Top 10 MUST-READ Stephen King Novels
1. I have been a Stephen King fan for as long as I can remember.
2. I have not read everything Stephen King has written. (I've just read most of them)
I grew up in a household with books. We didn't have a lot of books, because as a military family, what we hoarded had to be carefully vetted. The military would pay to move us from duty station to duty station, but we were only allowed so much weight. Books weigh a lot, and so we only had those books that were really something special.
We didn't own a lot of books, but we did spend a lot of time at the library and always brought home bags full.
When I was twelve years old, my mother brought my sisters and me to a used bookstore. It was probably the most amazing place I had ever seen – wall to wall, floor to ceiling – books! It was one of the first times in my life that my mother said, “Get what you want.” There was no price limit. It was better than a candy store.
I wandered around for a quarter of an hour, trying to figure out the logic of the stores system, trying to figure out where the sort of book I might enjoy might be. Don't judge a book is just the dumbest epitaph ever, because, honestly, as someone who has been an avid consumer of words for half a century, I have never quite figured out how to choose a book without judging the content based on the cover. The art must appeal to something in my brain to make me touch the book in the first place, and then, the description of the story, usually a part of the cover (in paperbacks, a plot summary and/or reviewers blurbs is always on the back), is key to whether or not I will tuck that book under my arm or slide it gently back onto the shelf.
I don't recall what it was about that particular novel that caught my eye. Maybe that it was at eye-level, which the grocery store designers will tell you is the optimum place for items that the grocery stores really want to sell – those high value, often impulse purchase products that folks won't look for, but if they see, will buy.
I grabbed it off the shelf. The title “The Dead Zone” doesn't seem particularly alluring, but maybe something in the description caught me. Maybe it was that the character, John Smith, had the power to read minds, which as a very introverted, self-conscious young girl who was often surprised when people did what they did, and vehemently wished for the ability to see into people's thoughts – as a self-preservation device – would have been an amazing skill to have.
Whatever it was, I picked up that book, and I carried it to the counter. The bookseller raised an eyebrow at my choice, but didn't say anything. He looked at my mother, who also had no comment regarding my choice. As a fan of Gothic romance fiction (like Victoria Holt), I'm not sure she knew who Stephen King was, but frankly, my parents were never really the sort to censor the literary choices of my sisters and me. So, she probably wouldn't have forbid it anyway.
I consumed that book like a melting ice cream cone on a hot summer day.
And, then, I began reading as many of Stephen King's books as I could get my mom to let me purchase or borrow.
In college, I learned, much to my dismay, that Stephen King was considered “dime store fiction” - that is cheap stories lacking any substance or literary merit. His stories, according to my college professors, were not time-honored tales, like William Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet or that vapid and too long tome by Louisa May Alcott, which has English teacher's cooing and salivating. I eventually learned to adore William Shakespeare's tales, and I read his plays for fun now, which is to say that I believe my reading tastes matured, but I never, quite, shook my deep infatuation with all things S. King, and while I haven't read his full body of writing (see #1 above), I have read more than half of what he has penned, including his work as Richard Bachman and his forays into non-fiction.
While a few of his books would be relegated to the been-there, done-that realm, and I will likely never read them again, there are those that have become a piece of my cultural lexicon, little snippets of the story that have become quotes in my real-life scenarios, and it's a joy when someone understands, and I meet a kindred spirit. Like, “M-O-O-N, that spells moon.” Or the last line of The Body, which I always hear in Richard Dreyfus's voice, “I never had friends again like I did when I was 12. God, does anyone?”
The following are my 10 favorite novels and stories by Stephen King.
10. GERALD'S GAME
One of the hallmarks of Stephen King's writing is his ability to write a scene with such an attention to detail, right down to the color and texture of whatever he is describing. Reading his novels can be an assault on the senses, and yes, there are times when I have felt, heard, and tasted what he is describing.
The scene in Gerald's Game where Jessie manages to free herself from the handcuffs by excoriating her own hands is as vivid to me today as it was when I first read it. I can see the cuts and feel the slickness of the blood.
The other piece to his writing that is integral in this story and all of my favorite of his tales is the resiliency of the human spirit. He often puts his characters, people who seem like just run-of-the-mill people in this extraordinary scenarios and makes them answer the eternal question, “What would you do if …?” He pushes us to imagine how we would prevail. The strength of his characters to overcome is inspiring.
