Favorite Stephen King Books… so far. Halloween 2018.

October 17, 2018

I knew, back in 2016, besides wanting to write my book, that I wanted to read more. When I was younger, I was an avid reader, but over the years my reading habit had slipped into an occasional nibble. And the best way to learn how to write a book was to read books. So, I made a goal. Read two books a month.  Simple enough. But, I had one problem. What do I read? I needed a backbone to fall back on if I couldn’t make a choice on the next book.

Enter Stephen King.  I, somehow, had missed Stephen King books growing up. It wasn’t until I read 11/22/63,  that I became aware of what an excellent writer he was. Stephen King would be my backbone. I would, slowly, consume his massive catalog. I began with The Shining, and have never regretted it after thirty-two books. Well, almost never, there were a few times during Insomnia… Nevermind.

The one thing I learned to love about Stephen King is he loves his characters. And I love characters. It is a match made in hell. Stephen King makes the extraordinary ordinary, by grounding his characters as real people. They are not heroes, just regular people caught up in extraordinary settings. Another author I’ve been reading, Ian McEwan, does the opposite, he makes the ordinary extraordinary.

In other words, I am glad I started on this journey. I have read thirty-two of his books. These are ranked least favorite to favorite. I have enjoyed everything he has read, so least favorite means I liked it, not I hated it. So, without further ado…

Here are my favorite Stephen King Books (worst to best)… so far.

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#32 – End Of Watch

#31 – Mr. Mercedes

#30 – Finders Keepers

The Bill Hodges Trilogy. Decent detective stories, that suffered when the supernatural reared its head at the end of the second book, Finders Keepers. I enjoyed all of it, but it never quite coalesced into a wholly satisfying whole. Finders Keepers is my favorite among the three.

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#29 – The Outsider

The first third of this book is riveting. A man gets arrested as he is coaching a little league game for the gruesome murder of a young boy. The coach, of course, protests, and for the first third of the book, you’re left wondering… But, by the time I read this book I had been inundated with King and the first thing I thought of was The Dark Half. Which is similar, yet different. A man is presented overwhelming evidence he committed a crime he is positive he didn’t commit.  The genius choice of King to put us in the POV of the detectives and prosecutors makes this a riveting exercise in evidence versus evidence. The overwhelming evidence he did it and the overwhelming evidence he didn’t.

Unfortunately, or, maybe expectedly, the book never quite lives up to the first third (How could it? Once the questions become answers.) and the characters go about the mechanics of completing the mission. But, the beginning of the book is some of King’s best.

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#28 – Doctor Sleep

The sequel to The Shining, is a weird novel to discuss. There are some things I loved and others I didn’t. (The Last Jedi, left me with a similar feeling. (I had to get Star Wars in here.)) Danny Torrance dealing with his haunted past, while becoming an alcoholic just like his father? YES! Weird, hippy-esque, shining sucking vagrants? Um… what? I want to read this again. And I will at some point, but for now, this one is held up by all of the Danny character work, which is really good.

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#27 – Insomnia

This was the book I had the most difficult time reading. I am unable to explain why. It took longer than normal to capture my interest and if I hadn’t had good experiences with King’s other books I would’ve tossed it aside. Set in Derry, Insomnia is about an older gentleman who develops a weird bout of insomnia. I say, weird, because it doesn’t seem to be natural.  Also, there are these little bald doctors running around town. I pictured them as miniature versions of the gentlemen from Buffy.

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I also read it has some of the strongest correlation with The Dark Tower series, but I am only on Book Three.

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#26 – Under the Dome

A man named Barbie (can’t stop giggling). Seriously, a man named Barbie (Still laughing). This is one of those: the premise is amazing. But, then what?, stories. Mr. King does his best. Crazy characters. Political drama. A ridiculous and depending on political party hated character named,  James “Big Jim” Rennie. I mean, this book is just going for it. And sometimes I really enjoyed it, and others I laughed out loud at the absurdity. The ending is not surprising. I can’t say I didn’t enjoy reading it, I did, I just didn’t find it as interesting, or impactful (lol), as some of King’s other works.

