With the release of his new novel ‘The Institute’ (which I reviewed on Amazon saying I felt it was a ‘classic’ King novel in the style of Firestarter, The Stand etc.) I thought I’d write a short bit on my personal five favourite Stephen King novels (and you’ll see the reason for the * as we go on…). It was trickier than I thought and could easily have gone to a top 10 which I’d struggled with just as much. So as much as I love the likes of Pet Semetary, The Talisman, The Green Mile (especially the last chapter which I think is one of the finest pull-it-all-together pieces I’ve read) and 11/22/63, I had to be harsh and whittle it down. So here are my personal favourites, with a few lines of explanation for each.
While this is in no way intended to be a hip list of choices going for deliberately lesser-known titles (although The Running Man and Rage would come pretty high up), I do think Joyland is one of the most enjoyable things Stephen King has written in the last ten years. Published in 2013 by Hard Case Crime, Joyland was nominated for the 2014 Edgar Award for Best Paperback Original. It’s not a ‘horror’ book, although there’s certainly horror in there: the basic plot concerns Devin Jones, a student taking a summer job at the titular Joyland amusement park in early ‘70’s North Carolina. It’s relatively short for a King book – a mere 288 pages but within those pages is a wonderful coming-of-age story. There may have been elements of recognition in reading it as a 40 something middle-aged man whose first summer job was working in a UK holiday town – certainly, King captures the feel of a smallish, slightly rundown amusement park perfectly. In what is essentially a crime novel, with just a dash of the supernatural in it, King shows he doesn’t need a 500+ page beast to create a fine cast of characters, world and feeling. It’s warm, nostalgic in the best way, and ultimately moving and the narrator’s voice is one of the most charming King has created.
#4 The Stand
Whether you choose the original or the ‘extended’ version you’re still looking at a hefty wedge of book. The Stand remains many people’s favourite work by the author and its legacy remains to this day: it remains an easy shorthand for critics to refer to any apocalyptic book of a substantial length to be ‘in the style of’ The Stand, whether it is deserved or not.
Why do I like The Stand so much? The world-building is incredible (no pun intended). The picture drawn of a post-Captain Trips epidemic where over 99% of the (US at least) population has been killed is both chilling and thought-provoking: despite the horror of it all, I can’t help thinking at times when reading it about what I would do in such a world…or whether I’d end up in the good Mother Abigail’s Boulder or the devilish Randall Flagg’s Las Vegas. But ultimately, it’s the size and quality of the cast King draws up that really makes the book work so well for me – whether it’s Larry Underwood or Stu Redman or Nick Andros, Frannie Goldsmith or Tom Cullen on the good side or Lloyd Henreid, Harold Lauder, Nadine Cross or Flagg himself on the bad – The Stand is a novel which will spend a good long chapter on a whole lot of characters but carries you along so that you have an interest in all of them. While the TV mini-series version of it had some good casting it didn’t altogether work: whether a question of budget or the oft-seen problem that some of King’s work just doesn’t work on the screen as well as it does on the page may be answered if and when the long-gestating remake finally happens. It’s rumoured that King is actually working on a new climax – something that many of the most die-hard fans still have issues with as some Deus Ex Machina device (and perhaps the start of the lazy criticism that King ‘cannot write an ending’), which will be interesting to see.