9. THE SHINING
I didn't see the movie, The Shining, until after I had read the book. In fact, the bathtub scene in the book was so nightmare-inducing for me, I almost couldn't watch the movie.
One thing Stephen King does better than most writers I've encountered is to explore the human psyche. He really gets into his character's heads, and he doesn't just tell us what's happening. He shows us. It's one of the reasons his books are always so much better than his movies. It's impossible to show the psychological breakdown of a character in a film, but we can see it as if we're living it, in one of Stephen King's books. It's a theme that's repeated through many of the novels that I love the best. In The Shining we see Jack being driven crazy.
Another bonus of Stephen King's writing is his strong female characters. As a male writer, he is surprisingly adept at giving us women who aren't one-dimensional caricatures, or worse, writing a woman from a man's point of view (which is always disappointing). Somehow he actually seems to know the way women think, which is kind of extraordinary. Winifred “Wendy” Torrance isn't a caricature. She is a woman who tries very hard to be supportive of her husband, who continually disappoints her, but in the end, she comes out “shining.”
8. THE EYES OF THE DRAGON
This novel was definitely a departure from his normal fare. Like Clive Barker (Hellraiser), as a dad who writes horror fiction, Stephen King was asked to write something that was more kid-friendly, and he complied.
This book is one of my favorites, and it illustrates how very creative, intuitive, and observant he is as a writer. The scene where he describes what the dog is smelling – as if the scent is a visual experience for the dog – is profound, and I want so very much to believe that my dog “smells” me as a color – lively purple or calming blue, perhaps.
7. UNDER THE DOME
While Stephen King's work would never be described as a “Prepper fiction”, several of his novels do have some eliminate of survival-ism. Under the Dome is one of those, and as a Prepper, the novel appealed to me as a story about the way a community came together (or fell apart, depending on how one sees it) under some extraordinary circumstances. The scenario is similar to an EMP event in TEOTWAWKI literature. Concentrated all on this one tiny town in Maine, they lose their communications networks and electricity (same as in an EMP scenario), and they are completely cut off from supply lines, which means they need to find a way to survive on their own. Certainly the final cause was a bit more out-of-this-world than the Koreans detonating a missile over our heads, but there was a very significant piece of the story that was about how they handled food shortages and the like. As a Prepper that appealed to me … and well, it was just an interesting and fast read, which was also a bonus.
At the very beginning of the story, Cujo is a big, happy-go-lucky St. Bernard dog, who finds a hole in the ground and sticks his nose in it. He is bitten by a bat, but Stephen King doesn't say, “And the dog got rabies, and then terrorized this woman, holding her captive in her car for three days until she decides either she kills the dog or she dies.” One of the most distinctive features of Stephen King's writing is his propensity for getting into the heads of characters whom very few other writers would make a character to begin with. Like the dog with the colorful scents in Eyes of the Dragon. As a reader I find this technique incredibly gratifying and it provides a depth to the story that is unmatched in most contemporary fiction. King gets into Cujo's head, and like Jack in The Shining, we see Cujo going mad. We see the virus coursing through his body and changing him from a family pet into a monster. But the story isn't just about a dog-gone-mad. In the tale is woven these very human stories of love and betrayal. Ultimately, it's about surviving the worst we could imagine and discovering that those little things probably don't carry as much weight as we give them.
5. PET SEMATARY
Every now and then, I have to cull my book collection. The decision on whether or not I keep a book will require meeting one of three criteria: Have I read it? Will my children want to read it? Will I read it again? If I haven't read it, it stays, because I may want to read it in the future. If I have read it, and I believe it's something I will pass on to my children, I will keep it. If I have read it, and it's one of those books that changed me, I will keep it, because I may want to read it again.
Pet Sematary is in the last category. I'm not sure it's such a great book. It's about a supernatural “Indian” burial ground, which is a little cliché, actually, but Stephen King manages to keep it from feeling trite with his magic way of weaving a story with incredibly vivid details. The second time I read the book, I was in college. It was late at night, and I was alone in a room. I was completely immersed in the book to the point that I was having a physical reaction. As Jud lead Louis over the dead fall, I started breathing more shallowly, almost panting. Then, they were accosted by the banshee in the woods, and I heard it in the room with me. I may have screamed, a little. I had to put the book down for a while. Like many of his stories, though, the part that was so incredible was his ability to recreate the psychological deterioration of his protagonist. We see Louis going more insane each time he visits the Sematary. It's like watching a train wreck. We can't watch, but we can't not watch.
