Like a lot of people, I grew up with the stories of Stephen King providing thrills and scares and entertainment in my life. The first book of his I read was The Shining.
Appositely enough, I read it in a hotel room (although not in room 217) in the early hours of the morning. It scared the hell out of me. There was something about King’s style: the superb characterizations, the careful place descriptions, the build up of suspense, unease and unrelenting horror, that combined so compellingly that I became an instant King fan – and have been one ever since.
When a new book came out, I bought it. As I’ve said, The Shining was my first King novel. It was followed by ‘Salem’s Lot – along with Carrie, The Stand, The Dead Zone, Firestarter, and Cujo.
When Cycle of the Werewolf came out, I bought it, loving the story – and the amazing Bernie Wrightson illustrations – and admiring King’s bravery for attempting to update a somewhat clichéd folk myth. Christine was okay, but it suffered from shifting narrative perspectives – first person, then third, then back to first. It’s one of King’s weakest novels. Not the weakest, but one of them. The Talisman (with Peter Straub followed Christine, and it was a definite improvement. There are some great moments in the novel, particularly the Wolf and the children’s home sections. The next novel, the brilliantly scary Pet Sematary, was excellent, especially the hospital scene, the woods (deadfall/wendigo) scene and the graveyard scene.
Then came It. Big in ideas, grand in execution, It didn’t really work. King was trying to put everything into one book. Strangely, I liked the Bill Denborough bits the best. And the coffer dam bit, of course. The clown bit was okay, but it was travestied in the film, so that most people now think It is a clown. It’s not. Skeleton Crew was next and it was great because it contained The Mist – still one of my favourites - and The Reach. The children’s book, The Eyes of the Dragon, despite adverse criticism regarding its quality, is a wonderful, powerful novel.
During this phase of King’s career, I bought Danse Macabre and Different Seasons. In the latter, my favourite stories were (and still are): The Body, Apt Pupil and Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption. The Breathing Method was okay, but it’s the weakest story in the collection. The Body and Apt Pupil are the strongest. It’s a pity the film version of Apt Pupil didn’t work. Danse Macabre is a wonderful look at the horror genre in general and is very entertaining and informative.
Also, by this time I’d become aware of King’s Richard Bachman pseudonym/alter ego. I bought Thinner and The Bachman Books and enjoyed them, particularly Rage and The Running Man. I liked King/Bachman’s style. And I was impressed at how prolific King was.
And then came Misery, and if there’s a better King novel, then I’m not sure which one it is. It rocks. It’s so powerful, it’s amazing. This novel was proof that King was again at the top of his game, showing exactly how it should be done. The story of the battle of wills between Paul Sheldon and Annie Wilkes is a classic conflict. It’s also the ultimate drama – two people battling for supremacy in a room, which is what makes it so compelling.
The Tommyknockers (still a personal favourite) followed Misery and it was wonderful. Stephen King was dabbling in pseudo-science fiction and the result was glorious. His two main characters (Bobbi Anderson and Gard) were – as always – beautifully presented, fully rounded people. I felt for them.
Then there was The Dark Half and then Four Past Midnight. The former, and one section of the latter, Secret Window, Secret Garden, were parts of a writer/identity trilogy that had started with Misery, according to King. The next novel, Needful Things, wasn’t anything like The Dark Half or Secret Garden, Secret Window. The Needful Things story was okay, but I didn’t – and still don’t – understand what it was trying to do. I like the description of the shop, but that’s about it.
Gerald’s Game was next. It was the story of one person in a room – and it was as scary as hell. Try it. You’ll see. In fact, Gerald’s Game was so amazing that Dolores Claiborne got a bit overshadowed. Nightmares and Dreamscapes and Rose Madder came next. Rose Madder was okay, but Gerald’s Game was the superior novel from this era. Then came Desperation. It’s not King’s best novel, but it’s not his worst either. That dubious honour goes to Insomnia, the King novel that put everyone to sleep because of its attempt to be so politically correct. That novel is probably the one King novel to avoid, unless you’re a completist. It’s not really that good.
The next two novels though are very good. Bag of Bones is excellent, with some interesting insights into writing/publishing. The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon is King at his best again. It’s the story of a young girl lost in the Maine woods and her fight for survival. It’s excellent. Hearts in Atlantis, which followed them, is okay. Dreamcatcher got good reviews, but undeservedly so. Everything’s Eventual is okay, as is From A Buick 8, but they’re not exceptional. Cell is a lot better – a good story with some genuinely scary moments.
King’s next novel was Lisey’s Story. It’s supposedly a literary story, but it’s just another story that starts off in a realistic sort of world and then flips into a supernatural alternate world. It’s okay, but apart from a bit on celebrity stalkers, it’s just King being pretty good, but not amazing. It’s not classic King. It’s reasonable King, but that’s all.
There’s a few I’ve missed mentioning. They are the other two Bachman books: The Regulators and Blaze, both of which are good in their own ways. The Regulators suffers from a weak ending (as do a lot of King’s novels), whereas Blaze is a very good story of a backwards petty criminal. I’ve also skipped Night Shift, a very good short story collection; Nightmares in the Sky (with gargoyle photographs by F. Stop Fitzgerald). The Green Mile; The Colorado Kid; On Writing; Black House (a sequel to The Talisman with Peter Straub), and of course, the seven books in The Dark Tower series: The Gunslinger; The Drawing of the Three; The Waste Lands; Wizard and Glass; Wolves of Calla; Song of Susannah; and The Dark Tower.
Duma Key is very good – quite creepy in places, with a compelling story told by a very believable first person narrator. Just After Sunset is a very good collection of short stories, with The Gingerbread Girl, N, and A Very Tight Place being the best stories in that collection. Under The Dome is a fast-paced town-under-siege thriller with a few science fiction and gothic elements thrown in for good measure. It’s a very entertaining read with some great characterisation. Full Dark, No Stars is a set of four novellas, with the weakest story first and the strongest amd most powerful last. It is a collection in which King shows his full powers as a writer.
Which brings me to 11/22/63. This is the novel SK’s been waiting to write for years. It’s a Kennedy-era spin on Richard Matheson’s Bid Time Return, but it’s in no way inferior to that particular work – in fact, 11/22/63 is one of King’s more recent bests. And due out any time now is Dr. Sleep, the sequel to The Shining, which has a now-adult Dan Torrence pitched against some very evil people…
Okay, that’s my quick round-up of the books of Stephen King. I grew up with them and I’m still growing up with them and am still reading them, but I think King’s best books have already been written. Not that he needs to write another word; he’s contributed hugely to his culture, and has made many people happy. I’d like to be wrong. I’d like him to bring out a new novel as great as The Shining, Pet Sematary, Misery, The Tommyknockers, Gerald’s Game, Bag of Bones, The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon, or even Cell, but I don’t think that’s going to happen. However, I’m happy to wait and be proved wrong.
© R J Dent (2011)
© R J Dent (2013)