I am a Stephen King fan. In other words, water is wet, the sun sets in the west and Batman is better than Superman…ok, kidding on that last part…maybe.
I am a constant Constant Reader. I have read most of his works, except for a very few. I have even read much of the work of poor Richard Bachman, which has made me sympathetic to those who suffer from cancer of the pseudonym…maybe we can all dump buckets of water on our head to raise awareness for that. Ok, I am kidding again…
With all of this being said, I have compiled a list of King’s top 10 works, ranking from good to really good to THE BEST IN THE WORLD. This list is my opinion only and will
probably hopefully incur some argument and controversy. So here it goes:
Yes, I am going there. I know this was only published in November of 2014. But I was sufficiently impressed with it. In the past, a work such as Rose Madder or maybe even Carrie may have occupied this spot. However, I was impressed enough with Revival to bump those two off the list (for now, at any rate).
This book deals with faith, addiction and the mystery of what happens when we die. The two main characters, Jamie Morton and Charles Jacobs, are drawn out extremely well and are very sympathetic. King displays not only his ability to portray ordinary people in extraordinary situations, but also his ability to write about the ordinary and make it memorable. I will not say too much more about Revival since I don’t want to include too many spoilers, but it has earned its spot on this list.
I thought that nothing could top The Stand in terms of dystopian literature (King or otherwise). And really, nothing does. However, if anything is going to come close, Cell would fit the bill.
In many ways, Cell looks no different from the zombie films and TV that become so popular as of late, such as The Walking Dead. In Cell, a mysterious signal, referred to as The Pulse, is sent to all cell phones one fine fall afternoon. The Pulse turns its victims into vicious zombie like creatures, who do disgusting things, like tear limbs off of their fellow humans (or zombies) with their bare teeth or tear their own eyeballs out. In other words, it’s pretty typical of the zombie genre.
But, there is a twist. As usual, King manages to make this his own. The strength in Cell is that King draws out several characters, zombie and non-zombie alike, that have depth and make us care deeply for them. And he turns the monsters loose, as quite a few of these characters meet an untimely demise. And its unclear which is more terrifying: the head of the zombies, who is known as the Raggedy Man and is the major Big Bad in the book, or how the “normies” (those not affected by The Pulse) react towards their fellow humans. It is a classic tale of man’s inhumanity to man, but modernized and set squarely in the King Universe.
And there is a great reference to The Dark Tower series at the end of the book, in the form of a train that has a suspicious resemblance to our favorite psychotic, sentient monorail, known as Blaine.
However, many may not be so familiar with King’s work Needful Things. Needful Things is set in Castle Rock, a familiar location to the Constant Reader, as it is also the setting for stories such as Dead Zone, The Dark Half and The Sun Dog. Needful Things was meant to be “the last Castle Rock story” and King delivers on that. Castle Rock is sent off in typical, gruesome King style. In other words, the send-off is honorable.
Needful Things deals with a small shop opened by a mysterious owner, Leland Gaunt. It quickly becomes apparent that Gaunt operates as a supernatural version of Gordon Gekko. He has anything that the casual shopper dreams of…but for a price. Gaunt trades the desired items for vicious pranks played on unsuspecting victims, and soon the entire town is in an uproar. Gaunt also takes “greed is good” to a whole new level, as he causes misery and collects human souls as his bounty. Needful Things was meant to be a metaphor for the materialism that was rampant in the 1980’s. King does a wonderful job taking this metaphor to a gruesome level, but never losing the humanity that is so present in his works.
I am also a fan of Lord of the Rings. In reading Insomnia, it is apparent that King is as well, as he pays homage to Tolkien and his work throughout the entire book. There is even a ring that takes on significance in the story.
Insomnia centers around a man named Ralph Roberts. Ralph is a typical King character in some ways but not so typical in others. The most striking way that Ralph veers away from the typical King characters is that he is an elderly, widowed man in his late 60’s. Many readers are turned off by the fact that the book centers around Ralph and his elderly friends, but it is really one of the strengths of the book. King portrays the trials of aging with sensitivity and grace, and even a little humor. This is not something accomplished very often, especially by a writer known for horror, but King is able to pull it off.
In the book, Ralph is afflicted with insomnia. If that weren’t bad enough, he begins to see another level of reality that causes him to question his sanity. However, Ralph soon realizes that insomnia and his visions are really the least of his problems. He is one of the pawns in a powerful game of chess, and much like Frodo in Lord of the Rings, he must make a decision and do what is right, or the consequences will be beyond disastrous. Ralph does indeed step up, and the saga that plays out is worthy of Tolkien and his saga of hobbits, dwarves and elves, although Insomnia (mostly) consists of ordinary humans called upon to take on extraordinary tasks.
