Most people I know fit into two camps: they’ve read Stephen King and they love him, or they’ve started to read him, chosen the wrong books (let’s face it, he has written a few duds) and then given up on him.
To me, this is a tragedy. Who hasn’t been put off writers by unknowingly starting with the wrong book? Never to be revisited again? I did that with Clive Barker, read two of his books, and haven’t picked up another since.
Okay, maybe tragedy was a little strong, but it’s definitely a shame. There are so many of King’s books that are simply brilliant, not just in the horror novel sense, but as real demonstrations of the craft of writing (and sadly equal numbers not so brilliant) and – not that he needs the promotion – I’d like to introduce you to my top ten Stephen King Novels of all time (so far).
#10 Dolores Claiborne
A bit of a surprising one this. Many people outside of Stephen’s Kingdom haven’t heard of it, even though it was also adapted into a film in 1995, with Kathy Bates and Jennifer Jason Leigh. It’s much more a thriller than a horror though, with just a nod to the unexplained, supernatural side of life.
The story is told through the eyes of Dolores, the long-suffering housekeeper to Vera Donovan, a very wealthy, very bitter, and quite mad, old woman. Dolores eventually becomes her paid companion. I love Dolores’s description of the difference between the two roles:
“As Vera’s housekeeper, I had to eat shit eight hours a day, five days a week. As her paid companion, I had to eat it all around the clock.’
Dolores is narrating the story of her life, one that is quite devoid of any lighter moments, and not simply because of her relationship with her employer. She reveals to us, about a quarter of the way through the book, that she has suffered at the hands of her violent and abusive husband. She also has a daughter, and therein sits the motivations behind Dolores’s story.
When Vera dies, Dolores is suspected of her murder and questioned by the police, and her story unfolds. She opens up quite willingly, gradually revealing the burden she’s been carrying around for quite some time, and her story grabbed me from the very minute I started reading, until the last page.
King’s voice is very prominent in this, not as an intrusive author; this book is very much told in Dolores’s voice, her words (and as a reader, we feel like she is talking directly to us), but in the excellent grasp he has on characterisation, his ability to become his characters, to breath life into them, to make them exist beyond the pages of the book, is in full force here.
There are some really intriguing moments, and some honest insights into the human nature, and into what motivates us as human beings. One thing that Stephen King does, and he does very well, is insert subtle little links between books, that might otherwise not be connected; that aren’t part of the same series.
I’ve enjoyed trying to spot them over the years, and Dolores Claiborne has one. It’s linked to the next book in my list, Gerald’s Game, and I believe you can’t really read one without the other.
#9 Gerald’s Game
Long before Fifty Shades of Grey, there was Gerald’s Game. Published in 1992, it tells the story of Jessie Burlingame, who, during the beginnings of a sex game, and realising she actually despises and is repulsed by her husband, she accidentally kills him.
“Then his hand – his soft, short-fingered hand, its flesh as pink as that which capped his penis – reached out and grasped her breast, and something inside her suddenly popped, like an overstrained tendon.”
The only problem is, they are in their Maine summerhouse, in the middle of nowhere, she is handcuffed to the bed, and the keys are out of reach, on the dresser. What follows is her desperate journey through the horrors that await her as she plots her escape. The scene around page 238 is definitely not for the squeamish.
And, of course, the link with Dolores Claiborne, the eclipse, and the well water, gave me that extra reason to love Jessie’s story.
#8 Pet Sematary
This is one of the scariest Stephen King novels I’ve read. It tells the story of the Creed family who move to a new house, which just happens to be down the road from an ancient Indian Micmac burial ground and the local Pet Sematary. And, of course, there’s the elderly Jud Crandall to introduce him to this when the family cat, Church, is killed on the road.
When you bury the dead there, they come back, but they come back different. And Jud Crandall knew that, before he told Louis Creed to bury the cat. I’ve always disliked his character for that.
“Church was swaying slowly back and forth as if drunk. Louis watched it, his body crawling with revulsion, a scream barely held back in his mouth by his clamped teeth. Church had never looked like this – had never swayed.”
