If October were a mountain, then the 16th would be the day when we find ourselves at the summit, take a look around and admire the view before heading off back down the other side, to arrive safely at our destination, the festival of Halloween.
It seems appropriate at this point in our journey to pause a moment and consider the work of the horror genre’s most successful living practitioner.
And, in case you were wondering, that would be Mr. Stephen King.
While I’ve read more books by Michael Moorcock than any other author, when you take into account the size of each individual volume, I would guess that King is the writer I’ve read the most by, who’s put the most words into my head.
It wasn’t an instant attraction. My first book by him was The Stand, read in the summer of 1980, and I didn’t really like it. The theme of the end of days seemed clichéd and tired, and as an atheist I found the religious elements, embodied in the figure of Mother Abagail, rather disagreeable. It was three years before I picked up another book by this author, but that book was ‘Salem’s Lot and the rest is history, as they say.
(In parenthesis, I had a similar experience with Ramsey Campbell, who I first read ten years after discovering King, and then didn’t touch for another three thanks to a bad first impression.)
I haven’t read everything by King. In fact in the time I’ve been reading primarily for purposes of review, most of King’s work has passed me by. There are at least fourteen volumes waiting to be picked up when the review copy gravy train finally jumps the rails. Catching up with King will be near to the top of my post-review to do list.
If I compiled a list of my favourite horror books I’m not sure that King would make the cut, but regardless of that I don’t think any writer in the genre has produced such a substantial and quality rich body of work. King is a phenomenon.
Here are the ten books that, out of those I’ve read, I consider to be his finest.
His very first published book, the near perfect tale of a young girl with psychic abilities, and of an outsider whose talent is warped by a hostile society, with a subtext about religious tyranny and peer pressure that ends in bullying.
‘Salem’s Lot (1975)
The book that won me over, King’s reimagining of Dracula but with enough originality to the story that the material becomes his entirely. One of the classics of the vampire subgenre.
The Shining (1978)
A young boy with a psychic gift and a haunted hotel, cut off from the rest of the world, and a father going insane. It’s an explosive combination and King wrings every bit of tension he can out of the scenario.
Night Shift (1978)
King’s first collection of short stories and to my mind still his best. Each offering here is a gem, but two of the stories without any overtly outré element, ‘The Last Rung at the Top of the Ladder’ and ‘The Woman in the Room’, I found to be absolutely heartbreaking.
The Dead Zone (1979)
Johnny Smith has psychic abilities and he knows that presidential candidate Greg Stillson will bring down nuclear Armageddon on us all, so decides to take matters into his own hands. Prescience has seldom been as artfully brought to life on the page, and the moral dilemma that confronts Smith gives it all a hard edge. And I’d argue that ass clown Trump’s presence on the political landscape has given the book a new and alarming relevance. Perhaps King also was prescient.
Danse Macabre (1981)
A love letter to the genre from its most successful modern day practitioner, this book is eminently accessible to the lay reader but with enough critical acumen to be convincing. King’s affection for the genre and the fact that he has thought deeply about what he does are things that shine through.
Different Seasons (1982)
Four novellas, each of them eminently readable and entertaining, but with particular praise to ‘Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption’ and ‘The Body’, two wonderful and engrossing works of fiction.
My favourite King book, one in which he showed his literary chops with overlapping time strands and a large cast of characters. It’s the history of a town and the story of a group of friends fighting against impossible odds, a foe who is beyond the laws of nature, of time and space, a monster that preys on the vulnerable. King does everything right in this ambitious, sprawling novel.
The story of a novelist who has to deal with the demands of a psychotic fan, compulsively readable, not least for the way in which King overlaps the romance of Misery Chastain with the suffering of her creator.
Four Past Midnight (1990)
Four more novellas, all of them worthwhile, and with ‘Secret Window, Secret Garden’ the stand out, with its subject matter of a writer who suffers for his art, a theme King seems to return to often in his oeuvre.
And if anyone wishes to infer from this that I don’t think King has written anything exceptional in the last twenty six years then…
I did mention that I’ve not read everything by him, and this list is only those I consider the ten finest.
Some possibly surprising omissions. Everyone I know raves about Pet Sematary but despite reading it twice I’ve never really got into the book, found it rather obvious and overly sentimental (something King can be prone to). I’ve also read Christine twice, and if I’d left it at the once then that title would probably be on this list (sometimes you should leave treasured memories alone).
Anyone else have a favourite King they’d care to share?