Underappreciated literary connoisseur, Scott Woods, has warned that he is putting together his rated guide to the complete works of Stephen King. This has been inspired by the release of the new adaptation of It, which I was invited to go see last night, and which I have also been invited to see tonight but which I'm not likely to get to any time soon.
I'm not a horror guy. Or a fast rides guy. Or a Haunted House guy. But I've read every twentieth century, and most of the early twenty-first century books. And since The Esteemed Mr. Woods has me pondering whether or not to read any of the more recent books, or whether I might want to revisit some of the classics, I present you with the first ten choices from my own rating guide.It's highly subjective, and attached to my memories surrounding the book, as well as the books' literary merit. Caveat emptor.
1. The Gunslinger: My dad's second wife was a lifelong Stephen King fan. She read every book when it came out. Except the Dark Tower books. She refused to read the series until it was finished. I was about seventeen when we had our first conversation about King's work, and I asked how she knew The Gunslinger was going to be the sprawling epic it became, and she admitted that she didn't. But by the time she remembered that she wanted to read it, The Drawing Of The Three had come out, and that's when she made her pledge.
I was in junior high when first read The Gunslinger. I wrote a series of poems about it, the first of which was plagiarized by one of my friends who went to a different school. When, the next year, we attended the same school, and I read my poem at an open mic, an hour after he'd read the same poem at an earlier session of the open mic, we were hauled into the principal's office where I wept like an ill-tended wound at the betrayal, and he called me a liar. The teacher who'd run the open mic told us neither of us should ever submit it to the school lit journal, and we should forget about the poem and work on our friendship. That was the only year I went to that school.
Unlike some other epics, the original version of this book (I haven't read any of the subsequent rereleases, and don't care to) was a self-contained story unlike any of King's other works, and I treasured it, and reread it every time a new volume of The Dark Tower came out, and sometimes reread it on its own. I've read the graphic novel adaptation, and will probably see the movie, though I have very low expectations for it.
2. Different Seasons: Arguably, Stephen King's most literary collection. Three out of the four stories in this book have been made into films. Two of them: Stand By Me (based on "The Body"), and Shawshank Redemption (based on "Rita Hayworth And The Shawshank Redemption") are excellent. One of them: Apt Pupil, based on the story of the same name, is Not At All Watchable.
I don't remember whether I watched Stand By Me before I read "The Body", but I probably did. I definitely read this before Shawshank Redemption.
I don't have many specific memories of the first time I read this book. I bought it from a bookstore that I'll write about more in-depth later. And I remember the owners asking me about it the next week.
Whatever I said must have impressed them because every time I went into the store after that, one or both of them would ask me why I was picking certain books, and how I was liking them. It didn't feel invasive, or like they were market testing me. They seemed really interested in this strange kid who would wander around their store and always buy something while his parents were in the grocery store.
3. The Drawing Of The Three: Still high off the fumes of The Gunslinger, I went and picked up The Drawing Of The Three, the second part of The Dark Tower. Like The Gunslinger, it's a complete story. But, despite some character overlap, it feels like an entirely different genre. It's a fantasy book when we're in Roland's world. It's a 1980s crime book when he encounters The Prisoner. It's story about schizophrenia and civil rights, two things Stephen King doesn't write very well but he's slightly successful with in this volume....slightly, when he meets The Lady Of The Shadows. And it's a coming of age with mental illness story in The Pusher.
While this is more traditionally Stephen-Kingy than The Gunslinger, it's still a fun read, and it made me want more of this series. It's the last book of the series that I consider Truly Great.
The second time I read it was just before The Waste Lands came out, and I was So Full Of Hope for what it would be. You'll note that it's not next on the list.
4. The Shining: I can't be the only person who read the book before I saw the movie. I love them both independently of each other. I saw the movie for the first time in high school, when the dorm I lived in had a Jack-Nicholson Is Crazy-thon watching Batman, A Few Good Men, One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest, cna capping it off with The Shining. Narratively, I would have had a Few Good Men leave the disgraced general to go to The Overlook Hotel and experience The Shining, where he's rescued at the end and redeemed into One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest, but that doesn't hold, and BOOM he's the Joker in Batman.
