A Beginner's Guide to Stephen King

“Who’s your favourite author?”

It’s a question I get asked on a regular basis, often by people who have little or no interest in reading, but who feel that the fact that I’m reading in public is a great excuse to start a conversation (and that’s a whooooole other rant). When I answer the question – and the answer has remained unchanged since I discovered Stephen King at the tender age of twelve – reactions vary from the non-committal “huh”, through the “I’ve read some of his stuff and/or watched some of his movies” to the uncommon “finally! A fellow fan!”. But the reaction I get most often is the good old “ugh! He’s a bit too scary for me”. So, here I am, ready to set the world straight.

Stephen King has been publishing books for just over forty years. Yes, the vast majority of the books he has published are, in some shape or form, horror novels, but if you look more closely at the huge list of works that he has produced, you’ll find that he can, by no means, be pigeonholed as a “horror writer” (not that there is anything wrong with being a horror writer, don’t get me wrong!). There is something for everyone in the impressive King canon; without doubt, there is a tendency towards darkness, but more often than not any horror we encounter is less of the supernatural variety, and more of the everyday horrific. Littered with pop culture references and a tangled knot of self-references, Stephen King holds a mirror up to modern society, and shows us the ugly nooks and crannies that we like to ignore, despite the fact that they’re as obvious as the noses on our collective faces.

The list below – ten novels, novellas and short stories, and one extra bonus bundle, as it were – cover a broad range of King’s work. It’s not a list of my favourite King books, a list that changes with the wind, nor am I making any claims that they are the best things you’ll ever read (though I’m confident some of them will be fairly high on the list), but it’s a good place to start. Where you go from there is up to you.

Where it all started – Carrie

In April 1974, Stephen King published his first novel, the story of a young girl with telekinetic powers and a crazy religious mother. Carrie White is probably best known in her Sissy Spacek incarnation from Brian de Palma’s 1976 film adaptation, but King’s ability to write a story is evident from the beginning. He gets inside the mind of this young woman and shows us the world from her point of view, showcasing his uncanny ability to get under the skin of his characters – normal people who might live next door – and understand their problems and worries, as mundane as they often are.

Carrie makes it onto this list purely because it’s where the phenomenon started. It is by no means Stephen King’s best book, but for those looking to start at the very beginning, this is the place for you.

{To celebrate the fortieth anniversary of the book’s publication, I asked King fans from the world of publishing to consider the importance of this slim novel, both for themselves, and for the publishing world at large. The results can be found here.}

Vampires! And no angst! – ‘Salem’s Lot

Vampires are so passé! It’s all Anne Rice’s fault. And Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Twilight was just the final nail in the coffin. But let’s go back to 1975 when vampires weren’t angsty, love-struck teenage stand-ins, back when Dracula was still the first word in vampire fiction.

In this innocent world, King introduced us to the inhabitants of ‘Salem’s Lot, a small town in Maine that was soon to become the victim of one Kurt Barlow, an ancient creature with an insatiable thirst for blood. It cemented his fledgling reputation as a writer of horror fiction. More importantly, it frightened the bejeezus out of us: these are vampires that pose a real threat, whose only reason for existing is to drink blood and grow their numbers.

As with his first novel, ‘Salem’s Lot is probably better known for its screen adaptation – this time at the hands of horror maestro Tobe Hooper – than for the source material, but both succeed in what is most important from a horror novel: making us uneasy, and keeping us up at night, with visions of a small boy tapping at the bedroom window, fangs barely glimpsed behind the angelic smile on a demon’s face.

Don’t let the modern incarnation of these fearsome beasties put you off reading a book that is still one of the finest vampire novels ever written.

‘Why do I always get a cold when I read this one?’ – The Stand

Captain Trips. For anyone who has ever read Stephen King’s post-apocalyptic masterpiece, the name is enough to strike fear in the heart, and put you out of action with flu-like symptoms for the week or two that it takes to read the book.

When an engineered virus is unleashed on America, the vast majority of the population are wiped out. Those who remain find themselves drawn inexorably to one of two factions: Mother Abigail, the symbol of all that is good in the world, becomes the figurehead of the Boulder Free Zone, while Randall Flagg, the evil head of a rival group who have set up headquarters in Las Vegas.

