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?
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.