies they spawned than the original tales. In addition to Shawshank, Different Seasons contains Apt Pupil, The Body (which became Stand by Me) and The Breathing Method.

The Tommyknockers only ranked 61st in Vulture’s list but I liked it, even though I wanted to quit it several times. My cousin Matt, a King nut, kept telling me to stick with it and it became a satisfying read. Matt also champions the entire Dark Tower books, but I haven’t read a single title from the series.

Other books I haven’t read? Practically everything he wrote the past 15 years.

At some point I stopped buying King’s new books, with a few exceptions. King’s On Writing, which is No. 2 on Vulture’s list, is an incredible book and one I reread often. It’s King writing about writing, but it’s also part memoir and part style guide. Fiction writers might get more out of it than most, but anyone who’s written anything for publication would enjoy it. I also read Dreamcatcher – No. 60 for Vulture – and enjoyed it, but it’s certainly not King’s greatest effort. The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon? No. Cell? No. Lisey’s Story? No. Blaze? No. Duma Key? No. Under The Dome? No.

As I stopped reading a lot of King book critics started appreciating him — finally, 30-plus years into his career. Among the honors? One from the National Book Awards.

Some of his new ones I started but didn’t finish, giving up when in the past, like with Tommyknockers, I continued. Other times I read the description of the book and had no desire to read it. A book about people who become zombies after talking on their cell phones? A novel about a girl in the woods who is kept company by a Red Sox game on the radio? A story of a mysterious car trunk? Some of the descriptions sounded ludicrous.

These books were written after his horrific 1999 car accident, an accident that nearly killed him and one he recounts in On Writing.

Did somehow I think his writing would have gone…soft? And how short-sighted was it for me to judge a book on its backcover, when his early work might sound just as ridiculous if you only read a brief description? A book about a killer car named Christine? How good can that be, even if the car is something as cool as a Plymouth Fury? A book about a killer clown? Hadn’t I learned that King can take practically any situation – the mundane and the extraordinary – and turn it into a compelling story, no matter if it stretches for 800 pages or ends after 80?

He’ll still scare you.

Then, a few months ago, Louise brought home a book she picked up called Full Dark, No Stars, a collection of four novellas King wrote in 2010. After it sat on our table for days, I finally picked it up one night, not really expecting much, a strange expectation considering I once devoured his works in days.

The first piece is called 1922. It’s about a farmer in Nebraska who goes a little bit crazy and kills his wife. I was hooked on the first page and creeped out until the finish. It’s a harrowing tale of a father and a son and a dead wife and a bunch of rats. The rats got to me. I finished 1922 in a single sitting and the entire book in a few days. Each novella focuses on revenge and each one captured me in the same manner as so many of King’s earlier stories. I did listen for strange sounds in our NYC apartment and I kept my eyes out for rats, a common occurrence in New York but even more so when you’ve read about the beasts climbing out of a dead woman’s mouth. When I wasn’t reading the book I was thinking about it. King had again occupied space in my mind and he wasn’t leaving. Yes, King could still frighten and he could still tell a story as well as anyone and was still a master at his craft.

Now I want to revisit the recent work of an author whose older titles are among my all-time favorite books. One of his most recent — 11/23/63 — has received high praise from friends and fellow King fans. It’s about a man who goes back in time to prevent John F. Kennedy’s assassination. Cool concept. I want to read it. I want to read Under the Dome, which is about an invisible dome that “appears around a small Maine town, trapping everyone inside and keeping all others out.” Strange concept. Still want to read it. I even want to check out Cell.

My mom once gave up on King because he killed a little boy on his pages. She eventually returned. I gave up on King because… well, I’m not totally sure. I can’t imagine any of his more recent works will crack my personal top 5, though maybe that has as much to do with nostalgia as words. But I’ll give them a shot. And especially when I read them at night, I’ll steal some glances at the windows and listen for strange sounds. I might even check the locks one more time. Monsters aren’t real, but Stephen King still knows how to bring them to life.

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Comments
  1. For sure one of the greateast authors ever!

  2. Jerry says:

    Ralphie floating outside the window still freaks me out. And you were not alone in wondering what could be upstairs at grandpa’s farm. Mary Jean may have been the most affected but on more than one occasion I thought I would catch someone…or something…out of thd coner of my eye as I was going up or down the stairs at the turn. With the stories of rats I have heard about in NYC…well let’s just say Ralphie is getting some competition.

    • shawnfury says:

      I think vampire Mike Ryerson was sitting in a rocking chair in that back room at the farm. No wonder I didn’t want to walk all the way down the hall.