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#25 – Desperation

After starting out with Stephen King’s greatest hits, I was yearning for a story I had no idea about. Up until Desperation, all of the King books I read, besides the very first book 11/22/63, I knew of the story. Either from seeing a movie or just the general public zeitgeist. So, I wanted something I had no idea about. Nothing. Enter Desperation. I was hooked immediately when a crazy police officer pulls over  Peter and Mary Jackson and the story escalates from there. I had fun reading this one. It also has a “mirror” book released on the same day (CRAZY!!) titled The Regulators, which is on my list to read.

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#24 – Christine

This is one of those premises that would not work in anyone but Stephen King’s hands. I mean, it’s about a possessed 1958 Plymouth Fury, come on, it’s ridiculous. And yet, somehow, it works. The characters are well developed. Dennis and Arnie’s friendship make this novel. It is well worth the read. I may have seen the movie, many moons ago, but I don’t remember it. The fact that it was directed by John Carpenter, means it is on my to see list now.

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#23 – Firestarter

This is another book, I had a vague recollection of seeing the movie or at least parts of the movie. I remember Drew Barrymore. Reading the book, though, was a completely new experience and I enjoyed it immensely. A strong father-daughter dynamic keeps the book grounded. My only complaint is Charlie (the firestarter) seems a little wise for an eight-year-old, but that’s just a minor complaint.

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#22 – The Tommyknockers

This is probably King’s (of the ones I ‘ve read anyway) craziest books. And to be honest, I loved eighty percent of it. I mean the last half is insane and fun. I had some issues, with character jumping at the beginning. As once I became invested in a character the story would jump to another one for an extended period of time, but at some point, it coalesced together into some great madness. Really dug this one, even though it is not thought highly of, amongst King fans.

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#21 – Carrie

I love the film by Brian DePalma, and reading the book for the first time was an interesting exercise. I think I would’ve enjoyed it more and would’ve been higher on my list if I had no inkling of the story beforehand. Having said that, I still loved it and, being Stephen King’s first book, it is a remarkable achievement.

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#20 – The Dark Half

Thad Beaumont writes trashy crime novels about a violent killer named Alexis Machine under a pseudonym (hello Mr. Bachman) and, when he is blackmailed with exposure, he decides to kill the pseudonym by coming forward with the truth, with help from his publisher. Unfortunately, his “pen name” George Stark, doesn’t like this idea and decides to come to life and kill all those who wanted to kill him.  Crazy story and fun, if you try not to think too hard about who or what George Stark is. I suppose the title is the key, he is the dark half of Thad Beaumont. Set in Castle Rock, you encounter some familiar names from other novels.

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#19 – Salem’s Lot

A gothic Vampire story, that intrigued, but left me wanting more. Maybe I have been over-exposed to vampires? Maybe this is the one book that seemed somewhat generic, by Stephen King standards? Or maybe my expectations were set too high? I knew the title and had heard so many great things, but when I finished the book, I thought, “That was good, but not quite as good as I thought it would be.” A great novel, marred by my expectations and exposure to the subject. Maybe, when I read it again….

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#18 – The Dead Zone

If Salem’s Lot suffered from great expectations, then The Dead Zone is its complete opposite. I had no idea what I was getting into. A story about a psychic who finds himself involved solving murders and trying to protect the country from a sadistic congressman. Oh, and many other adventures. This one is great because of its bleakness. I know that may sound odd, but I loved how raw and bleak this book is, which is an emotion you will find in some of King’s best.  There is plenty of sadness to go around and I enjoyed all of it.

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#17 – Revival

One of King’s newer novels and a great story. I really enjoyed this. The story is about regret and just moving on with life, while simultaneously looking back. It’s another sad one and reminded me of the T.V. show Carnivale.

