In my coming of age years I read Stephen King religiously. Then two things happened: he began to change, and so did I. His change was for the worse, as I saw it; I was acquiring a taste for authors with more subdued writing styles. A lot of the King classics didn’t age well for me, and the new (post-Misery) stuff seemed twice as bad. But I kept reading him anyway. King was a part of me, for all his garrulous excesses, and I still respected his imagination. The upcoming It film prompted me to revisit his work and see what has aged well.
As I worked on this list, it struck me that Stephen King is at his best when he’s least like Stephen King — when he’s doing something different, or going outside his comfort zone. I’m sure many King fans will disagree with that, and with my rankings, not least my omissions of what are widely considered his finest works. I have always found The Stand (1978) to be way over-hyped. Many critics thought Duma Key (2008) was a return to form, but I wasn’t terribly impressed. I did enjoy the time-traveling blockbuster 11/22/63 (2011) but was underwhelmed by the final act. Here are what I consider to be the jewels of the Stephen King canon.
[See also: Peter Straub Ranked.]
1. Wizard and Glass, 1997. 5 stars. The ’90s were the sewer of King’s career, but this one exception shines like a thousand suns. It’s the story of Roland’s first and only love affair, and the tragedy that made him so hard and unforgiving. King said he was scared to write it: “I knew that Wizard and Glass meant doubling back to Roland’s young days, to his first love affair, and I was scared to death of that story. Suspense is relatively easy, at least for me; love is hard. Consequently I dallied, I temporized, I procrastinated.” He finally locked himself in motel rooms and tried as a 48-year old to capture what romantic love looks and feels like to those of age 17. I’m 48 myself now, and I still say with confidence that King nailed Roland and Susan on all the right notes. Wizard and Glass an incredibly well told story about the young gunslinger’s exile in a province teeming with rebellion and measurable characters. Rhea the witch-hag is one of King’s best creations of all time, but then so is Aunt Cordelia with her sanctimonious “thee’s” and “thou’s” — and for that matter everyone else in the Barony of Mejis. King shows us a dystopian world where everything is rushing to oblivion. It’s the best thing he ever wrote, and I wish the other Dark Tower books offered this quality of storytelling. The first one does (see #4 below); the second and third are okay; the fifth through seventh are garbage. Let the record state clearly that for all the problems of the series, it has its moments, and Wizard and Glass achieves a tragic greatness seldom reached by the most aspiring writers.
2. Pet Sematary, 1983. 5 stars. King thought it was too scary to publish, and he eventually released it only to fulfill a contract obligation when he couldn’t finish another book on time. Think about that: a novel “too scary to publish”. Imagine if The Exorcist film had been shelved at the advice of those on the production team who thought it was too unspeakably obscene? And this gets to the root of my problem with King. When he finally nails it, he doubts himself. Pet Sematary is the perfect horror novel. The writing is incredibly disciplined, with no narrative fat or self-indulgent digressions; the story is told with surprisingly un-Kinglike economy. And it has room for profound reflections that either didn’t impress me or went over my head as a teenager. Now approaching 50, I’m rather shaken by Pet Sematary‘s themes of death and grief. Resurrection is a precious idea in our western heritage, and King gives it a truly terrifying twist. Pet animals come back to life when buried in this cemetery, but as sluggish and stupid versions of their former selves. Human corpses return as grotesque blasphemies who know and broadcast everyone’s most vulgar secrets. The novel’s point (which King didn’t like) is that “dead is better” than what lies beyond, but we’re powerless against our grief; it consumes us to the extent that we’ll do anything to get loved ones back no matter what’s lost in translation, and what takes its place. The death of Louis’ two-year old son and his unspeakable resurrection is one of the most terrifying things I’ve read, and King did right by his nihilistic conclusion.
3. ‘Salem’s Lot, 1975. 5 stars. After forty years ‘Salem’s Lot is still one of the best American novels. Every vampire tale after Dracula stands in its shadow. And unlike my other top five choices, this novel is “pure” Stephen King — the purist Stephen King book that was and ever shall be — written in his particular colloquial voice that has the power to engage and annoy. But it was his first novel (he started writing it before even Carrie), when he had himself under control, and so the style isn’t weighed down by the later self-indulgences. As I read ‘Salem’s Lot for the sixth or seventh time, I found myself marveling over its craft. Of all the undead — ghosts, zombies, mummies, etc. — the vampire is the best but hardest to do justice by. The aristocratic model is cliche, the pop model (Blade, Underworld, Buffy, Twilight) is silly, and the tragic Hamlet figures out of Anne Rice get old very fast. King showed how to take the creature seriously: keep it off-stage until at least halfway through; peripherally sight its lair, and let atmosphere do the work; make the creature mean — sadistic and vindictive. When Barlow finally appears, he drips menace in all the right shades of subtlety and blunt aggression. There are scenes in ‘Salem’s Lot that haven’t lost their capacity to terrorize, the number one for me being Matt Burke climbing the stairs at night, “the hardest thing he had done in his life”, holding on to his crucifix, looking down at the guest room slightly ajar, suspecting, knowing, the awfulness that has invaded his home.