This book has all the essential elements of a good horror story, animals and people returning from the dead, blood and guts, and the deranged, disturbed and deformed sister locked in the bedroom. And if you want a real fright, and your imagination didn’t already conjure up a scary enough image of Zelda, the sister, for you, have a look at the film version. I still watch those scenes through my fingers.
#7 Needful Things
This definitely deserves its spot on my top ten. I read this book in a matter of days, over breakfast, on the train, in my lunch break, in bed. It’s just wonderful, and again, looks at the darker side of human nature. I really could not put it down.
What would you pay for that one item, in that shop window? The one item you really want, even if you didn’t realise it until just now? Would you pay just about the amount you have in your purse? Or a little bit extra? What else would you give? Your friends? Your loved ones? Your soul?
Leland Gaunt opens the shop, Needful Things, and pretty soon he’s creating havoc, because the people in Castle Rock will give anything for that desirable item, even if they don’t fully realise the cost at the time. This book is about greed, and desire, and the fragility of human relationships. It’s also about love and pain and heartache, and I love that. It has a real poignancy. You also get to be the voyeur, looking over the shoulder of all those usually sensible people behaving in a way they could never have dreamed. My favourite part, and the bit that made me, years later, buy a replica necklace, is the bit with the spider and the arthritis. You’ll know when you get to it.
#6 Lisey’s Story
There seemed to be a lot of hype about this one before it came out. Stephen King came over to the UK to promote it, and I went to a book signing and reading. I can remember listening to him for the half hour or so that he stood on the podium, reading aloud from Lisey’s story, and couldn’t wait to get started on it. It didn’t disappoint.
Stephen King’s wife, while he was in hospital recovering from pneumonia, decided to redecorate his office. When he returned home, much of his stuff was still boxed up, and he realised that this is what his office would look like if he died. And so, Lisey’s Story was born.
I loved this book. Again, I devoured it in days, and I’ve since listened to it as an audio book. Some of the reviews online have been quite scathing, largely because of the language of the main characters relationship. I, however, was drawn straight into their world, and Lisey and Scott existed as real people for me.
I found the suggestive horror of this one quite scary, and it did make me feel on edge at times, wanting to leave the light on, or have the TV on whilst dozing off to sleep.
The description of the “The Long Boy with the piebald side” was what really affected me, and Lisey seeing things in the water glass in the bathroom. It was all quite subtle, allowing my imagination to do the work, and with my imagination, when that happens, things get really bad.
#5 Bag of Bones
Another novel about someone losing a spouse. In this story, it’s Mike Noonan, another writer, and his wife has collapsed and died from a brain aneurysm. Writers’ block forces him to move to their holiday home on Dark Score Lake. He becomes embroiled in the bitter battles between Mattie Devore and her father-in-law, Max Devore. This being a Stephen King novel, however, the battles aren’t straight forward, and they are certainly not everyday.
This was another one I couldn’t put down. It was heavily influenced by Daphne Du Maurier’s, Rebecca, another one of my all-time favourite novels. I found this extremely scary in parts, and again felt quite unnerved whilst reading, as was living alone at the time. It’s also one of the only books that has ever made me cry. Stephen King showed, in this book, that he really can write about the depth of human love and emotion, and I sobbed for a full ten minutes.
#4 The Green Mile
This was originally released as a serial in the UK, one book per month, and I bought the first book, read it in a couple of hours, and then didn’t know what to do with myself for the next month whilst waiting for the second instalment. I then decided to wait for all six books to be released. I know this defeated the object of what Stephen King had been trying to achieve at the time: to recreate that excitement he had whilst waiting for the next comic to come out, but for me the first instalment was so wonderful, I couldn’t put myself through the torture of waiting a month each time. Instead, I waited five long months for the final instalment to be released and then read the lot over a couple of days. I’m sure most people are familiar with the story of The Green Mile, with the rather excellent and successful film adaptation starring Tom Hanks, but just in case, I won’t spoil it.