The Stand is an old-fashioned good-versus-evil story set in a wonderfully-realised post-apocalyptic America. Not satisfied with destroying most of the world with his comically-named virus – Captain Trips, indeed – King examines the evil within humanity as he slowly takes apart the world’s few survivors.

Originally published in 1978, The Stand was re-released as a “Complete and Uncut Edition” in 1990. While either edition is a good starting place, King took advantage of the re-release to update the story’s time-frame and pop culture references, so it may appeal more to a modern audience. It’s also a lot easier to find.

‘By Stephen King? Really?’ – Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption

The Shawshank Redemption is every Stephen King fan’s trump card when it comes to the “horror writer” argument. Based on King’s novella, “Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption”, Frank Darabont’s masterful film adaptation shows Stephen King at the height of his – un-supernatural – storytelling abilities.

“Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption” is the first of four novellas from his collection, Different Seasons (a remarkable collection that also gave us the inspiration behind Rob Reiner’s Stand By Me (“The Body”) and Bryan Singer’s Apt Pupil (“Apt Pupil”), and tells the story of Andy Dufresne’s  imprisonment for the murder of his wife and her lover. Whilst in Shawshank, Andy meets and befriends Red, a man who can get anything you need. Almost thirty years later, Andy disappears, taking the secrets – and the dirty proceeds – of the corrupt warden with him. Linda Ronstadt hides the secret of Andy’s daring escape, though she is only the latest of a long line of pinups which began with the eponymous Rita Hayworth.

Both novella and film are beautiful, engaging works. The most fascinating thing for me is how, once you have seen the film, you will always hear Morgan Freeman’s voice as you read Red’s narrative in King’s source work.

 

Controversial adaptations – The Mist

“The Mist”, the novella that opens King’s second short story collection, 1985’s Skeleton Crew, is the first King work I ever read. Perhaps for this reason, it sticks clearly in my mind, a horrifying story of a man and his young son trapped in a supermarket by a monster-hiding pea-souper.

In its own right, “The Mist” is one of the best pieces of horror fiction I’ve ever had the pleasure to read. Despite the unknown monstrosity’s lurking outside the supermarket doors, it is the inner horror that captivates the reader and makes us understand that the mist itself is nothing but an isolating device, something to kick start the darkness that inevitably lurks amidst groups of frightened, helpless people.

Who can forget Mrs Carmody, the religious zealot who sees the mist as a sign from God, a sign that he requires sacrifice as atonement for humanity’s most heinous sins? Or the tension as group after dwindling group make a break for freedom, with no idea what awaits them beyond the supermarket’s doors?

Like Shawshank, The Mist found its way to the big screen under the loving hand of Frank Darabont. Despite being one of the finest film adaptations of King’s work, it is also the most controversial, which comes in a brief second, moments before the film’s end. If King’s novella was horrific, Darabont’s minor tweak raises things to a whole new level. In this reader’s humble opinion, it’s a stroke of sheer genius and shows that King and Darabont are a match made in heaven (or is it Hell?).

King does Young Adult – The a Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon

In 1999, King produced a short novel about a young girl, Trisha, who gets lost in the woods during a family hiking trip. Short on food and water, Trisha’s only connection with the world beyond the trees is her Walkman, which she uses to get news about the search for her, and to listen to the baseball game featuring her favourite player, Tom Gordon.

By today’s standards, The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon would fall neatly into the Young Adult category (a notion not dispelled by the production of a beautiful pop-up version of the book). It follows Trisha’s days-long trek through the woods, showing the young girl’s resilience in the face of the terror of being lost, and feeling hunted, in an alien environment.

Not to mention Fantasy – The Eyes of the Dragon

King has tackled fantasy a number of times, most notably in his all-encompassing Dark Tower series (more on this later) and his first collaboration with Peter Straub, The Talisman, but it’s his 1984 novel, The Eyes of the Dragon that comes closest to classic fantasy.

Structured like a fairy-tale, The Eyes of the Dragon has much in common – including locations and characters – with his Dark Tower world, but it is notable for giving us another in-depth look at his key antagonist, Randall Flagg, the Dark Man, whom we first met in 1978’s The Stand, and who turns up again and again, in many different guises, throughout the years and the stories.