4. THE GIRL WHO LOVED TOM GORDON
This book was particularly impactful for me, personally, for a lot of reasons that had less to do with the story and more to do with where the story happens. By the time Stephen King wrote this particular book, I was a resident of the great State o' Maine. The story is about a young girl who is hiking a portion of the Appalachian Trail with her mom and her brother. She steps off the trail to tie her shoe, and then ends up lost. It happens. This book was one of the books that made me want to be sure that I and my children had some survival skills. Most of my favorite Stephen King stories feature normal people in extraordinary circumstances, and in many of them, he could completely eliminate the gratuitous supernatural element, and it would still be an amazing story. The supernatural piece in this story is a monster who is stalking the little girls. It's really a bear. Everything that happens to the girl is real and real terrifying.
At its core, this story is about survival, and Stephen King does his magic again with this story in describing how this little girl keeps herself from going mad by focusing on her idol, Tom Gordon, but how exhaustion, starvation, and dehydration start to drive her insane, and in his very unique way, Stephen King takes us on that trip into darkness.
3. THE LONG WALK
This story is actually a short story and is part of a collection that was written by Stephen King under the pseudonym Richard Bachman. It's futuristic tale about a warped game show in which boys are forced to walk. They only have to walk. Just walk. How hard could that be? As it turns out, it's pretty hard. During my Army Basic Training, I would relive this book on those times when I was pretty sure I was being pushed to the absolute boundaries of my physical capabilities. I never shat myself, though, and that realization made me understand that I could go one more step, and one more step, and one. more. step. I wish I could say that the story is about the indomitable human spirit, but what it's really about is the horror of what we will do to one another out of desperation, and how poverty destroys us, because those boys walked and died and went mad to give their families financial stability. It is The Hunger Games, before there was The Hunger Games.
2. THE GREEN MILE
The format of a serial novel was very popular in the 19th Century. Writers, like Charles Dickens, would write a piece of a story, with a cliffhanger, for a weekly paper, and then, each week give readers another piece. Stephen King's use of this format was a stroke of genius.
On a personal level, this novel became a connection for my husband and me, when as newlyweds we were separated by our employer (we were both enlisted in the Army, and he was stationed in Kansas, and I was stationed in Texas). I discovered Book 1 in the PX. I read it, and I sent it to him. Over the next several weeks, we eagerly awaited the next installment, which one of us would purchase and mail to the other. It wasn't like a book club, where we would each read the novel and then discuss the story, picking apart plot lines and musing over character development. In fact, I don't recall that we ever discussed the books. Just the fact that we were living – together - in that fantasy world that Stephen King had created, made the reality that we weren't physically together somehow easier. We had this thing that we could do with each other even though we lived hundreds of miles apart.
The story itself is a fascinating tale with some many relevant topics to today's world. At its core it is a heart-wrenching tale about a man who is given a gift that is actually a curse, and on a basic level, it makes us question those things we're told we should be thankful for.
1. THE STAND
I was sixteen the first time I read The Stand. Suffice it to say that my life was such at that time that the idea of a Super Flu wiping out 90% of the human population was incredibly appealing for me. The first version I read was the cut version, because when it was first released, Stephen King's publishers didn't think anyone would pay for a 1200+ page book. He cut it down to 700 or so pages. After many years, when Stephen King became a household name, the 500 pages were added back to the story and the book was re-released. I bought the uncut version and read it … all of it. It was just as good the second time. There are so many quintessential Stephen King aspects to the book. Getting into Trash Can Man's head as he is dying from radiation poisoning. Pursuing the Walking Dude or seeking Mother Abigail. The good versus evil where the good folks aren't all virtue and the evil people probably aren't all bad, either. It speaks to the duality in all of us. Even Mother Abigail questioned her sanctity. It begs the question, what is good? And the answer comes down to intent, at least according to King.
But what really appealed to me was the survival. The resiliency of us to keep going, even when we should just lay down and give up. Perhaps, without meaning to, Stephen King was one of the founders of the Prepper movement, and what's interesting and also refreshing about his story, versus the dozens of other fictitious accounts of TEOTWAWKI is the lack of cannibals or the marauding hordes with the viking mentality of raping and pillaging. It was refreshingly different for a prepper novel, and it's one of my absolute favorite books. I'd read it again.