This book also made me cry. A lot. John Coffey (no coincidence with the initials matching those of Jesus Christ) is a gentle giant, incarcerated for the murder of two young girls, and facing the electric chair. It’s told through the eyes of the prison warden, Paul Edgecomb, and has so much depth, so many levels and wonderful little side stories, I could hardly contain myself whilst reading it. I loved the film too, however, if you’ve only seen the film, you have to read the book too, there is a lot more to it. I’m sure this must have been a labour of love for King.
It’s just beautiful and rich and haunting and wonderful, and deeply affected me. It’s the book I wish I’d written. It’s the Stephen King novel that had the most impact on me.
#3 From a Buick 8
This was a real quirky little number from Stephen King, and unlike anything else he’s ever written. It’s unmistakably King, but yet so unusual. My imagination was completely captured by the Buick 8 left abandoned at the gas station, and all the awful and terrible things that happened around that car from that point forward. It’s one of those books where, when you’ve finished it, you’re never really sure what you just read, and yet so full of wonderful and alive characters and situations. It’s a real heady journey through the most bizarre of Stephen King’s storylines, and to this day I would struggle to relay the story, without actually reading it all over again. I just know it gave me goose bumps, and is definitely on my re-read list.
I sometimes feel this should be my number one, but there’s an element of me that feels like I would be betraying my actual number one, so I never quite let it get there. But this is a very close second for me. I can still remember the breathlessness with which I read this, and the complete neglect of everything around me at the time. It’s one of his later books (2011) and yet surprisingly he says he had the idea for it before he even wrote his first novel, Carrie.
It tells the story of Jake Epping, who travels back in time to the 1960s to try and prevent the assassination of John F Kennedy. King says, “I’ve never tried to write anything like this before. It was really strange at first, like breaking in a new pair of shoes.” It’s not a horror novel, not even a little bit, and a real break from the norm for King. I’m so glad he decided to pursue the idea.
It’s my most recommended novel ever. I once said it would be the book I’d take onto a desert island with me for sheer entertainment factor. The bizarre thing about the book was that I felt I was reading a factual account, rather than a fictional novel, because Stephen King’s story became so closely intertwined with the actual story of Lee Harvey Oswald, the line between fact and fiction was very blurry, and King succeeded admirably.
I recently watched the television adaptation, and I was disappointed. It was entertaining enough, but I certainly didn’t feel breathless watching it. If you’ve only seen the TV show, do yourself a favour, and read this. You will not regret it. Thinking about this novel always puts me in mind of that line from Jurassic Park, “so preoccupied with whether or not they could, they didn’t stop to think if they should!” A brilliant exploration into what would have happened had Kennedy never been assassinated.
#1 The Stand
Well, here it is, and probably no surprise, The Stand. It’s one of the very first novels I ever read by Stephen King. I originally read the much-edited version, and was delighted when the full, uncut version was released. It gave so much more richness to the characters; helped explain their motives much more clearly. I think I’ve re-read this book about three times, and in its bible like proportions, that’s no small thing. I’m currently reading it aloud to my partner, and it’s still as fantastic as the first time I read it.
I love the immensity of it, the broad span of it, the number of characters, the depth to which the characters are created, and I am particularly fond of anything apocalyptic, and this is one of the only apocalyptic novels ever written by King (another fact which I find surprising, apart from The Dome, which I think would be number one on my least favourite King books list).
So in case you don’t know, it’s about a flu virus, Captain Trips, that accidentally escapes from a government installation, and kills over 99% of the world’s population. Those left behind then begin the ultimate battle between good and evil. One of the best evil characters ever in a novel: Randall Flagg, the devil incarnate. If you’ve not read it, you really should. It will chill you to the core.
So, that’s it…….
My list of must read Stephen King books. I’d be really interested to hear from you about your top ten favourites, or whether you think I’ve chosen any of your least favourite King books on my top ten. Have I missed a really crucial one somewhere?
Drop me a line; let me know.
Let’s talk King.