If you could go back in time, would you change the past? More importantly, should you change the past? This is a theme explored time and time again in both film and literature, with varying perspectives. 11/22/63 is King’s unique take on this subject and provides much food for thought.
The protagonist in 11/22/63 is Jake Epping. Jake is someone born in 1976. He is far removed from the subject of the JFK assassination, like much of my generation. However, he is provided with an opportunity to travel back to 1958 where he can begin the process of attempting to change history. King’s portrayal of Jake and the people he meets on his journey is beautiful. King also takes Lee Harvey Oswald, a major figure from US history that most of us only know in an academic sense, and turns him into a convincing character in the King universe. This would be just one reason why this book is on my list at number six, and why this book has received so many accolades from critics and the public alike.
There is also a nice little Easter egg in 11/22/63. Part of the book takes place in Derry (a major part of the King universe) and Jake runs into none other than Beverly Marsh and Richie Tozier. Beverly and Richie, as any King fan knows, are two of the main characters in It. This Easter egg is just one of many King uses to reinforce the idea of the Stephen King universe.
5) Salem’s Lot
Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Interview with the Vampire. The Vampire Diaries. Even (*shudder*) Twilight. These are all titles we make think of when we think of the modern vampire. However, these titles, along with many others, owe an enormous debt to the next book on the list: Salem’s Lot.
King spent much time toying with idea of the modern vampire. He was not convinced that Dracula could be terrifying in a place such as New York City. However, he hit upon the idea of placing Dracula in Small Town, USA. And then Salem’s Lot was born.
It is in Salem’s Lot that King shows his ability to juxtapose the mundane and supernatural, with spectacular results. The description of the town and its inhabitants are something we are all familiar with. King is not afraid to show the unflattering aspects of the inhabitants’ characters either, making us question who is more frightening: the mother who cruelly abuses her infant son or the vampire that descends upon the small town, with the intent to enslave as many of the townsfolk as he can. King also places children in precarious situations in this work, reinforcing the idea that children and adults really do live in separate worlds, and that children are the stronger ones most of the time. This is a theme that will resurface in many of his later works, often with a vengeance.
King considered writing a sequel to Salem’s Lot. The sequel never materialized. However, Father Donald Callahan, the damned priest last seen fleeing town in Salem’s Lot, resurfaces in Wolves of the Calla (book 5 of The Dark Tower series) of all places. We get a backstory on Father Callahan and a resolution to that story that is quite satisfying.
4) The Shining
I struggled with The Shining. More specifically, I struggled where to rank The Shining on my list. But since I (and many others) have lived so many of the events in this book, it deserves to be ranked at number 4.
We all know the horror elements of The Shining (kudos to Stanley Kubrick). Even non-King fans giggle at the mention of “redrum” and are frightened of the portrayal of Jack Torrance, courtesy of Jack Nicholson (thank you again, Stanley Kubrick). However, at its core, The Shining is a story about family. More specifically, it is a story about family sticking together through thick and thin, wanting to provide for one’s family and the unshakeable bond shared by parents and children. And it is also a story about the deterioration of family. DIVORCE is something that is frequently discussed in the book, especially from the perspective of five year old Danny Torrance. The visions experienced by Danny are not nearly as frightening as DIVORCE and the collapse of his family. Of course, once King builds up the tension with his portrayal of the family unit, he unleashes the ghosts that inhabit the cursed Overlook Hotel. The payoff is satisfying and frightening (who can forget the spirit of the lustful old woman in Room 217) but we are saddened at the end, as the family unit is broken and will never be fixed.
3) The Dark Tower series
King said that the Dark Tower is really one long book. So I am including all eight books and ranking it at number 3 on my list.
King has frequently reminded us that all of his books, from Insomnia to the tales of abused women to the tale of the little boy with supernatural powers, are all tied into the Dark Tower series in some fashion. He has often referred to The Dark Tower as his Jupiter. And a Jupiter it is indeed, both in the sheer size (again, eight books) and the content of the books.