  3. danuscript says:

    I thought Cell was fairly entertaining, but like many King novels, it seems like he didn’t know how to end it. Under the Dome is alright. The characters could be better and it probably didn’t need to be about a thousand pages. 11/22/63 is pretty fantastic, though; the characters and plot are great and I’ve heard that even people who don’t like Stephen King’s other books enjoy that one.

    • shawnfury says:

      So, Dan, of his past decade’s work, would you say 11/22/63 is the best bet to start with? What about Lisey’s Story? That earned some awards, but for some reason the romance description in it makes me want to avoid it.

      • danuscript says:

        Unfortunately, I haven’t read every book of his from the past decade yet, so I can’t comment on Lisey’s Story. I will say, though, that 11/22/63 is now my favourite King book (it used to be Misery). One reason for that is my own interest in time travel stories, but I also think it’s really well-written in general. King has said that it’s the first book where he did research, and I think that helped him focus his writing. So I would say it’s a good place to start.

  4. I’m not sure if I’ve read any King books – stunning, I know. But I went through a Michael Crichton stage, if that counts. And I really enjoyed this blog entry.

  5. shane gerlach says:

    Great entry. I am a huge King fan. I love the way he captures the everyman local voice and how even at his most horrific the human spirit triumphs (except in Cujo)

    My top 10 books (not stories…books)

    11/23/63 (yes it’s that good to take the top spot from some absolute classics)
    It
    The Stand
    The Dark Tower VII The Dark Tower
    Lisey’s story
    The Talisman
    Bag of Bones
    The Dark Half
    Misery
    Delores Claiborne

    Stories (I think there is a need to do separate as he is so prolific in each style, novel and short story)

    You know they Got a Hell of a Band
    Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption
    The Body
    1408
    The Mist
    Sometimes They Come Back
    Hearts in Atlantis (The story)
    The Things They Left Behind
    Apt Pupil
    Secret Window, Secret Garden

    I won’t number them as the way I’m feeling day to day effects that list and the some may fall off the list and be replaced by others as I fall back in love with the stories. I re-read the Dark Tower series every year and those captivate me completely. I just got The Wind Through the Keyhole yesterday and look forward to beginning it this weekend with a cigar and some bourbon.

    For Dark Tower Fans. If you are not picking up the Marvel Comic Adaptations and prequels to the Dark Tower you are missing out. These are based off of Kings notes and his long time Dark Tower librarian/researcher Robin along with Stephen have been overseeing these books.

    Here is a list. They follow Roland from his youth to his pursuit of the Man in Black. We see the Battle of Tull, the Fall of Gilead, the betrayals and twists that make Roland the man he is. They are all “in universe” and are a vital part of the series.

    The Gunslinger Born
    The Long Road Home
    Treachery
    The Sorcerer
    Fall of Gilead
    Battle of Jericho Hill
    The Journey Begins
    The Little Sisters of Eluria
    The Battle of Tull
    Way Station
    Man in Black

    Again…great article. Thank you!

    • shawnfury says:

      Shane, thanks for the comment. Nice lists. Dark Half is also one of my favorites, and as you said depending on the day might slip into my top 5 even, probably ahead of Misery.

      I do have to start digging into The Dark Tower. Like I wrote, my cousin swears by them and has forever, and he rarely steers me wrong with books.

      Good idea to break the short stories apart, since he has so many good collections with so many good stories in all of them. Last time I was home I stole mom’s old Night Shift paperback and brought it back and reread it again a few weeks ago. I know a lot of people prefer his short story collections over the full-length novels but I do still put the books at the top.

  6. shane gerlach says:

    Shawn-

    Liseys Story is as good a psychological thriller as I have read in the past 20 years. It is up there with the early Cross books, The Sanford Prey books and Cornwell Scarpetta books for taut drama.
    It’s not a “love story” but like most good things in life it’s basis is love.

    Seriously 11/23/63…if you took Stephen Kings name off of it, it would have critics clamoring over it’s depiction of life in the 60’s and how obsession and a need to make the world in your image can both bring reward and devastation. It is a new level of King. I was completely enthralled by the book.

  7. Mark says:

    Shawn, I think I’ve read all of them except for 11/23/63, and only because I haven’t gotten to that one yet.

    My top 5 would look pretty close to yours, although I really, really enjoyed Cujo…but possibly because that’s the first one I read?

    Easily my favorite author of our lifetime. Not saying he’s the best writer…but the most entertaining in my view. Whenever I try to get into a new author, I always seem to enjoy going back to a new King novel.

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