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#16 – Pet Sematary

Ughh!  This novel. This book is like staring at an upcoming car accident, paralyzed, unable to move. Unable to shout out a warning. You can’t even look away. The aftermath is disgusting and predictable. One of King’s most disturbing books, that I can’t say I enjoyed, but I also couldn’t stop reading.

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#15 – The Running Man

The Schwarzenegger movie is one of those sci-fi movies from the 80’s I really enjoyed. So, when it came to reading the book, I found myself riveted, once the realization hit that the movie was nothing like the book I was reading. I thoroughly enjoyed the sci-fi world, King creates. The anger, the “screw the system” attitude, shows a young, Richard Bachman writing passionately with a love for the writing craft. I am a sci-fi nerd, more so, than a horror guy and this is right up my alley. Bachman wrote four stories and two of them are in the top 15 of my list, and I haven’t read the other two yet.

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#14 – Duma Key

At the beginning of a few Stephen King books, I began to dread the introduction of the “supernatural”. Why? I knew I was reading a Stephen King book, right? Because the characters and stories were so rich, I wasn’t sure the introduction of the supernatural wouldn’t ruin, what was a fascinating character study. Duma Key is about moving on from tragedy.

“Edgar Freemantle, a contractor in St. Paul, Minnesota, barely survives a horrific on-site accident where his truck is crushed by a crane. Freemantle’s right arm is amputated, and severe injuries to his head cause Edgar to have problems with speech, vision, and memory. As a result, Edgar also has violent mood swings and thoughts of suicide. During one of those mood swings, he attacks his wife, who later cites that as the main reason why she divorced him.

On the advice of his psychologist, Dr. Kamen, Edgar takes “a geographical”: a year-long vacation meant for rest and further recovery. He decides to rent a beach house on Duma Key, a small island off the west coast of Florida, after reading about it in a travel brochure. Edgar’s beach house is located on a part of the island called Salmon Point; Edgar nicknames the house “Big Pink,” because of its rich pink color. On the advice of Dr. Kamen, Edgar revives his old hobby of sketching after he moves into Big Pink. He settles in with the help of Jack Cantori, a local college student.”

SEE! Doesn’t that sound fascinating and King makes it so. Thankfully, when the inevitable “supernatural” element arrives it doesn’t detract from the story and I really enjoyed the ending, as it had me on the edge of my seat. But, part of me wonders if King would like to write a straight literary fiction novel, and feels he can’t? Or the supernatural just comes out of him? Either way, I can’t complain. I just wonder.

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#13 – On Writing

Part autobiography, part writing craft. Part Stephen King being funny as hell. It provides some great advice. One of my favorites is, “Don’t waste time trying to please people.” Oh, and this, ““So okay― there you are in your room with the shade down and the door shut and the plug pulled out of the base of the telephone. You’ve blown up your TV and committed yourself to a thousand words a day, come hell or high water. Now comes the big question: What are you going to write about? And the equally big answer: Anything you damn well want.”

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#12 – 11/22/63

My first Stephen King book, so it holds a soft spot in my heart. It showed me what a masterful storyteller he can be. It also, made me cry out a few times, “WILL YOU GET TO OSWALD ALREADY AND LEAVE THE GIRL BE!” There is a Back to the Future II element, a love story, that seems to come from another novel, and all of it works… somehow.

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#11 – Misery

From here on in, on this increasingly long countdown, these are books I loved and the order may change daily, depending on the mood. These are the King books I will return to. First up, Misery. A writer ends up trapped with a fan of his. Imagine Rian Johnson handing over the script to some Star Wars nut, for The Last Jedi. (See Star Wars). “What do you mean Luke hates the Jedi?” “Why is there a Casino!” “LEIA CAN’T FLY!” SMASH! as the AXE goes down… horrific stuff and Annie Wilkes is a, one in a million, character.

