I have Stephen King listed as a “like” on Facebook. So when Stephen King shared this Buzzfeed list of 11 Essential Stephen King books, I was all over it. The author, Richard Thomas, has created a solid list, and his reasoning for including each book is fairly legit. I’m very glad he included one of Stephen King’s short story collections, Night Shift, because Stephen King’s earlier short stories are some of his best stories ever. I feel like maybe ‘Salem’s Lot is not even the 11th greatest book out of all Stephen King’s books (see this Tor piece on some of the reasons why) but I think it’s a classic King book, so maybe it deserves to be in the honourable mention list, at least.
I ALSO like that he added The Dark Tower (the series as a whole) dead last. I do think the series is great, but I don’t think that it should eclipse the rest of Stephen King’s work. I believe it should be read after one finishes the “essentials” — I feel like the hypothetical reader will appreciate him more as a writer this way.
Clearly I have ridiculously strong feelings about this.
That said, here is my own list of the top ten essential Stephen King books… I wrote this in 2006, when I was 20, and posted it on my angsty Livejournal. I still think 20-year-old me had pretty good taste in books, if not in romantic partners or clothing or hair or life choices. The list:
10. the long walk
07. danse macabre
06. on writing
05. the green mile
04. the stand
03. night shift
02. dolores claiborne
01. the shining
Looking back on it, I feel like my list is still solid and I’m glad that it mostly overlaps with the Buzzfeed guy’s list because it reassures me that my taste in things is not too terrible. I think any newbie just approaching King’s work would end up getting a lot out of this list, no matter who they are.
Can I also just say that the Bachman books are incredible? I had already read Thinner and The Long Walk ages ago, but I finished Roadwork, Rage and The Running Man in February, and I was blown away. It’s next level, that shit. If you are a newbie, definitely try to get these if you can. I believe that the collection titled The Bachman Books is out of print, but I’ve found several copies at Value Village over the years. I guess you could also try Ebay.
But like my love life, my taste in books has become less ridiculous and emo as I approach 30, and is now relatively deep, mature and refined (I like to think so, anyway). And since I constantly reread Stephen King books from my youth, I keep finding new things to love about stories I didn’t appreciate fully in the past. If I were to make this top ten list all over again, in 2014, I might include some of the following books instead:
Rage. It was a banned book, so it has badass street cred. It’s fascinatingly Freudian. It’s about school shootings, which was something that has impacted me a lot, having gone through high school in the Age of Columbine. It might not make you really get why something as horrifying as, say, Columbine or Virginia Tech or Sandy Hook had to happen. I don’t think anyone gets that, and the main character of this book isn’t crazy enough to want to kill defenseless children and teenagers anyway. But it is an interesting glimpse into the perspective of someone who perpetuates random acts of violence, a look back at what might have turned their brain and made them think this was the way to go.
I feel like someone might get mad at me for recommending that others read this book. But I have read it several times and I don’t think it necessarily glorifies school shootings or violence any more than, say, Gus Van Sant’s Elephant does. I also think that our culture is totally desensitized to violence anyway, since we are inundated with violence in movies and tv and video games, so I wonder if it would even register on people’s radar anymore. Not to mention that any bad shit you could ever want to see is all available online. All of that is far more likely to influence a disturbed young mind than this book ever could.
I do find it hard to relate to, because I attended high school in the early 2000s, not the early ’70s. As a result, I can’t really understand mix-and-match sweater sets or why smoking indoors would even be an desirable thing (seriously, I smoked for a decade, but I hate going to bars in Alaska for that very reason. What are your lungs even made of, Alaskan people?) so there is a bit of a disconnect that comes with trying to relate to my parent’s versions of pop culture and ~the High School Experience~ as it existed forty years ago. But it is fascinating, nonetheless. If things like the Milgram experiment are interesting to you, then you will probably love this book.
Tommyknockers. Maybe my taste in things is just plain terrible, but I absolutely love this book and everyone else seems to hate it. I keep hearing people complain that it is stupid because the premise is ludicrous, blah blah blah, alien takeover from within, so unrealistic, who ever finds a giant alien ship in the ground? To that I say, vampires and zombies are also unrealistic and stupid as a concept, when you really think about it. But they have their own goddamn industry spawning millions of books and movies and action figures/creepy dolls and probably porn, and also cripplingly bad fanfic on the internet. Vampires are why 50 Shades of Grey exists — it was a Twilight fanfic. Vampire legends are probably acceptable to so many people because they have just been kicking around the human collective consciousness for much longer than aliens, even though they have been stupid for antiquity. Maybe it’s just that fervent belief in UFOs and such seems to be reserved for an extra special class of crazy people, and people associate Tommyknockers with that. But I feel like maybe we should all just place our tinfoil hats and crucifixes aside and focus on the things that bring us together, not the things that divide us.
I love the town of Haven, all the quirky characters, the crazy town history, and that one part of the woods where compasses don’t work and even the savviest of hunters will get lost. (I think that the town of Haven kind of inspired my love of tiny one-industry towns full of weirdos and possibly A Dark Secret, which is probably why I live where I live today.) I love King’s humour that shines through so often in this book. I love little kids’ magic tricks, and doting yet ineffective grandfathers. I love the relationship between Bobbi and Gard, and both of their downward spirals spiralling downward at the same time but in completely different and massively fucked up ways. I love the way that the entire thing is a crazy treatise on sustainable energy, or what unsustainable energy might do to us, and about dependency on different systems of power. I LOVE THE FREAKY DOLLS, OKAY. There is so much to love for the true horror fan.