#3 Different Seasons
And so we get to the reason for the *. Ok, so Different Seasons is a bit of a cheat giving as it does 4 for the price of one, but what a four. I remember buying this book with weeks of saved pocket money from the bookshop in Blyth where I’d spent a good amount of time reading from it in the shop until I got kicked out. That’s the cover of the version I had. And there are things in each of the stories I like so much. As much as I love the films Stand By Me and Shawshank Redemption, I still find myself going back to the stories as ‘the real thing’. While Stand By Me captures the spirit as well as possible of the original story and Richard Dreyfuss’ voice-over does a fine job it’s still just not quite there. Whether it’s the missing story-within-a-story we see in the original: Gordie’s adult author effort, or whether it’s the slightly softened ending in the movie, there’s just something a bit ‘more’ about the written version. As for Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption – again, a film I love but I can’t agree with those frequent lists where it appears as ‘films which were better than the books they were based on’ (The Shining often pops up there as well, which I have an even bigger problem with…). It’s a close thing, but for me I think it might come down to the ‘need’ of the film to tie things up a bit more: the need to give more satisfaction, whether it be in the villain of the piece’s end or the literal end of the book and wrapping things up. Whereas in the novella we ‘hope’, in the film we ‘get’. Apt Pupil was also made into a movie, if to less acclaim than the previous two, but Ian McKellan does a fine job in it. As far as the story goes – a school boy’s investigations revealing he lives close to a Nazi War Criminal and the bizarre pact he makes the old man enter into – it’s a dark, dark thing and while all four stories in the collection have moments of real bleakness, in Apt Pupil, there are no accompanying glimmers of humour. It’s a nihilistic thing – again, to some degree softened, if only slightly, in the movie version, but it’s the hardest going of the four stories. And then to round things off there’s the only ‘real’ horror piece of the quartet, and so far the only one not to be filmed (although apparently Scott Derrickson is slated to release in 2020), ‘The Breathing Method’. Of the four, this story contains some of my favourite bits even if it is probably the weakest overall. What I do love – and keep going back to read and try and learn how King does it so well, is the sense of location and being in the creation of the Gentlemen’s Club in which the story is told: it is a story-within-a-story, and I have to admit it is the telling of the tale and the description of the circumstances more than the story itself that I find so absolutely well-written.
Everything is IT at the moment. While I am yet to see IT 2, I have seen the first part and remember the old TV miniseries. The first instalment was perfectly fine – a good cast and clearly lovingly put together with effort. It wasn’t scary, but it was fine. The book? Yeah, there were some seriously scary bits in that. Still King’s longest original book at 1138 pages (the complete and uncut version of The Stand is slightly longer at 1152) IT just engrossed me when I first read it – and if, at the age of 17 I was older than the pre-teen protagonists, I was still young enough to identify with a lot of it: even if it was set in a decade way before mine in a town very different than my own. I loved the detail, the friendships, the structure and splitting of time frames and the sheer depth of the whole thing that over 1100 pages allow. I don’t think it WOULD be possible to fully do justice to everything that happens in the book through either two films (even if one is clocking in around 3 hours) or even a longer tv miniseries. It’s just too dense. And I loved it for it. Is it the scariest book King has written? I don’t think so: I’d probably have to say for pure chills Pet Semetary is still the darkest spookiest of his career, but there’s certainly a hell of a lot in here that comes close. And the idea of being stuck in a refrigerator with blood-sucking moths. Ughh.
And my personal favourite? Not one of the ‘big ones’ – not a Salem’s Lot or a Shining or a Carrie. No. My favourite Stephen King book of all time – and certainly in my top ten books of all time full stop, would be Christine (and what a 12 months that was for King – releasing in 1983 Christine, Pet Semetary and Cycle of the Werewolf, and then mere months later The Talisman…). Christine, for me, sums up where people who haven’t really read Stephen King get it wrong and, too often the filmmakers who are so keen to adapt his work into movies and that might be why for almost all of these favourites I’ve made mention to the cinematic/ tv versions of them. Christine the movie has a special place in my heart – John Carpenter was my favourite director of the time, it was the first certificate 18 movie I’d got into (I was fifteen at the time and had been badly burned getting turned away from Creepshow a couple of years earlier when the British Board of Censors changed it from a AA to a 15 certificate…) and I was dying to see it. Afterwards, I came away bitterly disappointed: the effects had been great, the music worked in an ‘80’s synth way and some of the visuals were amazing. But Carpenter and writer Bill Phillips had got it wrong. They thought the story was about a haunted car that could bend itself back into shape and run people over. For ME the story that King had told – the story I loved so much was about Dennis Guilder and Arnie Cunningham – the jock and the jerk, best friends since childhood and negotiating school, girls and growing up at an age only a couple of years older than me. Yes – there was of course a haunted car, but the book was about them: and it remains one of the best-written pieces on love and loss I have read, regardless of genre: it’s just that where others may have used a backdrop of war, or betrayal or economics, King used a ’58 Plymouth Fury. Sure, there are scary bits in the book – but there’s a whole lot more. Yes, there was tension running all the way through but only some of it came from the supernatural elements. Where the film was rushed, the novel was a gradual build. A built that allowed us to really know these characters and many of those orbiting around them.
I still re-read Christine once a year, even though I can quote pretty much any line from it and know it scene for scene. But the apparent effortless of understanding relationships and friendships and small-town tensions – and of course youth is what, for me, always keep me coming back to read Stephen King.