If you’re not a fantasy person, or you’ve been daunted by the sheer size of King’s Dark Tower series, The Eyes of the Dragon acts as a taster that shows that King’s blend of fantasy may not necessarily be what you expect.

Fear of clowns? Not me! *shudder* – IT

[They float,' it growled, 'they float, Georgie, and when you’re down here with me, you’ll float, too–'

‘Everything down here floats,' that chuckling, rotten voice whispered, and suddenly there was a ripping noise and a flaring sheet of agony, and George Denbrough knew no more.]

Pennywise: the scary clown to end all scary clowns. Not much more needs to be said on this one.

The late-career masterpiece – Under the Dome

This one is going to be a little bit controversial, but remember what I said at the start: this is a list to get your started, not a definitive list of “the best” or “my favourite”. King has had something of a resurgence in recent years, with instant classics like 11/22/63 and Revival proving that, forty years on, the man still has what it takes to tell a story.

Under the Dome, despite the terrible (TERRIBLE!) television adaptation (and the comparisons to The Simpsons Movie), is an epic masterclass in how to write suspenseful, engaging fiction that should be essential reading for anyone trying to do likewise. The conceit is one of King’s more outlandish: the small Maine town of Chester’s Mill is cut off from the world by an invisible wall that completely encircles the town. This, however, is little more than an excuse for King to examine the people of the town, and the relationships that make the town what it is.

It’s a huge novel, which still manages to feel far too short. It’s also responsible for introducing one of the most loathsome characters in the history of fiction – Big Jim Rennie – to the world. If you can reach the end of Under the Dome without howling for Big jim’s blood, then you’re a better human being than I am.

King’s most overlooked gem – The Long Walk

King is responsible for a number of non-horror novels under the pseudonym of Richard Bachman, a pseudonym that was kept secret while most of these books were published in the late 1970s (the joys of the pre-Internet world). King has banished one of these – Rage­ – to self-imposed exile because of its subject matter, but it’s definitely worth tracking down. King’s most overlooked work is the Bachman novel, The Long Walk, in which a group of young men take part in a competition to see who can walk the farthest without dropping out, or dropping below the minimum speed of four miles per hour.

It quickly becomes clear that there are huge incentives for remaining on your feet, and to keep putting one of those feet in front of the other. From the viewpoint of Ray Garrity, one of the Walkers, The Long Walk is a vision of a dystopian future that is intense and affecting. It deserves a wider readership and, as such, finds a place on this list.

Bonus: Tying it all together – The Dark Tower

[The man in black fled across the desert and the gunslinger followed.]

Back in October 1978, King published a short story in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction called “The Gunslinger”, a fantasy/western mashup that takes place in a world that has “moved on”. Over the course of the following three years, four more stories following the Gunslinger’s quest appeared in the magazine before being collected in the 1982 novel, The Gunslinger.

Over the course of twenty years, King expanded the Gunslinger’s world, giving him a name (Roland Deschain of Gilead), companions (Eddie Dean, Susannah Dean, Jake Chambers, Oy the Billy-bumbler), a history and a purpose: to reach the fabled Dark Tower, which stood at the centre of all worlds.

The Dark Tower series is epic fantasy at its finest, with a hint of the Old West thrown in for good measure (Clint Eastwood was always the obvious choice to play Roland in the series’ early days). But the series does much more than recount the details of the quest of Roland and his ka-tet: it ties King’s complete canon into a single coherent work. Most of his later novels reference the Dark Tower in one way or another, while some of the earlier works are drawn into the fold within the series itself (see, for example, ‘Salem’s Lot’s Father Donald Callaghan’s reappearance in Roland’s world). While it is possible to read King’s work without The Dark Tower, or to read The Dark Tower without reading any of his other work, there is a sense of completeness, of jigsaw pieces slotting into place, once you have read the complete set.

Much of King’s work exists in the shadow of the Dark Tower, but don’t let the hulking monolith put you off. Work through the ten works in this list for a nice gentle start. Before you know it, you’ll be craving more, and most likely cursing my name into the bargain.