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Books: Stephen King, Through The Years


It's a little embarrassing to note here, for the first time, that I've read about 95% of all novels ever written by Stephen King. I originally got hooked on his prose some time after I was done with R.L. Stine's Goosebumps series (which, as a side note, is completely begging to be made into a modern movie series for kids/ironic adults.) I read The Green Mile as a serial novel as it came out, before it became the way-too-obvious-and-long Tom Hanks movie (although it was a feather in my cap when Tom Hanks, who was cast in the movie version of my mind as Paul Edgecomb, was cast in real life) and was pretty much hooked ever since. I voraciously read novel after novel, finally discovering the Dark Tower series which slayed me the most of all.

So when I finally got back to reading (after recently passing the CPA exam), I picked up his newest novel Under the Dome. And while the overall conclusion to the novel felt rushed and a little too deus ex machina for me, it was surprisingly well-plotted for a novel that is 1,074 pages long. For an author whose better works still feel bloated, this was a remarkable achievement.

Of course, having written 50+ novels in his career, and generally averaging a novel a year, not everything is quality in the Stephen King canon. So, here is my definitive guide to Stephen King novels, in the form of best of/worst of lists. Note to readers: just pretend the movies based on his novels have never been made. Except for the Kubrick version of The Shining, there is not a single genius adaptation of any of his novels, movie or miniseries version. Also, because I haven't read most of these since I was a teen, I'm going a little bit more off of my personal memory of reading said book, and not necessarily how it translates today.)

The Best
1. The Dark Tower III: The Waste Lands
Parts I and II are written in a style that doesn't seem to jive with King's most readable works, Part IV is a little too old clothes-y to qualify, and parts V-VII experience the disappointment one feels when the answers to the many questions you may have start getting revealed (see: the final season of Lost). But, Part III, The Waste Lands, is a masterful combination of adventure, romance, sarcastic quips, alternate realities before it was cool to have alternate realities (see: the final season of Lost), and one helluva cliffhanger involving, yes, a psychotic, homicidal talking monorail. Of the book series that is most beloved to me, this one is the best.

2. The Stand
Ignore the slightly corny miniseries version featuring Gary Sinese, Molly Ringwald, Rob Lowe, that main character lady from Just Shoot Me (okay, I know her real name - Laura San Giacomo) and Dauber from Coach (okay, I really don't remember his real name - sorry) and sink into this, the longest of his long novels. This is also the first of his truly sprawling novels that he would repeat with various success throughout his career (IT mostly worked while The Tommyknockers and Desperation mostly did not work) and arguably the most epic in scope. While the "hand of God" metaphor became waaaaaaaaaaay too literal at the end, the essence of the novel, amongst the Killer Virus That Wipes Out 99% Of The Population themes, and the Good Vs. Evil themes (see: the final season of Lost), is basically, "What happens when people need to do good?"

3. The Shining
I am realizing, as I go through these novels, how frequently giant explosions conclude Stephen King novels, and this one is no exception. (Don't worry - the miniseries featuring Stephen Weber as Jack Torrance gets the explosion correct. Eye roll.) Yes, the masterful Stanley Kubrick version does not feature an explosion of any kind, so this may come as a surprise to you. Regardless, King's novel is still the book that gives me the biggest creeps of all, and the one that most extensively uses the narrative device that geeks me out the most, when he inserts
(sticks it into the novel right here just like this oh yes yes yes here it is)
parenthetical thought bubbles of the characters. And unlike some of the more obvious metaphors, this one is basically just about how drinking is bad. Yes, a ghost story about the evils of alcoholism, and a damn scary one at that.

4. The Green Mile
This one might be mostly connected to my happy memories of reading this as a serial novel in my bedroom while feeling a cool breeze against my skin, but I seem to recall the tragedy of healer John Coffee, a man with the initials of J.C. hitting me like a ton of bricks. And the aforementioned casting of Tom Hanks in the real life version was gravy.

5. 'Salem's Lot
Back when Christian Slater was not a TV series killer, he was cast in my movie version of the only true vampire novel in King's repertoire. The scene where the vampires in town are sacrificing the young boy at the graveyard still gives me the heebeejeebies when I think about it, and the purely bloody, violent, no-lessons-learned conclusion to the novel was one of King's most relentless (rivaling Pet Semetary's hopeless zombie-driven conclusion.) And when prominent character, Father Callahan, became a prominent character in the last couple parts of The Dark Tower, this one gained a lot of stature in my personal rankings.

