The best books of a great and prolific author, and a justification of their literary merit.
As an author, Stephen King has had his fair share of critics. In fact, he’s had a lot of people’s fair share of critics. I am a person who reads constantly; fiction, non-fiction, etc. I am also an (unpublished) author, and a devotee’ of the English language. As such, I can say that despite criticisms endemic to prolific 20th century authors, much of Stephen King’s work is on par, if not superior to, many works that are considered to be “classic” American literature. There are many modern authors criticized (justifiably) for an inability to write decent prose, and in some cases, King does revert to formulaic plot contrivances and pop-culture metaphors, but he also produced some very high-quality work. In contrast to some other contemporary authors, who have been producing what could only be described as “screenplays in the making”. King continues to write from the heart, touching on the macabre in the mundane, as well as commenting on the sicknesses and cures of modern society.
Plus, his books are crazy-good and very readable. So, here are my personal favorites. I’ve read all of his published works. Most of them I’ve read multiple times, so if I forgot a good one, its owing to my impending senility. Anyway, here is a Stephen King starter list for the uninitiated:
Bag of Bones
Unlike some of his earlier work, this book has the pacing and plot of a thriller. The character development is a little thin, but the first-person narrative explains that. Also affords a good look at racial discrimination and its long-term, and sometimes supernatural, consequences.
The Talisman (With Peter Straub)
The tale of a young runaway with a mission to save his mother. This book does a remarkable job of capturing the gloom and isolation of the American underclass, while contrasting it with the agrarian myth of the ideal “kingdom”. The drawback on this one is the fact that it is clear which author wrote which chapters, which breaks the flow considerably. There is also considerable insight on what it means to be twelve.
The Long Walk (as Richard Bachman)Read more in Thriller
A startlingly prescient commentary on America’s love of blood-sport, the Long Walk is a sport with one simple rule: Walk or Die. One hundred participants begin the Walk, and this story describes the journey of the one winner of that year. This is a great observational commentary on dealing with inner demons while engaging in a physical ordeal, and what would drive a sixteen-to-twenty year old kid to risk probable death for a prize of “anything they want.”
King’s most recent work, this novel combines the strengths of his earlier work (character development and history) with those of his later work (pacing and action). This is the latest of three or four novels written after King announced his retirement. It seems that Brett Favre is the Stephen King of football. As far as I’m concerned, both of them should continue until dragged away kicking and screaming.
The Running Man (as Richard Bachman)
Another nearly spot-on prediction of America’s obsession with reality television. This book is action-paced to the point that the chapters are titled as a countdown (ie: T-100…). This book is also a scathing commentary on the exploitation of the underclass, and the numbing force of the media.
The Green Mile
Originally released as a serial (in honor of Charles Dickens), this is a thrilling story as well as an allegory that addresses martyrdom, the curse of longevity, and capitol punishment. (Michael-Clark Duncan = Jesus…get it?)
One of the “old-school” King novels that was ruined by an attempted TV mini-series. With a few exceptions, (Stand By Me, Misery, the ShawShank Redemption, Green Mile) King’s books do not translate well on the big (or small) screen. This book is rich in character development, regional (fictional) history, and fascinating conjecture on what would happen if our worldly problems were solved. (hint: we’d have new problems). The narrative explores themes such as alcoholism, domestic abuse, environmentalism and alien intelligence.
Another novel ruined by an attempt to make television. This book is NOT ABOUT A HOMICIDAL CLOWN. It’s about a creature that feeds on terror. Clowns just happen to terrorize children, get it? This novel contains excellent character development, and wonderful insight on the joys and strengths of childhood, growing older, and the demons of childhood. Also, great historical context in the form of “interludes” that explain the Monster’s effect on earlier generations.
The Stand (Uncut Version)
This is really two novels in one. The first half chronicles the fall of western society in the face of a super-plague that wipes out 99% of the country. The second part, cleverly interwoven with the first, is an apocalyptic battle between the forces of good and evil. King pulls this off without getting all religious and preachy. Great character development, including that rare beast in literature: character change over time. Also follows how an outcast can choose evil over acceptance and be victimized by the promise of prominence.
The Dark Tower (series of 7 books)
Meant to be his defining work as an author, and written over 30 years time, this Magnum Opus lives up to its billing. It’s got the Steven King standards of character and history, as well as a little something for everyone else: Western, fantasy, adventure, time travel, alternate realities, and more. It also makes oblique reference to about 20 of his other novels (and them to these novels). King even utilizes a version of himself in the book as the characters are forced to convince him to finish writing their story. The ending will piss you off until you think about it, and realize that it could not end any other way. (Hint: not like The Sopranos…)