11/22/63. I feel like this is one of those novels that can appeal to everyone, even if you’re not normally a King fan or a horror fan. It’s really good. It’s SO GOOD. It’s maybe not a classic, so I don’t know if it gets to be part of the canon of Essential Stephen King the way Carrie or The Stand would be. Essential Stephen King books are books that have hugely influenced North American popular culture to the point that people repeat shit like “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy” over and over without even knowing those phrases came from. I think 11/22/63 is too new to be one of those books yet, if it will ever be.
But you should still read it.
First, it’s just really interesting. Some of the paradoxes that result are just mind-blowing, though there were some parts that didn’t grab me (ie. the part where they were magically in Canada, and Canada apparently sucked. Or maybe the world just totally sucked and Canada was simply the last place where any vestiges of an organized society still remained). Secondly, I am hugely intrigued by the Yellow Card Man (and his replacement) and the implications that he represents in the Stephen King universe. I want to say so much about this book, but I don’t want to ruin it for someone who hasn’t read it. So just trust me on it, it’s pretty cool. Thirdly, there’s a love story that makes you ache when it’s all over. I like that the love story is realistic and not gross, and that the protagonist’s girlfriend is a far more well-rounded person than, say, Susan in ‘Salem’s Lot. Actually, ALL off the characters were fairly well-rounded, and I really cared about all of them. Fourthly, there are horrific moments in it, but it’s not really a horror novel… just a really really good book. And lastly, it has some clever links to some of King’s other books, but they’re subtle (and, thus, all the more exciting for King fans in my opinion) rather than head-bangingly obvious like the ones in Insomnia.
The Running Man. It’s classic motherfucking dystopian fiction. It’s just riveting. You need it in your life. That is all.
Skeleton Crew. I believe this might be one of my favourite books, ever. I think the stories are more original than some of the ones in Night Shift, but far more interesting than those in Four Past Midnight. It contains “The Mist”, which is amazing, and I KNOW you’ve heard of or seen the movie, so it’s worth reading the original novella. It also happens to contain three of my most favourite short stories ever in life — “Mrs. Todd’s Shortcut”, “The Jaunt”, and “The Raft”. These stories are the reason I ever started writing in the first place, and why I started reading short stories by other writers. It remains one of my favourite mediums. I have Stephen King to thank for it.
Roadwork. Dude’s mental breakdown and the resultant spiral into insane acts of horrific violence is really riveting to read. But even more interesting is to plot his other emotional swings — the crushing loneliness, the euphoria and thrill of just not giving a fuck about your life’s stability anymore, the bizarre reality of being totally high — and this book contains the most accurate depiction of tripping fucking balls that I have EVER read. I also feel like this is a great example of fiction (much like Rage) that can make the reader sympathize with people who do horrific, crazy things. If you are a King reader and all of his fiction after the year 2000 is making you depressed, you should pick this one up. It’s a bit darker and grittier than the things he writes now. I feel like once you get past the first few chapters of this book, you will be hooked. It’s worth it.
Desperation. This book is linked to another King book, The Regulators, but trying to describe the ways that these two books mirror, mimic and complement each other would be difficult to explain. I would probably tell people to read both only because it’s fun to note all the ways that he linked the two together. However, I feel that The Regulators only exists because Desperation exists. Desperation is a much stronger book and you will enjoy it even if you never open the other one as long as you live.
I feel like this book is such a remarkable departure from work King did in the 80’s. I love all the details in this book — the physical effects of demonic possession, Tak’s figurines, the animals, the backstory behind the whole thing. It’s a bit apocalyptic, in the sense that it employs that “small group of flawed humans in a bleak world fighting powerful evil” plot setup that King likes so much. But Desperation employs this in a far less deranged way than The Regulators does, and the story is slightly more plausible. Like, as plausible as demonic possession from the depths of a mine can really get. Also, I read this book right around the time I started becoming interested in mining history. I also started spending my winter breaks visiting my friends who lived in the desert and, like, having magical spirit quests among the saguaro cacti in the Sonoran Desert. So to have these powerful themes both being represented in this book in a huge way made this one an instant favourite.
Misery. This made it into Richard Thomas’s honourable mentions list, and it definitely makes mine, but I sometimes wonder if I shouldn’t put it into the top ten, instead. It’s one of those gripping thrillers that you literally cannot put down. It’s so well done. It’s the perfect trifecta of horror, terror, and just plain fucking gross. The scene where Annie hobbles Paul is a scene that will stay with me until I die. In fact, it’s been years and years since I read the book, and I’m STILL getting weird sympathy pains as I write this, and I’m cringing just from thinking about it.
Misery is also notable in that there is no paranormal or supernatural or magic or sci fi element to it. It’s just one crazy woman who forces someone into a crazy situation. This book takes you deep down into the depths of the human mind. It’s a completely psychological novel and it’s just plain scary. It deserves to be a horror classic. This is one of the books that makes people call Stephen King “The Master of Horror.”
So that’s how I feel about that. Feel free to argue with this in the comments, if you like. Did you hate any of these books? Love them? Do you think there’s another writer out there whose better at writing scenes in which the characters are tripping fucking balls? Are you my long-lost soulmate who also believes that Tommyknockers is a novel of high quality that should be read by everyone? Or perhaps you think I’ve overlooked one of Stephen King’s many masterpieces. Definitely let me know.