Everyone has that one author who really gets them into reading. For me, that was Stephen King. When I was a kid, his books were the first that I really devoured, my first experience with pleasure reading. I’ve seen moved on to “bigger and better things” (whatever that means) but I will always have a place in my heart for the King man, and will without fail read his new books.
Last week saw the release of his newest tome, 11/22/63, a story of a man who travels back in time to prevent the Kennedy Assassination. Sweet! I have it sitting at home waiting for me, but in the mean time it’s got me thinking about my other favorite King works. I know a lot of people hate on him, which seems insane to me, but I also know that there are tons of you out there who love him just as much as I do. His bibliography is so expansive and varied, that everyone’s bound to have different Top 5′s. So here’s mine, and be sure to chime in with yours in the comments!
Honorable Mentions: Short stories, and Under the Dome (2009)
First off, I wanted to limit my top five to novels, because there are just so many great stories, but I just couldn’t live with myself if I didn’t mention at least some of the amazing fiction nuggets held withing Night Shift, Nightmares & Dreamscapes, and Skeleton Crew (my favorite collections of his). Whether is be the sci-fi terror of “The Jaunt,” the Cthulhu mythos love-letter “Crouch End,” the paranoid narrative of “I Am The Doorway,” the goofy gore of “The Mangler,” the dark summer erotica of “The Raft,” the isolation of “Trucks,” or… damn there’s a lot of good stories.
The other work I wanted to shout out is Under The Dome, one of his more recent novels. It came after a string of books (Cell, Lisey’s Story, Duma Key, etc.) that I liked but didn’t love, and I sorta was wondering whether the old man still had it in him to crank out a 1000+ page barnburner. Boy did he ever! His tale of the town of Chester’s Mill’s imprisonment in a translucent biosphere was classic King, with a vast cast of characters, small-town intrigue, violence, and (an attribute that is now endearing to me) third-act issues.
5. It (1986)
It is, in many ways, the prototypical King work. The large cast, comprised mostly of children. The perpetuation of evil over vast amounts of time. The Maine setting. Metaphysical horror buttressed right up against things like Dracula and killer clowns. The story of The Losers of Derry Maine and their lifelong struggles with the ancient evil beneath it is exhausting, invigorating, terrifying, and finally wonderful.
Perhaps now more remembered for the Miniseries version (one of the best King adaptations), the novel is infinitely deeper, more disturbing, and just generally better in every way. This was the first King mega-tome I read and it really exemplifies his ability to juggle a multitude of characters, moods, and themes, while at the same time delivering a straightforward and engrossing story.
4. Misery (1987)
Nothing supernatural. No ancient evils, no magical beings. No giant cast of characters, no town. Just Paul Sheldon and Annie Wilkes. Another work more recognized for its movie version, the story is actually greatly benefited by the slowing nature of the novel. As Paul recuperates from his accident in the care of the possibly unstable Annie, the slow ratcheting of tension becomes almost unbearable.
By the time the novel’s most famous scene rolls around (spoiler alert, it involves a sledgehammer) it’s all you’ll be able to do to stay in your seat and hold the book steady enough to read. An exercise for King in stripping away the recurring characteristics of his milieu, Misery is a comparatively quiet human story that nonetheless is full of scares, and also runs as a great meta-commentary on what it is to be an author.
3. ‘Salem’s Lot (1975)
Back to Maine we go, for the story of writer Ben Mears and his battle with vampirism in his childhood town. In one of King’s “theoretically ham-handed but so perfectly executed you have to respect it” conceits, the town of Jerusalem’s Lot is one that is consuming itself with secrets and lies, and eventually begins to literally consume itself once the element of vampires is brought in.
Equal parts Peyton Place as Bram Stoker, you’ll fall in love with the residents of ‘Salem’s Lot, then watch them drink human blood. It’s also very scary, and in usual King fashion, spares no details on the fates of its characters. Also features Father Callahan, one of my favorite King characters.
2. The Stand (1978)
King, feeling confident I guess, decided to expand his vision from small towns in Maine and instead focus his discerning eye on the whole country, and a downright biblical battle between good and evil on an absolutely massive scale. After the flu-like Captain Tripps virus wipes out over 99% of the population, the country is fragmented into two groups, the evil followers of Randall Flagg and the reconstructors under Mother Abigail.
Sprawling, as usual, The Stand is a vivid and depressing take on the end of life as we know it, and is, even for King, totally brutal. Very dark, and very sad (the story of Harold Lauder in particular) The Stand will grab you and not let go. It also features, as I mentioned, Randall Flagg, a villain for the ages, and his tragic and bizarre minion the Trashcan Man. If you’re looking for just one King book, this is it.
1. The Dark Tower Series (1982-2004)
I really can’t express how much I love these seven books (The Gunslinger, The Drawing of The Three, The Wastelands, Wizard & Glass, Wolves of The Calla, Song of Susannah, and The Dark Tower) and the world they so exhaustively and lovingly describe. From the first sentence of The Gunslinger, I was hooked and off with Roland Deschain, chasing The Man In Black across the desert.
The amazing thing about this series is it can be summed up in one sentence: Roland’s quest to reach the mythical Dark Tower. But the multitudes contained in that sentence are staggering. This is the King work to end all King works, the culmination of all his thematic exploration, aesthetic pursuits, world-building prowess, deft organizational hand, and indeed many of his prior novels.
Characters from many other King works appear and factor importantly into the work, in a way that is exciting instead of annoying, and to be honest paints the rest of his canon in a brand new light. It’s an epic, a western, dystopic-science fiction, horror, romance, intrigue, mystery, adventure masterwork that spans worlds and centuries and… just go read it already!- Whole Milk