The most recent time I saw the movie was one of the last times I did hallucinogens, and I was slightly worried about how the film would affect me, but I ended up spending the entire time staring at the hotel's carpets, and missed the plot entirely.
The scene that terrified me in the book that never made it into the movie was the wasps' nest. As a kid who played outside a lot, and was stung repeatedly, I had difficulty reading this part. I was completely convinced it would give me nightmares, but it didn't. It reminded me of a nature trail in my town that we would field trip to every year or so. In the museum/gift shop there was an empty wasp's nest that terrified me. As an adult, I took a date to the nature trail, and he Stepped In A Digger Wasp's Nest right in front of me. I have an old poem about this which is absolutely true. The wasps landed in his hair, and buzzed around him but left me alone (as a contrast, when I was twelve, I stepped in a yellowjacket nest on the ground, and, despite running faster than my compatriots, was the only person who was stung...and I was stung Quite A Bit).
So this book should have utterly terrified me, but I actually enjoyed it as a character study rather than a horror book. I thought about it when, the February Vacation after I read it, my family spent a week in a quiet (but not empty) hotel in Maine.
This book has a lot of flaws, but it captivated me when I was younger, and it's flaws (mainly the Magical Negro trope) were done out of ignorance, not malice, and I'm willing to excuse them in his earlier works in a way that I can't when the time came that he Should Have Known Better.
5. It: This was the first book I ever read by Stephen King. My family was on our way to vacation in Florida, and my parents were willing to buy anything to keep me entertained. The problem was that I'd read all the children and young adult books in the airport store, so I picked up It.
This must have amused them. I'd been terrified of Gremlins, and Nightmare On Elm Street, and the horror movies that my friends liked. I was ten and had no room in my life for horror. During this vacation, I would cement my fear of roller coasters on Disney's Big Thunder Mountain Railroad. But I read that book from cover to cover.
I hadn't finished it during vacation, so I brought it in to read during Reading Time. The girls in my class noticed it first, and said there was Sex Stuff in it (I knew!) and I shouldn't read it, so the told my teacher, Miss Markarian. She asked what my parents would think of me reading such a book. And I told her they bought it for me. Thus, she let me read it in class, but wouldn't let me allow anyone else to borrow it.
The sex parts didn't really interest me. Nor was I mature enough to understand that The Losers Club was a bunch of traumatized kids from a community not unlike mine. The appeal of a group of outsiders facing some cosmic monster that was sometimes a spider and sometimes a clown fascinated me. It wasn't until I read it as an adult when I went "Uhh...why are these kids having a gangbang to celebrate killing a monster? This is...kind of messed up." As a kid, it flew right over my head.
6. The Dark Half was the second Stephen King book I ever finished. I wrote a ton of short stories and journaled fairly religiously when I was a kid. So the idea that you could excise a part of you that created a type of art you were uncomfortable with fascinated me.
I think my parents assumed that my choosing It had been a fluke of availability, so they were probably a little taken aback when I bought this the year it came out.
I had tried The Eyes Of The Dragon and The Talisman between It and Dark Half, and I believe my parents thought the books had been too frightening for me. Actually, they both bored me. This was the book that made me pick up Dead Zone and The Gunslinger, and follow down the dark, winding road of Stephen King books.
7. Needful Things: I haven't gone back and reread this since I was a teenager.
There was a book store that opened up in the plaza where my parents did their grocery shopping when I was fourteen. It's where I bought Misery, Tommyknockers, Different Seasons, The Stand, and Four Past Midnight.
I wasn't their first ever customer, but I think I was the first Avid Reader Kid they encountered. It was a British couple who owned the store, and they loved talking to me. And they loved how much money I spent there, as I didn't JUST buy Stephen King books there.
