Stephen King is a literary giant in my neck of the woods. I grew up in his hometown of Durham and it’s always a delight to pick up one of his books and find local landmarks. He’s one of the main reasons I started writing seriously. But if you’re new to Stephen King, where do you start? Which of his 50+ novels are worth reading? Joe and I share our favorites below.
The northwoods of Maine is a special place. Every year I take at least one trip to secluded, first-come first-serve camping spots where you are completely and utterly alone, save animals. Moose, deer, rabbits, and lots of birds. Imagine standing in the woods taking a piss and seeing a line of bear, moose, skunk and birds all walking together, sweeping through the forest like a search party and completely ignoring you. Stephen King does in this novel what he always does, takes the best of some place or thing and turns it into a nightmare. The Maine woods, for me, have never been the same.
That’s not what makes this novel phenomenal or unforgettable. Grown friends who share a haunted past reunite after years apart. A psychic energy that has long been dormant has returned, and the only person who can save them from terrifying parasitic aliens is Duddits, a boy from their childhood who has special needs. King does something special with his characters’ memory fortresses here. The battle for their souls takes place deep within the innermost recesses of their minds, among memories and moments they’ve nearly forgotten. You have to read it to understand.
This one is so different it’s impossible to ignore.
A slow burn, Lisey’s Story is about an author’s widow who finds secrets in her husband’s office, including unpublished novels. It feels semi-autobiographical, if writing about a future widow can be such, and reveals the intimate details of the couple’s relationship through non-linear narrative.
What really gets me about this book is the way King borrowed snippets from throughout the literary canon and reveals his breadcrumbs in the author statement in the back of the book. “There really is a pool where we–and in this case by we I mean the vast company of writers–go down to drink and cast our nets.” Lisey’s story is more than just romance and horror, it’s a meditation on the depths authors have to go to find their stories and the horrors they sometimes bring back.
It’s by far the most memorable work I’ve ever read. Ever. Read it now and experience King like never before.
Remember Romero’s masterpiece Dawn of the Dead where everyone is trapped in the mall and how it felt when you realized the whole thing was just a metaphor for society’s endless consumerism? Well, you’ll appreciate the origins of King’s zombies in Cell all the more, because a freak pulse–which is a misnomer–causes everyone who uses their cell phones to go completely crazy. The first 100 or so pages are a masterclass in how to develop a big, action-packed scene in a massive space like the city of Boston. I’ve never read a disaster scene as memorably constructed. When shit hits the fan, it hits big time!
What keeps you reading is the father son relationship, and the psychic connection that links us all–even without the use of phones. You’ll think twice about answering your phone for the rest of your life. Buy it here.
Bonus: “Mile 81”
I lived a few miles from the rest stop in this story as a kid, frequently riding my bike to the Burger King there in the summer with my brothers, so a story in which kids ride their bikes to the same rest stop, now abandoned, has a special place in my heart. Expect to find a uniquely terrifying automobile waiting for you.
I had a very different introduction to King. In Catholic School, the library had a couple of his books – the older ones that had made his name in the 80s. I read them there. In college, at the University of Houston’s Creative Writing Department, he was openly derided and mocked by the professors. Most of the students smiled and nodded and assumed that was just jealousy, but in the nineties and early aughts, Stephen King was tantamount to pedestrian garbage books among the literati. Then, something… changed. I don’t know what exactly happened, but Stephen King was being given the highest honors in the literary land, his writing handbook, On Writing, was suddenly widely-read in high schools and colleges, and among the literary elites. It was cool to like Stephen King and list him as an influence. I have thought deeply on this and I think there are three places to begin to be one with Stephen King.
The Eyes of the Dragon was written to be a non-horror book by the horror master so his kids could read something he wrote. This is the introduction he wanted for his kids. It is a fantasy novel, and deeply concerned with old fantasy tropes, but it is also extremely well-written and seems to suggest an alternate universe exists somewhere along the beams where Stephen King became a famous fantasy novelist, like George R.R. Martin, (Of course, Martin cut his teeth on horror, so in that universe he would be the famous Horror writer…) I read this book in high school once. I can remember lines and scenes from the book. This is a mark of greatness, that the work embeds into the brain. It is, to me, the greatest clue that King is a modern master of fiction: his work is remembered by those who read it.
I think for the quintessential “Stephen King” experience, wherein something monstrous appears in the ones we love, and destroys everything we love, I believe Christine is the best of the bunch, and not as long as Pet Sematary or Needful Things. Much of the work King was doing before he sobered up and stopped doing the sort of drugs successful people in the eighties took for granted, was pedestrian, and marred by the influence of the monstrousness of King, himself, at the time. Christine is probably the best of that bunch of novels: an American muscle car is evil, possessed with some unknowable vampiric dreadfulness, and it consumes the mind of the owner, devours his friendships and becomes at once a terrible weapon of vengeance and a terrible weapon of self-destruction. It is the book of horror of our times, as automobiles are destroying everything — Everything! — and we love them, still.
The first book I think of when I think of the literary shift of Stephen King’s career is Bag of Bones, and it’s a fantastic book of depth and soul and terrible consequences. But as I think on it, I am also torn between this one and Hearts in Atlantis, where college kids during the Vietnam era know that if they flunk out of college they will be going to Vietnam in the draft. Yet, they nihilistically continue to play the card game hearts late into the night, hypnotized together into a path of self-destruction. I can’t choose between them when I think of this literary twist.
Though it is probably not for beginners, the Gunslinger series is at once glorious and frustrating. At times it is so lyrical and complex and beautiful that it grabs your throat and never lets you go, but then dissipates into a drifting trudge forward that feels like so much filler. The first book of that series is probably the most beautiful. Wizard and Glass is also quite stunning, with a complex and layered flashback into the life of Roland. It may be the thing that most defines King, though, because it carries his best work and highest impulses, and moments where the things he is most criticized for doing appear in fits and starts. It is hard to argue that it shouldn’t be read seriously, though, and treated like one, long, long novel that carries inside of it the dreams and longings of what makes things Great American Novels. It’s a lot more fun than Moby Dick, too.