4. The Dark Tower: The Gunslinger, 1982. 5 stars. Before it turned into a “Stephen King” franchise, Roland’s story was the most professional thing King ever wrote, and in my opinion deserves being classified as literature of enduring value. It was originally published in five parts in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, starting in the ’70s. King refused to release it as a novel, because he thought the story had limited appeal and wouldn’t please his mainstream readers. And here we go again, as with Pet Sematary. When King strikes gold by crafting the perfect novel against his own voice, he gets cold feet. Not only that, he later (in 2003) published an alternative version of the novel to align it with the later franchise — in other words, King-e-fying the voice, and, outrageously, changing things for the worse. George Lucas sanitized Han Solo by making Greedo fire first; King pulled his own Lucas by sanitizing Roland in the village of Tull. In the original, Roland cold-heartedly guns down his lover when she is seized by someone to be used as a human shield; she begs him not to kill her but he does so anyway before killing her captor (and then virtually everyone else in the town). In the revised version she has been driven mad and begs Roland to put her out of her misery. I’m flabbergasted when people like Lucas and King emasculate their own perfection. That’s a way of saying stick with the original Gunslinger. It’s a haunting quest across wastelands and scorched civilizations to make the world right again, a brilliantly meshed genre of post-apocalyptic, western, and fantasy. Then read Wizard and Glass (see #1) for Roland’s tragic backstory. You can ignore the rest of the series.
5. Mr. Mercedes & Finders Keepers, 2014-2015. 4 ½ stars. I didn’t think King had it in him to write mysteries, but the first two Bill Hodges novels proved me wrong. They’re his most disciplined works to date (even more than The Gunslinger, I think), and King admitted how difficult they were to write: “I just can’t fathom how people like Agatha Christie, Dorothy Sayers, Peter Robinson and Ruth Rendell are able to do this in book after book.” It’s just too bad King was unable to keep this up to the end of his trilogy: he ruined the third book, End of Watch, by resurrecting the Mercedes killer and falling back into his supernatural comfort zone. Had he stayed in genre, the trilogy could have ended up a masterpiece. Throughout Mr. Mercedes and Finders Keepers (they’re equally good), King keeps his plot tense and reverses expectations to extremely good effect. Each novel opens in 2009, with the recession at its worst; a job fair is about to be held at a sports stadium, where hordes of the unemployed line up in a queue; dawn breaks, and a Mercedes car barrels out of the fog into the crowd, killing eight people and wounding fifteen. Each novel then follows the plot of different characters who were present at the slaughter, with retired detective Bill Hodges and his friends getting tangled in both. Some of the best scenes involve the Mercedes Killer and Hodges chatting in a private online forum, engaged in a deadly game of verbal chess, and the killer getting so incensed at Hodges’ taunts that it takes him five minutes to type a single-sentence reply because his hands are shaking so badly. I couldn’t put either of these books down, and it’s a long time since I’ve been able to say that about Stephen King.
6. The Talisman, 1984. 4 ½ stars. The critics blasted this, and even after thirty years I can’t make sense of it. King teamed up with my favorite author to write a splendid epic about a 12-year old boy on a dark quest to save his mother and, in the process, the cosmos. I first read it in my high school years while visiting Grinnell College in Iowa, and so Jack Sawyer’s westward trek starting in New Hampshire (my home state) resonated in spades. I expected any moment to flip into a Territories-version of the midwest, and the Grinnell campus to sideslip out of reality like Thayer School or transform into a hellish pit mine run by Sunlight Gardener. I even spotted my Twinner in a classroom. In the ’80s it was hard to find dark fantasy (George Martin being a decade away) and for me this was the next best thing after The Wounded Land. Donaldson gave us the Sunbane, and King & Straub came up with horrors just as vile (see here for the Covenant parallels). There are admittedly some quaint fantasy tropes that stand out today, but the occasional laziness is forgivable in an otherwise grand epic. The sequel is Black House (2001), which doesn’t make this cut though I’d probably put it at #11. Objectively it’s better than It but I couldn’t bring myself to omit that one. (The writing on display in Black House is even better than that in The Talisman; the plot is an ultimate let-down for involving the problematic world of King’s Dark Tower series, when these books should be about the Territories only.) Don’t listen to the critics; The Talisman is excellent and for the most part has aged really well.
