It wasn’t long ago that Stephen King was derided as a simple peddler of horror, spinning yarns of children with special powers or ghouls that take 1,000 pages to vanquish. After his success in the 1970s and 80s, starting with “Carrie,” King could have easily coasted, mailed it in, and written different versions of the same story, cashing bestseller checks all the way to the grave.
Instead, especially over the last decade, King has embraced the best parts of his earliest fiction and razored away the fat without losing his edge. For King and for his Constant Readers, it’s never been about the spectacle of horror. It’s been about the way he understands his characters and puts them on the page for us to recognize, sympathize with, and follow throughout their journeys against obstacles in their own minds and those completely beyond their comprehension.
As a kid, the only interaction I had with Stephen King was a tattered “Nightmares & Dreamscapes” paperback that I picked up at a garage sale and the occasional movie or television adaptation of his work (“Pet Sematary” and the “It” miniseries come to mind). It wasn’t until I was about to start teaching composition at Appalachian State that I truly dove into the massive literary world of Stephen King. Before I was about to move to North Carolina to teach, I was wandering around the Council Bluffs mall (RIP) before eventually finding myself in the attached Barnes & Noble. It was there that I grabbed a copy of King’s part-memoir, part-textbook “On Writing,” which he composed in the wake of his near-fatal car accident (he was walking on the side of the road when a car struck him in 1999). From there, I was hooked, reading everything and collecting as many of his books as possible. The image at the top of this piece is from a portion of my dedicated Stephen King bookshelf, complete with a 1st edition “Pet Sematary” and the hard-to-find “Bachman Book” collection. It’s a start, but certainly doesn’t come close to everything King has published.
For King readers, “everything” encompasses quite a damn bit: 64 novels, 11 short story/novella collections, and five nonfiction books. Just in the last decade, he’s published 15 books, with another one on the way later this year. And as much as I love the early King (especially the run from “Carrie” to “Pet Sematary”), he is firing on all cylinders now as much as any time in his career.
The literary world has also started to come around to The King. In 2015, he received a National Medal of Arts and his books now regularly end up on “Best of the Year” lists. He’s also become a hit with filmmakers, as his books, old and new, are gobbled up for adaptation, with a whopping 17(!) adaptations currently in the works for the next few years. In other words, he’s a long way from his 2003 National Book Award being blasted by renowned critic Harold Bloom, with Bloom saying, “The decision to give the National Book Foundation’s annual award for ‘distinguished contribution’ to Stephen King is extraordinary, another low in the shocking process of dumbing down our cultural life.” Also, fuck Harold Bloom and his pretentiousness.
On that note, it’s time to begin the unenviable task of whittling down King’s work to the selections that make up his Mt. Rushmore. In the end, I didn’t pick the most famous (“The Shining” or “It”), the best conceit (“Pet Sematary”), the most oppressive (“Cujo”), the most depressing while remaining awesome (“Revival”), his most literary (“Bag of Bones”), or even my own personal favorite (“Duma Key”). I simply picked the four books that encompass what King is capable of at his very best. And, although I didn’t mean for it to turn out this way, each of the four selections is different in terms of genre and approach.
Now, to pull a quote from that tattered copy of “Nightmares & Dreamscapes”:
“Okay? Ready? Fine. Here’s my hand. We’re going now. I know the way. All you have to do is hold on tight…and believe.”
The Overall Best (Novel)
As with all of King’s work, this one starts with a “What If?,” although in the case of 11/22/63, the “what if” is perhaps his most fascinating ever: What if John F. Kennedy was never assassinated? With that question, the novel is off and running, following present-day high school English teacher Jake Epping through a meticulously crafted time travel tale. This is a big, sprawling, intensely researched piece of work. More importantly, the research that King did for this never gets in the way. Instead, it grounds the tale in a realistic, involving way that rips the reader’s heart out in the way that only the best works of art can.
Come for the premise, complete with all of the complications of time-travel and free will. Stay for the most well-drawn relationship in all of King’s fiction, that of Jake and the electric Sadie Dunhill. And get the Kleenex ready for that ending. Simply put, a phenomenal book.
The Nonfiction Classic
I’ve already made my love for this book clear, but I’ll go one step further: This is the best book about the act of writing ever, and, believe me, I’ve pretty much read them all. Most are packed away in a black trunk in a spare bedroom, but not “On Writing.” It’s on an easily accessible shelf, for when I get stuck in life or in writing. There’s truths to be gleaned from every page. Anyone serious about reading or writing needs to read this book.
The Short Story/Novella Collection
If I had to recommend one King book to a friend, it would be this one. “11/22/63” is fantastic, but it’s also an enormous and daunting doorstopper (although I defy you not to fly through it’s 849 pages). “Different Seasons,” however, is a collection of four novellas that are individually insanely good. Taken together, they play off of one another in a nearly metafictional way that shows King’s talents as well as anything he’s ever done.
The collection starts with a little story called “Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption.” No, it’s not about the movie “The Shawshank Redemption.” It’s literally the story the movie is based on. The movie has achieved classic status, but many still don’t know that Stephen King, master of horror, wrote this tender humdinger of a story.
Next is “Apt Pupil”, which is completely horrifying and, notably, contains no supernatural elements whatsoever. Yes, this was also made into a movie, a very decent 1999 thriller directed by Bryan Singer. King’s novella is far better, though, and a thoroughly creepy look into the descent and breakdown of the mind of teenager Todd Bowden.
“The Body” follows and is charming, melancholy, and nostalgic in all the best ways. If you’ve ever watched the movie “Stand By Me,” this is the story that movie is based on. If you are looking for King at his lighthearted best, this has the characters and story for you.
Finally, the collection ends with “The Breathing Method.” This is largely a 1930s period piece about an unmarried pregnant woman determined to deliver her child despite the scorn of everyone around her. King draws us in and makes us care deeply about these characters, and wraps things up with the absolutely unthinkable happening in the most beautiful way.
The Fantasy Book
For many readers, their relationship with Stephen King begins with “The Dark Tower” series. Originally published as a limited edition in 1982, “The Gunslinger,” the first Dark Tower book was the subject of much speculation from King fans, as the fantasy-tinged quasi-western was a far cry from his usual subject matter. However, it opens a saga and fuels the reader’s imagination in a way that only a few books can.
“The Gunslinger” starts with King’s best opening line of any book: “The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed.” Thus begins the world of an eight-book, 1.3 million word series that has enraptured King fans for decades.
To be totally honest, “The Gunslinger” wouldn’t even crack my Top 10 favorite Stephen King books, but I am also aware enough that this fantasy series means a great deal to a great many people and, someday, will be seen as one of King’s crowning achievements, if it isn’t already. That alone earns “The Gunslinger” a spot on the Mount Rushmore of King.
With so much material to pick from, there’s literally hundreds of combinations of Stephen King books that could have made this list. Drop your own personal choices in the comments below or tell me how wrong I am @JMitchellTGS on Twitter.
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