Starting on Stephen (King): a Top 5 List

No, he’s not “another horror writer.” I’m not even sure “horror writer” is the best way to describe him anymore.

The heyday of Koontz and King, Straub and Barker, is largely over. Yet even back then, something set King apart. I’ll let you in on the secret: characters. Fully realized characters make King king. Like him or not, if you read, watch movies, hell, if you’re alive, you probably know who he is. And if you don’t, you’re about to.

Maybe you’ve always wanted to give King a shot, but found the dude so prolific that picking up something seemed intimidating. Maybe you’ve tried a book and found it overlong, bloated, or simply too strange. I don’t blame you. King is my man, but I won’t sit here and tell you he’s the tightest plotter. What he does have going, and what draws those readers in time and time again, is depth of character. And imagination.

If I could criminally distill King into a formula, it’s this: create people, make readers care, then toss those people into horrific, mind melting situations. With King, it’s about horror, sure, but it’s also about humanity—the good, the bad, and the in-between.

You may have heard all of King’s works are connected. This is kind of true (another intimidating factor in deciding where to start). But that’s only in the sense of a “King-verse,” in which most of his stories take place. The King-verse enriches the stories without bogging them down. The following five books can be appreciated entirely on their own, even if some do contribute to the King-verse. These are, in my opinion, the best places to start on Stephen.

The Shining

King’s third novel is a horror classic. It’s nothing like the Kubrick film, which I enjoy as a fan of Kubrick, but I think falters as an adaptation of King. Jack Torrance is much more sympathetic in the novel, which makes the collapse of his sanity all the more brutal. The Overlook hotel, where Jack takes his son and daughter to live for the winter as he takes care of the property, is indeed haunted. But the truly terrifying aspect of the Overlook reaches beyond ghosts and into Jack’s mind, as forces beyond comprehension toy with his fears and weaknesses as a father and husband.

Pet Cemetery

Arguably King’s most terrifying tale. This standalone novel is not for the faint of heart, and features some truly horrifying moments. Ultimately, it explores the nature of death, and why, as devastating as it is losing our loved ones, bringing them back from a place we have no comprehension of has a capacity for unimaginable consequences. As much a horror novel as it is a story about death dissolving a family, the desperate measures the Creeds take after they lose one of their own forecast their total demise. Yet, like a car crash we see coming a long way off, we can’t help staying to watch the carnage.

Skeleton Crew

King’s second collection of short stories includes one of my favorite novellas—“The Mist”. This story, and “Gramma,” lean into H.P. Lovecraft; the former story features links to ancient beings that defy understanding, while the latter references nothing less than the Necronomicon. “The Monkey” is straight up horror, “The Jaunt,” goes deliciously sci-fi in a Bradbury-esque tale of the consequences of space travel. “Beachworld” follows suit, tracking a pair of space travelers as they land on a desert planet where nothing is at it seems. Then there’s “The Raft,” a traditional “teens get whittled down to one” story, except the “monster” is anything but traditional, and the conclusion equal parts heartbreaking and relieving. King’s imagination pilots these stories into strange places, and while not every single one is perfect, they’re all immensely fascinating.

The Long Walk

This was the first King I read. Maybe it’s the time I read it that enhanced its impact, but a strong cult following reinforces the opinion that this one is unique. It’s not a well known King book (it was originally published under his pseudonym, Richard Bachman) but boy does it deliver. In a dystopian society, every year 100 teenage boys are randomly selected to compete in a walk across the country. The event is celebrated and televised across the nation. The winner receives wealth beyond their wildest dreams. The losers are eliminated on the walk itself, one by one, shot to death after they receive three warnings for resting or stopping. The dark magic this story casts is in the relationships the boys forge along they way, the friendships and rivalries, both essential and trivial, as they know death will be coming for all save one.

The Gunslinger

This is the strangest book on the list by far, but it’s also the introduction to Roland Deschain, descendant of Arthur of Eld, and the last gunslinger. One of King’s most fascinating characters begins his quest at the heart of the King-verse. This is book one of the Dark Tower series, a contemporary western/fantasy/horror saga that serves as the lynchpin for all the interlocking books and stories set in King’s universe. Essentially, if you’ve made it this far, you may as well go all the way. Once you start following Roland and his ka-tet you won’t be able to stop until the bloody end.

That’s it folks. Holler at me if you think I missed a King book that serves as a good intro, or if you disagree with any of the above titles. I love talking King, and I’d certainly love talking it with you.

On another note: novel = thumbs up. My story, “It Follows Until it Leads,” was selected as a Notable Mystery Story of 2018 in the Best American Mystery Stories 2019 edition (ed. Jonathan Lethem)—as was “Crab Dinners” by Lou Mathews, a fellow SC Noir writer. This put me in touch with an agent (!) I went back and forth him about what I have in addition to the story (one old and horrible horror novel, one slightly less horrible collection of short stories, and my most recent book, that I’m still editing). None of these are marketable, I’m told. My plan is to divulge more info about my current book in the next post, see if I can get some editing/feedback somehow, and if that fails, start something new and exciting, that I’ve secretly already started. But ssh.

Until next time, friends, be good.

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