Essential King

I perused a list of “essential” Stephen King novels today, put together by Richard Thomas for BuzzFeed, and I disagreed with some of his selections.

Which makes sense, because King’s list of books keeps growing and changing and reaching readers at different points in their lives. What sort of criteria would you use in compiling such a list? How the works influenced you? How they scared you? Whether you were frightened or not is a subset emotion of whether the work influenced you, since fear does influence you.

So, let me inform you that my list is partly composed by how the books affected me as a reader (which ones scared me as a young boy back in the mid-1970s), how they influenced my interest in pursuing a writing career, and also how I think they inform us Constant Readers about who Stephen King is as a person, how he lets us connect with him. And isn’t that last what storytelling is all about?

1) The Shining
2) The Stand
3) The Dark Half
4) Misery
5) Insomnia
6) The Dead Zone
7) Salem’s Lot
8) The Song of Susannah
9) IT
10) The Green Mile

OK, discussion time.

The Shining was the third King novel I read, but I’ve got to say it’s the first that truly scared me. There were moments when I was reading the book late at night, and loud noises outside made me shoot straight up in bed. There are so many scenes still fresh in my memory decades later. My main gripe with the Stanley Kubrick adaptation is he didn’t convey a single moment of the dread you can find within the pages of this excellent book.

The only reason I’m going to rank it in front of The Stand is there are two versions to consider for that one. Do you prefer the shorter, original release? Or the longer one that broadens the story’s scope? Both are good reads, but did we need a “director’s cut”? Whether you believe we did or not, if you’re a Constant Reader, you appreciate both (and I am and do), but it drops the book into the silver medal category on my own personal list. The list of BuzzFeed shows the cover for the mass market release of the original, shorter version, so I’ll assume Mr. Thomas has an underlying love for that one even though he cites the uncut length in his explanation of why it is his winner.

The Dark Half and Misery rank as high as they do on my list because I feel they say something about King himself, about who he is as a person and as a writer. I recall an essay by Algis Budrys in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction for a special Stephen King issue. I don’t believe I have the copy any longer. I might. But the essay boiled down to an examination about why King is the greatest American writer of our time. Notice that I’m not using quotes there, as I can’t recall the exact wording. The essay was published in 1990, and discussed The Dark Half and how that novel played out the battle between King the literary writer and King the popular writer. The story is about bestselling author Thad Beaumont, who writes books under a pseudonym, George Stark, that are completely different from his own mainstream (literary) works. Stark comes to life for perfectly reasonable Stephen King reasons, and goes on a murder spree. Reread the book. Think about the fact that in our world, George Stark won. As for Misery … it’s a beautiful example of how the outside world influences a writer. While the movie was good, which isn’t always the case with King adaptations (Kubrick, again), you didn’t get to see how the romance novel that Paul Sheldon was writing changed and improved in response to the demands his number one fan, Annie Wilkes, placed upon him during his captivity. That romance novel was as important as the torturous existence Paul suffered through at the hands of Annie in my opinion.

The rest of my list comes down to the books that touched me most. I’ll admit that I cried at the end of Insomnia, which gets an undeserved bad rap. The same goes for The Green Mile (a good adaption with Tom Hanks and the late Michael Clarke Duncan). The Song of Susannah is paced beautifully. Same goes for IT, and it’s jumps from the past to the present. Salem’s Lot took a different approach to the classic vampire story, and the sections about the town should be examined to see how to build/expand a world beyond your central characters. The Dead Zone is a love story, and all of King’s best works seem to have a love story (usually tragic) at their heart.

Now, as to why I’ve cut my list to 10 rather than mirroring the 11 offered Thomas in BuzzFeed … how the heck can you stop listing favorites? King’s written dozens upon dozens upon dozens of books and stories. There’s something to recommend each work. I picked The Song of Susannah to represent The Dark Tower, but there are good points in all seven (now eight). The first time I reread The Drawing of the Three when The Wastelands came out, I recognized how much I missed the first time through, since I was caught up in the experience of a new book by one of my favorite authors. The short story collections offer different gems depending on when you read or reread them.

I guess you could say I believe King is a classic, and to paraphrase a Jacqueline Susann title … ten is not enough.


About stephenwnagy

writer, father, husband. not necessarily in that order.
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