7. Misery, 1987. 4 ½ stars. The last novel of the “classic King” era is one of his best, and involves only two characters in a single setting. It’s possibly the best bottle drama I’ve read in a work of fiction, and it’s too bad that when King tried this sort of thing again in Gerald’s Game, the result was nothing but pages of waste. Misery is top-notch suspense all the way through, about a psychotic woman who has rescued a wounded man who happens to be her favorite author, and then forces him to write the sequel novel he never intended. Along the way, she alternates between smothering him with fan-affection and cutting off pieces of him when he displeases her. The novel examines dependency — the way writers depend on fans, as they depend on him, and also drug dependency, as Paul is fed pain killers by his psycho-fan. It’s also a fascinating (and rather transparent) look at the way an author’s mind works when trying to overcome writer’s block and undo his literary mistakes without cheating the reader. Authors are at their best when they write from experience, and in Misery King exploits everything his fame, drug addictions, and writing challenges have done to him. It’s a special novel that was universally praised by the critics, and as I said it marked the end of period of King’s towering greatness, following his longest and most ambitious book It (1986), then followed by one of his longest (and by far his shittiest) book ever The Tommyknockers (1988). I’d be immensely proud if I could ever do so much in short space like Misery.
8. The Shining, 1977. 4 ½ stars. Let me dispel all doubts as to where I stand in relation to Kubrick’s film. Kubrick’s is the masterpiece, and King is a fool for his life-long career of blasting it. His corrective version for TV proved that even more: it was faithful to his book, yes, but horrible because of it. This is what novel purists and authors like King don’t get. The worst screen adaptations are often the “faithful” ones — the ones that avoid creative interpretation. Literal adaptations hang on every element of the text, with the result that it fails to become a film in its own right and forces the unforceable into a new medium. Only in rare cases is a novel tailor-made for a film (The Exorcist, The Road, for examples). The Shining cries for all sorts of changes, and yet King just spat it back like a stage play. Audiences deserve better, and Kubrick delivered a piece of artistry beyond criticism. King couldn’t see that because he could only see what was lost in his own precious vision. That’s what happens, Mr. King, in a good adaptation: some things are lost, and better things take their place. Jack Torrance’s psychological dysfunction and inner turmoils work well on the page where you can inside someone’s head; a film demands something different. Kubrick did what any great filmmaker aspires to, and if not for The Exorcist his adaptation would stand as the greatest horror film of all time. All of that said, the novel is obviously excellent. But if I had to choose between losing the novel or Kubrick’s film in a trip to the moon, I’d lose the novel. Kubrick outdid King, and I think the knowledge of this is what really, privately, sticks in Stephen King’s craw.
9. The Dead Zone, 1979. 4 stars. King thought this was his best novel until he wrote Lisey’s Story (2006), and this is how he described it long ago: “The best I’ve done so far is The Dead Zone because it’s a real novel. It’s very complex. There’s an actual story. Most of my fictions are simply situations that are allowed to develop themselves. That one has a nice layered texture, a thematic structure that underlies it, and it works on most levels.” I see what he was getting at. In college I recommended The Dead Zone to a friend who wasn’t a horror fan but wanted to read a Stephen King novel to see what all the hype was about this author. This novel came to mind without hesitation. It was King’s first number one bestseller on both hardcover and paperback lists, and it took an exceptional risk of making the protagonist an assassin like Lee Harvey Oswald. Granted the political target is more like Donald Trump than JFK, a killer is still a killer. On top of that, Johnny Smith is a failure. For all his diligent planning, he botches his assassination attempt and dies for it, to be remembered as a crackpot who couldn’t even succeed when he had the upper hand. I will say that The Dead Zone resonates in spades under a Trump presidency and is worth reading (or rereading) for that reason alone. And I repeat my earlier advice to anyone today who has never read Stephen King but wants a taste of what makes him so good without the more terrifying brutalities of Pet Sematary, ‘Salem’s Lot, Misery, and The Shining. Make The Dead Zone your point of entry.
10. It, 1986. 4 stars. It may be the quintessential Stephen King novel, but that speaks against it as much as for. The excesses of King’s writing style are at their most unrestrained here; he shouts at the reader, and digresses from digressions; he’s all over the map. And the formula of sleepy towns torn apart by supernatural forces, with points of view diluted across multiple characters hasn’t aged well for me. (‘Salem’s Lot still works, but that’s the exception.) The loser kids are too good to be true: they speak in ways that sound contrived, and even some of the dialogue given to adult characters isn’t convincing. But I can’t possibly leave this book off my list. It was a milestone for me back in the day, for its examination of childhood fears and innocent beliefs which make anything possible. The story is set simultaneously in 1958 and 1985, and I have to admit the way King segues from one period to another, often mid-sentence, is a brutally effective narrative device. The novel contains King’s most controversial scene of the six boys gang-banging Beverly (they’re all 11 years old). Not only is it an extremely well-written scene, it’s the heart of the book, and I’m enraged that the upcoming film by Andrés Muschietti won’t have it. After battling It in the sewers, Beverly invites her friends to bang her in a quasi-mystical ritual, and that orgy represents many important things, not least the kids’ first stage on the road to losing the power of their childhood and becoming learned but lesser adults.