Best In Show

A Review of the Limited Edition of The Essential Stephen King
by Stephen Spignesi


In 1978, Stephen King published a novel titled The Stand – a thick, epic novel that, more than anything he’d written previously, catapulted him into the bestseller spotlight. But it wasn’t the book King had written. When he’d turned the novel into his publisher (Doubleday, at the time), they’d balked at the gargantuan sheaf of manuscript pages. They also turned down another of King’s ideas: to release The Stand in a limited edition format. King was forced to trim the manuscript down heavily, cutting out large chunks of the novel to make it more salable to the unsuspecting public.

The Stand went on to become King’s most popular tale, but the publication of it still bothered King. Years later, when he had more clout in the publishing world, King decided to restore those manuscript pages and add some perks – illustrations by Berni Wrightson, for instance – and rerelease The Stand to the world at large. The book shot straight to number one. And King, after all these years, got his limited edition: a beautiful, leatherbound volume, cased in a wood box, giving the book the appearance of an old family Bible. (Contrary to specious rumor, the words of Mother Abagail were not printed in red.)

In early 2001, Stephen Spignesi released the third volume of his “Big King Three,” a slim book titled The Essential Stephen King. This loose trilogy began in 1990 with The Shape Under the Sheet: The Complete Stephen King Encyclopedia, followed later by The Lost Work of Stephen King. (If we were to liken these three incredible books to Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy, then perhaps Spignesi’s mass market Stephen King Quiz Books could serve as a two-volume Hobbit precursor.)

The Essential Stephen King took two of Spignesi’s passions – Stephen King and best-of lists – and combined them, attempting to rank King’s 101 best works out of a possible 550 plus. Spignesi had done this type of thing before, with his Italian 100 book, but ranking works of art was a much tougher task – and more contestable. When the book hit the shelves, Stephen King fans from the world over either praised the man for his vision or cursed him for his ignorance. Why a certain book made this number, or a certain story not made that? (As happy as I am with It sitting pretty at #1, I don’t think I’ll ever forgive Steve for leaving “The Ballad of the Flexible Bullet” off the list entirely.)

This book, like all of Spignesi’s previous books, became an instant hit, and was enormously popular among a broad spectrum of King fans ddd but Stephen Spignesi still was not satisfied. The book he’d turned into his publisher had been much bigger, including quite a number of additional features he’d had to excise. The book that the public read had been the meat of The Essential Stephen King ddd but the gravy was missing. Hence, Spignesi, along with publisher George Beahm, came to the decision that Stephen King himself came to eleven years before: to publish the book in a limited edition, and restore everything.

And everything is, quite literally, what the limited edition of The Essential Stephen King has to offer. The best-of list, comprising the skeleton of Essential, has been beefed up exponentially. Each chapter’s familiar sections are all here: the introductory quote, “Why It Made the Top 100” (or “Top Ten,” as the case may be), “Main Characters,” “Did You Know,” “The King Speaks” “What I Really Liked About It,” and “Film Adaptations.” But also included – and especially effective – is a new section titled “Stephen King at His Best”: a selection from the work in question that defines why Spignesi has chosen this particular piece. Illuminating the list, and the entire book, are a whole slew of photos and art absent from the trade edition (shots of King, reproductions of art from limiteds like Desperation, My Pretty Pony, and more.) In addition, dotted throughout the book are fun little chapter asides, thrown in for the amusement and education of the fan who wants just a little more (and what fan doesn’t?) These asides include a review of King’s newest novel Dreamcatcher by premiere King expert Bev Vincent, the complete text of Robert Browning’s poem “Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came” (the inspiration for King’s Dark Tower epic) and a poem by Spignesi himself titled “A Crow on the Lawn of the House I Grew Up In.” (Mini-review-in-review: The poem, friends, is stark and somehow blankly scary. Spignesi uses vivid images – comets, volcanoes – but somehow we always come back to the drear word of suburbia. “All the waters are black,” Spignesi writes, and then concludes with an image and a statement that literally chilled me. Why is this man not writing more fiction?)

But I digress. After the meat and the gravy, what more can you ask for ... except dessert, of course. Spignesi serves it up well here, including a section titled “Fan Favorites,” which includes the results of the SKEMERs online best-of-King poll. Another King expert (after you find them, gathering them up into one book is cake; they’ve got supercollector Charlie Fried in here somewhere, as well) named Tyson Blue (whose “Needful Kings” column has documented King goings-on for years now) puts forth a legal argument titled “In the Matter of Stephen King.” In the argument, Blue, a real-life lawyer, argues in favor of King’s merit as a literary author. (The argument, presented with actual legal terminology and method, is at once funny and thought-provoking.) A brand-spanking new interview with Stephen Spignesi, conducted by George Beahm, has also found its way into this enormous epilogue, as well, and it’s a good one. (Who knew Steve held Keanu Reeves in such high regard?)

But the top, the absolute top for any die-hard fan of King has to be the coda of this lengthy volume, a final section of lists gathered under the heading “The Lot.” We get a full list of “49 Runners-Up,” stories that very nearly made the official list. We get “On the Horizon,” a rundown of projects King is now or will be working on in the near future. And we get – to the joy and wonderment of fans and scholars everywhere – “The Stephen King Master A to Z List.” I actually gasped reading this thing, and more than once. Mingled among the well-known works (those that made the top 100 are bolded) are short story titles, novel titles, and poem titles that I have never even heard of before. That King has been writing stories without publishing them for years is common knowledge, but here we inch one step closer to actually seeing, actually reading these hidden gems. It’s hints like this that swell the heart of any self-aware fanboy like me, and should have anyone who would buy a book like this scrambling to find out more.

As of this writing, copies of the numbered edition are still available through Betts Bookstore ( The numbered edition will be completely re-typset from the original book, it will come in an acrylic slipcase, the binding with be smyth-sewn as opposed to glued (go and check out most of the books on your shelves and you’ll find glue adhesive in the spine), and a much heavier paper stock to prevent “bleed-through” (think Six Stories.). In addition, every contributor to this book has signed it, a group of King experts who may never collaborate on a project like this again (both Spignesi and Beahm are phasing themselves out of the King business, to the sadness and consternation of fans everywhere.) There are only 666 copies of this book (the lettered state of this book sold out mega-fast in under two weeks), and they truly are running out. Once they do, the price is going to jack up, as every Beahm and/or Spignesi about-King limited has done. Don’t get left out! Call Betts, visit the website, hitchhike up to Bangor and place your order at the store: whatever you do, get this book. There are a lot of books about King out there, and it’s rare when one rises above the chaff, as this one has done so thoroughly.

Thank you, and goodnight.