The Worst
1. Dreamcatcher
Proof that your brain doesn't work well on drugs. King wrote this novel mostly by handwhile in the hospital recuperating from his violent hit-by-a-car incident, and it shows. A mash-up of elements of his more famous novels like It and a lot of alien character garbage that seemed to be narrated by the painkillers going through his system, it also featured aliens that were born by shitting them. Yes, King went there, and no, he did not need to go there.

2. Cujo
More proof that your brain doesn't work well on drugs. King has openly admitted not remembering writing large portions of this novel, which he wrote in the mid '80s while addicted to a multitude of drugs. It's easy to see why a novel like Under the Dome feels so quick plotted when compared to some of his other novels, like Cujo. Unlike Cujo, Under the Dome did not feature 200+ pages of two characters inside a car while hiding from a rabid dog. Even at age fourteen, I realized this book was pretty pointless.

3. The Dark Half
I actually kind of liked this book, the creepy and somewhat self-indulgent book about a popular fiction writer's pseudonym coming back to haunt the writer (literally!), but the computer game version that I bought so excitedly one time when I was thirteen or so didn't work beyond the opening scene. So I never got to play it. Jerks.

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  1. Blogger Unspar! | 3:52 PM |  

    I just read a few reviews of Cujo on amazon cuz I always kind of hoped that it was more interesting than just a rabid dog (cuz the movie was just that, and it sucked). Two of the four said, as you did, that the only thing that sticks with you after your first read is the kid and mom hiding in the car. One of those even said that it was her least favorite King book...until she read it again. Apparently, it's nuanced in a number of ways that everybody picks up on more in their second read.

    It was enough for me that if I still read books, I might be interested.

  2. Blogger qualler | 3:55 PM |  

    Yeah, I might have to give Cujo another look as well. Apparently it is also one of King's favorite books, and it's interesting in that it is seemingly one of those that are not at all supernatural. Still, rabid dog ain't that interesting.

  3. Blogger qualler | 3:59 PM |  

    Wait, so you don't read books anymore? I just started reading books again.

  4. Blogger chris | 4:08 PM |  

    I remember loving The Shining as a kid. And I remember thinking the parentheticals were SO COOL!!!

    I also REALLY liked The Dead Zone, which also I think has a decent film adaptation starring Christopher Walken (the TV series with Anthony Michael Hall was crappy, to my knowledge, though it got decent reviews).

    My least favorite was THINNER. Both book and movie. UGH. TIMES A MILLION.

  5. Blogger qualler | 4:10 PM |  

    Haha yeah I would have put Thinner on the Worst Of list as well but I DQ'd it since it was technically written by his pseudonym. The movie was just on TV the other day and I watched about 15 minutes of it before the main dude's fat guy suit crept me out way too much.

    Also, The Dead Zone was aces as well.

  6. Blogger qualler | 4:15 PM |  

    Also, upon further research, here are SK's books that end with an explosion and/or fire of some kind:

    Carrie
    The Shining
    The Stand
    Firestarter
    Needful Things
    Insomnia (actually, just the threat of an explosion that ends up not happening)
    Under the Dome

    OK, now I'm just pissed off. All my years in the SKEMERs listserv when I was 13 and I just now realize that Stephen King has a penchant for ending his stories with giant explosions.

  7. Blogger Unspar! | 8:13 AM |  

    I was exaggerating, mostly. I don't totally not read books, but I have so little free time that it feels like I don't read books anymore. I'm working on like 5 different books right now too, and being spread so thin makes it almost impossible to finish any of them, which also makes me feel like I'm not reading anything.

  8. Blogger Anna | 2:51 PM |  

    "there is not a single genius adaptation of any of his novels, movie or miniseries version."

    Um, I'M SORRY. Are we forgetting The Langoliers? I think we are. Balki!

  9. Blogger Anna | 2:59 PM |  

    In addition, I liked The Dark Half for the most part. And did you not like IT? I seem to mostly read the obscure King stuff, like Rose Madder (what? exactly) and The Regulators (craziest book ever!). Remember when he wrote that book exclusively for the Kindle? Good times. I didn't read it.

  10. Blogger qualler | 3:09 PM |  

    Haha, I do love The Langoliers in its own way. Seriously, though, did a 150 page novella really need to be a 4 hour miniseries?

    In all honesty, aside from Dreamcatcher, there really isn't a Stephen King book, short story collection, movie, miniseries, etc., that I didn't love.

    I also enjoyed me some Rose Madder, did not totally love The Regulators (but enjoyed the craziness of it), and also did not read that Kindle book. The movie version of Rose Madder in my brain starred Sandra Bullock and Matthew McConaughey as the creepy wife-beating guy.

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