A Stephen King Primer

How to Become a Stephen King Reader


Okay, so recently, my friend Chris asked me what probably seemed like a simple question: "Hey Kev, I've been interested in King books for awhile. I've read and liked a lot of the short stories; can you give me some novel recommendations?"

Some of you have known me for awhile, so you know this is the type of thing that makes my wheels spin. Not only do I have to come up with a somewhat definitive list, but I also have to come up with a list that's not simply my favorites. I had to keep the concept of Chris being a newcomer in mind. I couldn't just plop Insomnia in front of him and tell him to have a field day.

I love this stuff when it comes to mix tapes, but rarely do I think about it when it comes to books. What is the best way to introduce new people into the world of Stephen King? How to start them on the fantastic journey that I've been on all these years?

Well, if you're me, the answer's obvious: write a five-page essay with recommendations and explanations. And then worry that it's not long enough.

I present to you all here my Stephen King Primer. Those of you who are King fans may find it interesting. Those of you who haven't read King (and somehow stumbled into here) might take something away from it (I hope.) May that which illuminates me illuminate you. Here goes:

Okay, I’m trying to be thorough without being overwhelming. It can be a little daunting, becoming a reader of Stephen King’s novels. There’s a plethora of movies out there you’ve likely seen and judged that have nothing to do with the source texts. King’s popular enough that almost everyone has an opinion on him, regardless of whether or not they’ve read him. The biggest hurdle is getting someone to actually read King (normally, when faced with resistance, I ask people if they’ve seen Stand by Me or The Shawshank Redemption. When they answer yes, I inform them that those are Stephen King works. Once or twice, I’ve gotten people arguing that they most definitely are not. People do like to pigeonhole.)

First off, let me state for the record: Stephen King is not a horror writer. He’s written horror, written exemplary horror, but he’s written so much that the majority of his novels are not horror. Still, there’s that pigeonholing thing again. Thankfully, you’ve already breached the King realm and dabbled in his short stories, a terrific way to begin a readership. I’d, then, like to present to you a tiered list of his novels: which to read first, which to explore next, and where to go from there. I hope this helps!

The Starter Novels

1. The Dead Zone (1979)
2. Dolores Claiborne
3. Bag of Bones (1998)
4. The Shining (1977)
5. Misery (1987)

Of all of Stephen King’s novels, The Dead Zone is likely the most accessible. It was his first number one bestseller and his first mainstream success. Though it deals with horrifying imagery (an apocalypse, a serial murderer) and the supernatural (second sight, specifically), it doesn’t quite qualify as a horror story. It’s a love story, in a way, and the tale of a good man trying to do right when beset by overwhelming obstacles. It’s a fast read that somehow manages to be complex as well as a page-turner. In addition, its time period – the 1970s – is evocatively portrayed; though it once made the book seem dated, now it steeps it in a time and place in American culture that was never quite duplicated. Great stuff.

The following four are good introductions to various styles King has been employing over the years. Dolores Claiborne is perhaps the most accomplished of King’s “women novels” – including Gerald’s Game and Rose Madder – and is a tour de force of voice and plot. The entire thing is told as if Dolores is speaking aloud, and never varies from this style; it takes about a page or two to get into, and then you’re dragged right into it. Bag of Bones is what can possibly be known as “The New King.” It’s a ghost story, but an oddly quiet, reserved one. The press releases referred to it as “a haunted love story,” and that’s not off the mark. It’s also one of King’s best examples of a “writer novel,” a sort of subgenre in King’s canon. Writers pop up all over King’s books, and those novels featuring writers as main characters are often among his best. The Shining is another such book, but it also has the distinction of being the best introduction to King’s visceral horror style. If you’ve seen the movie, you don’t know the story. Like Bag of Bones, The Shining is a ghost story … but these ghosts are malevolent. Structured as a five-act play and relying on (and furthering) gothic tropes, The Shining is really the best place to start to get a quick education in why King is considered a horror novelist. Finally, Misery places here as the best place to start for King’s exploration of the human monster. Before 1987, King was still mostly concerned with the supernatural. From this point forward, he was more at ease exploring human interactions, however frightening those interactions may be. This was also his first full balls-out look at the writing process, and how the acts of both reading and writing could be redemptive.