The Dark Tower series starts out with Roland Deschain in his travels across a desert landscape. The world is eerily similar to our own, but is not quite our own. As Roland’s journey progresses it becomes more and more evident that Roland’s world is a dystopian mirror of our own world but is not our world. Roland starts off as a hardened man. Nothing will stop him in his quest to seek The Dark Tower, the nexus of all creation. He is even willing to let a child die. He kills an entire town, which includes men, women and children, because they are a detriment to his quest. However, as the books progress, we see more and more humanity in Roland. He is given friends to aid his quest. He even takes on a lover. He helps a village that has their children stolen once every generation. He suffers from enormous losses as well, as members of his tet are sacrificed in his quest, one by one. However, Roland continues to persevere in his quest to seek the Tower. And we are left wondering, when will Roland finally be rewarded in his quest for truth? Or is he doomed to remain in purgatory for all eternity, because he continues to make mistakes in his quest and is never able to satisfy whatever higher power is in control of his life? The Dark Tower has everything we come to expect in a fantasy series: an anti-hero, a daunting quest, frightening villains, even doomed love affairs. But The Dark Tower is a wonderful metaphor of how we may make mistakes in our lives, but none of us are ever beyond redemption. And this is why it is the third best King book of all time.
Childhood is hell. I have said this over and over. Matt Groening has discussed this topic at length as well. Many would agree on this. But once again, Stephen King takes this concept to a new level in his book titled It.
It takes place in Derry, Maine. In many ways, Derry is postcard perfect. It is a biggish small town in Maine. It’s not rural, but it is far away from the problems faced by more urban areas. Or so we think.
In fact, Derry is far from normal. The murder rate is extremely high. The disappearances and murders of children are even more troubling. There is evil at work in Derry, and it takes the form of a clown named Pennywise. In the summer of 1958, seven children form a club that they term the Losers Club. The children find friendship in each other and protection from the town’s bullies. More importantly, they team together to attempt to destroy the creature known as Pennywise. The seven children are able to hurt this supernatural creature and stop the killings of children, which occur approximately every 27 years or so, prematurely. However, they are unable to destroy Pennywise on their first attempt. Twenty seven years later, in 1985, the children are adults with little to no memory of the events of that terrible summer. However, they are forced to reunite, in another attempt to destroy Pennywise, who has announced his presence by the way of more murders of children. The adults have shed their pasts as Losers and take care of business the second time around in spectacular fashion, although it is accomplished at a high cost.
It has earned its place as number on this list. Pennywise has haunted many a nightmare and the imagery in this book makes it a worthwhile read on its own merit. However, King also tackles issues such as child abuse, spousal abuse, bullying and intolerances of differences in general. He is able to weave all of these themes into a book about the monsters that frighten children and do it in a convincing manner. This is just one of many reasons why so fans proclaim It to be their favorite King book.
Finally, we are on to the number one Stephen King book (in my opinion only) of all time…drum roll please…here it is!
Dystopian literature has enjoyed resurgence in recent years. Works such as The Hunger Games, The Giver and Divergent are great examples. But no one can do dystopian literature better than King, and The Stand is proof of that.
The beginning of The Stand is frightening enough. The government creates a bio weapon capable of killing 99.99% of the population. The weapon is a flu virus. Due to an accident, the virus escapes. The result is that most of the world’s population is killed. Hardly anyone is spared, not even the horses and dogs. The remaining survivors are left to pick up the pieces and wonder about the survival of the human race.
King does a great job leaving us wondering about the survival of the human race. But he is not done. The survivors are plagued with nightmares about a dark man, capable of horrible acts. But they are also dreaming of an elderly woman in the cornfields of Nebraska. Soon, the survivors begin to gravitate to one of two places: Boulder, CO, on the side of The White, represented by the elderly lady, or to Las Vegas, NV, to the side of the dark man, who represents evil. A showdown soon results, in classic good vs. evil fashion, as the dark man and the survivors who represent the good battle for control of a post-apocalyptic world.
The Stand consists of unforgettable characters. We have Larry Underwood, a recovering drug addict struggling to do right by his lover and adopted child. There is Stu Redman, a quiet man from Texas thrust into the role of a leader. We have the elderly woman known as Mother Abagail, the granddaughter of a slave who is chosen to represent good. And then there are the misguided souls drawn to the side of evil. There is Trashcan Man, a pyromaniac is perhaps the most sympathetic villain in the King Universe. We also have Rat Man and Ace High. All are unforgettable characters in their own ways.
The main villain of The Stand is Randall Flagg. Flagg deserves specific mention. He is not only able to wreak havoc in The Stand, but is also able to cause trouble for Roland and his friends in The Dark Tower series. Flagg crops up in many other King works, including Hearts in Atlantis and Eyes of the Dragon. Flagg is the ultimate uber villain, and is just part of what makes The Stand such a good journey.
The Stand may be a lengthy book, but we are left with the feeling the story was told too quickly at the end. The characters (both good and bad) stay with us forever. We are rooting for humanity to survive and hopefully not repeat its mistakes. The Stand is timeless, and will continue to remain timeless for a long, long time.
And there you have it. My top ten Stephen King books. Some may be unconventional, but I feel every book deserves a place on this list. Agree or disagree with me in the comments below!