One week, I was feeling pretty down. I had gone into the pet store to check out hamsters, and at some point, I'd picked up a shaker full of fish food for my aquarium and stuffed it in my pocket, not realizing I hadn't paid for it until I was out in the parking lot. I was shook, and trying to figure out what to do. I loved that pet shop and not only didn't want to get caught shoplifting from them, I didn't want them to lose money from my mistake. So I went into the bookstore to figure out my next step.
The woman saw me come in and said "Oh good, you're here! I have a present for you." and went into the back.
I was expecting the cops to come out and drag me out in cuffs.
Instead, she handed me an autographed copy of Stephen King's new book Needful Things. It wasn't just autographed. It was personalized. To me. She and her husband had been at a book convention, had the opportunity to meet him, and had him sign a book to me. I cried So Hard.
I did get a little skeezed out reading the book when it turned out to be a shop owner who trades people their desires in exchange for "mysterious deeds". I wondered what they wanted from me.
The next week I went in, bought some more books, and also sneakily returned the unopened fish food to the pet store and then purchased it.
There is a creepy dream sequence involving a twelve year old boy's sexual relationship with one of his teachers that inspired me to write several Also Creepy erotic short stories that, thankfully, have been lost forever and ever.
8. 'salem's Lot: My confession for this book is that I didn't finish it the first time I read it. I had been reading The Vampire Chronicles by Anne Rice (which was a trilogy at that point) and I decided I didn't care about vampire stories.
So, shortly after vampires were revealed to be a part of this book, I stopped reading it.
I didn't pick it back up until I was reading Wolves Of Callah over a decade later, and they referenced one of the characters from 'salem's Lot, so I put that book down and went back and actually read 'salem's Lot and loved it in a way I might not have as a teenager, even if I'd bothered finishing it.
I'm not big on religion in the same way that I'm not super into vampire stories. But I love a good Loss Of Faith tale, particularly when it's not resolved.
I spent about an hour talking about this book with a roommate who didn't read very often, but had read 'salem's Lot as a teenager, and had a lot of thoughts about it. I convinced him he should read The Dark Tower series, ad he initially liked it, but got bored during the fourth book, and so never made it to see how 'salem's Lot came into play.
9. The Stand: I read this the same summer I read Les Miserables. Those were, The Only Books I Read That Summer. In a parallel universe, I am still reading this book. M-O-O-N that spells Fucken Long Ass Book.
There are a ton of tropes in this book that I didn't pick up when I was a teenager. That's probably for the best.
What I loved was the world building, and I remember being surprised that when I finished reading this, I still wanted More.
So when The Dark Tower series crossed over into the world that The Stand had set up, I was overjoyed. It was when I first realized that King was building a Universe. Sure, a bunch of his earlier books had taken place in the same towns (usually in Maine), but this was Different. Something amazing was happening in The Dark Tower, and it was going to be tied into this book that I had wanted to be Somehow Longer.
I was also considering becoming a Deaf Education Major, and working with Deaf Children when this book came out, so I was excited that there was a Deaf character in this book. I remember explaining that to a Deaf friend and having him reply by making the Universal Whoopty-Doo sign with his index finger.
10. The Dead Zone: If I've learned anything from comic books and Stephen King novels, it's that Having Powers sucks. There's always some cosmic or karmic price tag. "Oh, hey, you can see terrible things in the future, but that power is slowly killing you, and you only realized you had it after a prolonged coma." Yeesh.
I think much of why I liked this was that I was just beginning to distrust politicians as I was reading this, and the idea that a despicable man would have risen to power and destroyed the world, only to be stopped when he's exposed as a coward (he uses a child as a human shield during an assassination attempt), just sat really well with me.
If you're fairly certain your congressperson wouldn't gladly use a poor, minority child as a human shield to prolong their ghoulish existence, congratulations, you're probably delusional.
To be....continued. (But hopefully you won't have to wait as long as I had to wait between Wastelands and Wizard & Glass.)