The Next Steps

6. The Green Mile (1996)
7. ’Salem’s Lot (1975)
8. The Dark Half (1989)
9. Cujo (1981)
10. The Stand (1978, 1990)

You likely have seen the film The Green Mile. You also have likely heard of the unique way it was published; in six monthly chapbook installments. Ignore all that for now and plunge into the story, now neatly collected in one omnibus volume. In the mid-nineties, King decided to focus a lot of his attention on religion, exploring the concept of the existence (or non-existence) of God. The Green Mile is probably the best (or, at least the most approachable) example of this unique subset of King’s work. (Other examples include the wonderful Desperation and the published teleplay Storm of the Century.)

’Salem’s Lot is another look at what some shoddy reviewers like to call “Klassic King,” a book rife with monsters and the people who are affected by them. Like all of King’s monster books, ’Salem’s Lot is more about the people than the monsters. Also, check out the style: this was the first book to bring vampires into suburbia, and King did it in an entirely subversive way. You won’t find any mention of vampires within the first hundred pages; when people read this at first, they were stunned. The Dark Half is also about monsters, after a fashion: it explores the concept of writers’ pseudonyms, and the idea that when a pseudonym is “killed off,” might it not be angry at the idea? Within this wacky supernatural conceit is another one of King’s intense looks at the process and craft of writing, King’s best of the genre since Misery. Cujo places here as an example of what could be known as “The Pessimistic King.” Normally in King novels, the good guys win, but at a price. In Cujo (as well as most of the Bachman novels, and other books such as Pet Sematary), things start off bad and just keep getting worse. It makes for fascinating if dour reading, and yet the pages still fly.

The Stand is in this second batch as an introduction to King’s epic novels. It’s not the best of them (that honor goes to It), but it is the most easily accessible, and the one most King fans rank as his best work. It’s a good look at what has become a familiar King structure – a band of “loser” outsiders standing up against what seems like impossible evil to win the day. Because this is King’s longest work (you would be best served by the Complete & Uncut edition that was published in 1990), it’s far more complex than that, and worth the journey.

Further Reading

11. It (1985)
12. Pet Sematary (1983)
13. Hearts in Atlantis (1999)
14. Christine (1983)
15. The Long Walk (1978)

I couldn’t get away without mentioning It, my favorite novel of all time and King’s most layered and complex work. Without even looking at the style – a parallel storyline that occurs at once in 1958 and 1985, but manages to make utter sense – this book excels on so many levels. As a summation of King’s “monster” works, an evocation of both 1950s America and 1980s America, an examination of the bonds of friendship and its importance, as well as a fascinating fictional history of a small Maine town. It is really the best of what King has to offer, on all fronts. Do not miss this book.

Pet Sematary, on the other hand, is the first King novel I ever read, and probably his scariest book. An examination of the supernatural versus the scientific, this book begins in death and ends in madness; it’s Gothic in its execution, relying heavily on both Frankenstein and “The Monkey’s Paw” to make its chilling point about the nature of death and the mystery of burial. Hearts in Atlantis a sort-of collection of shorter tales linked through a central theme – in this case, Vietnam and life in the 1960s. Whereas The Dead Zone is a definitive look at the 1970s and It explores the 1950s and the 1980s, Hearts in Atlantis is the place to go for a compelling look at the Vietnam era. (It should be noted that Hearts in Atlantis has ties to the Dark Tower epic, but they do not detract from the story. In other words, you don’t need to have read Dark Tower to understand or enjoy this work.) Also, if you’ve seen the film Hearts in Atlantis, you’ve not only done a disservice to yourself but to this book. (The story “Hearts in Atlantis” isn’t even what the movie was based on; it took mainly from the first tale, Low Men in Yellow Coats. Argh.)

I list Christine here because it’s one of my favorites, because it also deals with the power of friendship, because it has a kick-ass supernatural concept, and because its style is unique among King’s novels (the first and last third of the book is told in first person, the second is told in third. Isn’t that neat?) It’s an emotional favorite, and even though the film version hews close to the novel’s vision, it doesn’t come close to echoing the sentiment and the, um, drive of the book. The Long Walk should be your introduction to King’s Richard Bachman stories, all of which are pessimistic and angry and full of bodies. This is the best of the tales, set in a not-too-distant future and featuring one of the more grisly reality show concepts ever concocted. What makes the novel even more prescient is that it was written in the early 1970s and published not long after, long before “reality TV” invaded America. At this point, The Long Walk doesn’t seem so implausible.