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#10 – Cujo

We all know the story. Dog goes bad. Bad dog. But, the oppressive fear and the inevitable outcome, are what surprised me. This is sad and dark stuff. And as usual, King creates some great character’s who you hope will survive, but you know, probably won’t. One of my biggest surprises while reading these King books was how much I enjoyed Cujo.

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#9 – The Gunslinger (The Dark Tower #1)

Where to begin with the beginning of the Dark Tower series? I won’t say it was a book that I fell in love with immediately. The absurdity and foreign world were difficult to navigate at first. But, once Jake met up with the gunslinger I was in. The obsession of the gunslinger without the reason was a difficult hurdle for me. I needed to know why he did all he did just to find the man in black. The ending had me confused for days and that, actually, worked in its favor.

And, as of a week ago, I had this originally placed in the teens, but I just finished The Drawing of the Three, and that was the catalyst, as things began to snap into focus and I appreciated The Gunslinger even more. I will also say that I have all the Dark Tower books and I may just read them in a row, while I originally planned on alternating with some other books, but I am one hundred pages into The Waste Lands and I can’t see myself stopping.

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#8 – Bag of Bones

Like Duma Key, this is another story that I felt would’ve been just as good without the supernatural element. In fact, I would say this book is a companion piece to Duma Key. A great ghost story mixed with real emotions. “The narrator, Mike Noonan, a bestselling novelist, suffers severe writer’s block after his pregnant wife Jo suddenly dies of an aneurysm. Four years later, Mike, still grieving, is plagued by nightmares set at his summer house in TR-90 (an unincorporated town named for its map coordinates), Maine. He decides to confront his fears and moves to his vacation house on Dark Score Lake, known as Sara Laughs.” I can’t stress this enough.. this may be King’s most eloquently written book of them all. I loved it.

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#7 – The Green Mile

I somehow avoided massive spoilers for this one before I read it. And for the first part of the book, I wondered, if there was anything supernatural going on at all. I knew there was a movie with Tom Hanks, but I never saw it. I am one hundred percent thankful that I knew nothing more than that it takes place in a prison and there is a large man in said prison. I didn’t even know what the green mile meant. The book, essentially, takes place in one location. In fact, while reading I thought, wow, this would make a great play. Maybe, with some fancy set dressing that would transform the retirement home into the prison and vice versa as we switch times in the narrative. This was an emotional journey and I loved every second of it.

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#6 – Dolores Claiborne

A first-person novel, that is a one-sided conversation? Count me in. I could not put this down. I love first person POV fiction. Okay… sometimes, I love POV fiction. I like that fact that everything is clouded by the person telling the story. From Dolores Claiborne to Forrest Gump. (Forrest Gump did not play football at Alabama.)  There is some dark stuff here. But, the reason for my love and a high ranking is the character of Dolores Claiborne and most importantly, how Stephen King writes her. It is fascinating and entertaining. I read this in one sitting. Okay, maybe two. But, I couldn’t stop. The lack of chapters helped with that.

Dolores Claiborne, an opinionated 65-year-old widow living on the tiny Maine community of Little Tall Island, is suspected of murdering her wealthy, elderly employer, Vera Donovan a person who has been mistreating her, her whole life. The novel is presented as a transcript of her statement, told to the local constable and a stenographer. Dolores wants to make clear to the police that she did not kill Vera, whom she has looked after for years, but does confess to orchestrating the death of her husband, Joe St. George, almost 30 years before. Dolores’s confession develops into the story of her life, her troubled marriage, and her relationship with her employer.”

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#5 – The Long Walk

Before The Hunger Games. Before The Maze Runner. Before  The Divergent Insurgent. Even before Enders Game. There was The Long Walk. Okay, admittedly, the others have better titles. I loved The Long Walk.  It is YA Dystopia at its finest. Part Dystopia, part Stephen King. Part amazing. What’s it about you ask? About a group of kids that have to take a long walk. Exciting?! Well, if they don’t stay above 4 mph they get shot in the head. So, there’s that. Oh, and it is a long walk, starting in Canada and ending somewhere in Massachusetts, which takes multiple days and the winner gets… something. Doesn’t matter. I also liked the ending, even though some seemed to disagree. Great story. Great read.

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#4 – The Shining

I forget, what’s this about? Well, if you’ve seen the movie you may think you know. But, the movie has completely different motivations than the book.  The movie is about you. The book is about the Torrances.

The Shining centers on the life of Jack Torrance, an aspiring writer and recovering alcoholic who accepts a position as the off-season caretaker of the historic Overlook Hotel in the Colorado Rockies. His family accompanies him on this job, including his young son Danny Torrance, who possesses “the shining”, an array of psychic abilities that allow Danny to see the hotel’s horrific past. Soon, after a winter storm leaves them snowbound, the supernatural forces inhabiting the hotel influence Jack’s sanity, leaving his wife and son in incredible danger.” 

Now, if you read that you would think it is, exactly, like the movie. Except, it’s really not. The book is much more sympathetic to Jack, Danny and, especially, Wendy. They are trying to move on from Jack’s alcoholism. They really want it to work and think that the move up to the hotel will help them. You observe, as Jack gets pulled into this supernatural, haunted world while trying to maintain his sanity. It’s a wonderful story. While I loved the movie, for its visual, psychological mind-bending horror. I love the book for being about the characters.

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#3 – The Stand

If there was a perfect beginning to a novel that represented my sensibilities and apocalyptic joys, it would be the first half of The Stand. The first book I wanted to read after I made my decision to read Stephen King books, as I had seen the mini-series many years ago. Possibly, when it aired. (I am old.) While I loved the first half, the second half struggles a little from well, now what, syndrome. It’s still engrossing but doesn’t quite have that momentum from the first half, where survival is the key.

Some of the characters are a little cliched at times. Hell, I don’t even know how many characters are named, but its a lot. I read the unabridged version and I am curious if the abridged version carries that momentum from the first half better. I am a sucker for good old apocalyptic fiction and what can be better than The Stand.

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#2 – Different Seasons

Remember in my summaries for Duma Key and Bag of Bones, I wondered if this novel would be the one without a supernatural element? This is why! Four fantastic stories, all without the supernatural, but plenty of horrors. Two of them you know:  Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption and The Body. Both are just as good, as you think they are. Better than their film counterparts, The Shawshank Redemption and Stand By Me. 

The other two novellas (25,000 to 35,000 words) were also quite good. Apt Pupil (also made into a movie), set in 1974, Los Angeles teenager Todd Bowden arrives at the doorstep of elderly German immigrant Arthur Denker, accusing him of being a wanted Nazi war criminal named Kurt Dussander. In The Breathing Method, David, the narrator of the frame tale, is a middle-aged Manhattan lawyer. At the invitation of a senior partner, he joins a strange men’s club where the members, in addition to reading, chatting and playing pool and chess, like to tell stories, some of which range into the bizarre and macabre.

All of these are worthy of a place in the top ten. Together, they wind up at #2.

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#1 – IT

If there was one book to summarize Stephen King, I think it would have to be IT. It’s scary, sad, inescapable, character-driven horror. While the kid’s storyline is the more interesting, than the adult one, they would not work as well without the other.  The contrasting, between adults and children, compels the story to drive home the theme. We believed we could do anything when we were kids, but now that we are adults we are scared to do anything. I loved all of it. The kids are so well written, even though the story takes place in the fifties, it reminded me of my friends at that age. This is the behemoth and altar where Stephen King lies.

The newest movie, while capturing the kids, quite well, just can’t get the fear right, instead relying on jump scares too much, and skipping the absurd.

Read the book.

Accept the gross.

Accept the fear.

Enjoy the memories.

Shed a tear.

Find the key

To Stephen King.

 

*I will update this list every Halloween, as I read more Stephen King.

 

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