Ones to Avoid (For Now)

16. Dreamcatcher (2001)
17. The Tommyknockers (1987)
18. From a Buick 8 (2002)
19. Roadwork (1981)
20. Black House (2001)

Stephen King has written scores of books – over forty novels, four collections of short stories (and one collection of “illustrated fiction”), two novella collections, three nonfiction books and even a couple of published screenplays. He began publishing in 1973 and is still finding a way to put out two books a year. Somewhere in there, King was going to have a misstep or two.

Dreamcatcher is the biggest of those missteps. It’s not that it’s unreadable (like a couple of King’s short stories), it’s just that King seems to have given into his tendency to overwrite a bit much. At its core, it’s a terrific tale, the quintessential King story of young people banding together against a common threat. Unfortunately, this comes off as sort of a one-note to It, in a similar way that Firestarter was a one-not to Carrie … the difference being that Carrie is a weaker novel than It, and that Firestarter is a stronger book than Dreamcatcher.

From there, though, things get a bit more interesting. The Tommyknockers similarly suffers from overwriting … but there’s a story inside it that’s far too good to simply dismiss. It’s paranoid and scary, with a good group of characters – writers and Losers, King’s favorites – who are interesting and layered and terrific to read about. Plus, it’s got an interesting sociological message inside it, and the book, at its best moments, acts as an allegory regarding atomic and nuclear energy and the way humans wield that energy without really understanding it. The problem, then, becomes the tedious, rambling subplots involving minor characters (King did something similar in Needful Things, with far better results) and one very long, completely unnecessary chapter regarding the naming of the town.

From a Buick 8 is different from these other two: it’s compulsively readable with a scary, thought-provoking, tight plot and likable characters. Why is it in here, then? It has no resolution. When people read this book at first, they were furious. King gives no answers as to the nature of the supernatural here, and people hated that. (In fact, I wasn’t sure what to think about it at first; it was only on my second read that I really fell in love with the choice.) King is apparently employing a similar ending with The Colorado Kid and I’m looking forward to it. (Also, as a side note, people were also pissed that King was using a car as the focus of a book, drawing comparisons to Christine before they’d ever read it. This book has far more in common with The Green Mile than Christine, I promise you.) So, just a warning: this is a terrific book that has incited the ire of some fans for both being unconventional and too familiar. Fans are freaks.

The Bachman novel Roadwork is … hard to get through. It’s not bad (for awhile, I counted it as my favorite Bachman book), but it’s tough. King wrote it with the idea of deliberately writing a mainstream novel, and it succeeds well, but because it’s a Bachman book, it’s relentlessly depressing with a someone unlikable main character and a downbeat ending. (I’d love to discuss the structure of the Bachman books with you sometime, if you have a mind to.)

As for Black House: this is likely the most obtuse book King’s ever written (though his co-writer was Peter Straub, and this is kind of on par with him.) The two employ a very interesting storytelling gambit, narrating the novel as if it were a film and you, the reader, are watching it. So it’s cinematic, but it’s dense writing, so you, as a reader, are alternately held back and propelled forward. Not only that, but it’s relentlessly dark, featuring at its center a serial killer called The Fisherman and some awesomely gruesome death scenes. What’s interesting about this is that it’s also the sequel, after a fashion, to The Talisman, which is a far easier book to read. Whether that makes it a better book is up for debate, however. As with most of these “not yet” books, I will state that Black House is indeed a worthy read, featuring one of King’s (and Straub’s) best and most likable supporting characters. As a bonus, if you’re a Dickens fan, the allusions to Bleak House will be interesting and fun.

Most of the tiny percentage I don’t like about King is in his short-story format (“The Ten O’Clock People,” “My Pretty Pony,” “Beachworld,” “Luckey Quarter”); I can usually find something gripping and readable about even his most difficult novels. These five books – and maybe more – aren’t for everyone, but if you’re a King (oh, and I hate using this word) scholar, you can get something rewarding out of even these. Just wait awhile before you try it.

* * *

Okay, you’re ready to go! Almost every avenue is covered, with the exception of King’s often exemplary nonfiction (very quick note: start with On Writing, head over to Danse Macabre, then read these forewards and afterwards: “Why I Was Bachman,” ‘The Importance of Being Bachman,” and the afterward to Different Seasons. Amazing stuff.)

Good luck and good reading!