The Best And Worst of Stephen King
So, I think everyone who’s ever inched close to this blog by now knows that I am a huge fan of Stephen King. My first great literary love, I still have a huge soft spot for him, look upon a lot of his back catalogue with deep affection, and probably always will. But that doesn’t mean that he hasn’t put out some stinkers, too. And I figured – hey, why not share my favourite Stephen King books right here alongside the ones that I think sucked the hardest? I know I have some controversial choices here, but I stand (heh) by them – and would love to hear your best and worst, too. So, without further ado, let’s look at the standouts – the good and the bad – and get down to rankin’ some writin’!
- The Stand
The Stand will probably always stand up there with my favourite books of all time. A sweeping post-apocalyptic parable that takes on the enormous notions of good, evil, and the choices that lead us to both, it was the first Stephen King book I read – halfway through, I put it down to go out and buy the 1300-page extended edition because I knew it wasn’t going to be enough to satisfy me. In terms of sheer scale of character, ambition, and storytelling. The Stand is King’s masterpiece.
2. The Long Walk
The Long Walk is always a book I’m surprised I don’t hear more people talking about when it comes to King’s work. Maybe, in part, that’s because it was originally released under his Richard Bachman pseudonym, but since then, it should surely have earned its place amongst King’s finest work. Another story of enormous, dystopian scale, it’s a simple story sustained by sheer depth of characters and the mounting, hideous human cost of the terrible Long Walk of the title. A science-fiction classic for the ages, I’m going to adapt this if nobody else does, because I love this book so much and know this book so well that frankly I don’t trust anyone else to do it.
3. Pet Semetary
The best of King’s books draw on the humanity of the characters at their core, and Pet Semetary is one of the best example of it. A slow, meandering delve into the madness of grief, Pet Semetary is one of his most singularly haunting books. The film adaptation earlier this year may have sucked, but this is still up there with his best for me. The only reason it’s not higher is because of that weird fucking sex scene which is still up there as the worst erotica I’ve ever read. And trust me, I know of what I speak.
4. On Writing
When it comes to books that mean a lot to me, Stephen King’s On Writing ranks up there with the most important. Handed down to me by my father (who taught me a huge amount about literature with his own brilliant work in his own right/write), On Writing is the book I would recommend to people who want to commit themselves to writing, for better or for worse. A love letter to the medium as well as a potent instructional guide, On Writing is one that I come back to constantly, and it never lets me down.
5. The Shining
The Shining is a classic for a reason – even though I might have some controversial opinions about the movie, the book is still just a sensational psychological deep-dive into the notion of bad places drawing out the bad in people. Jack Torrance is one of King’s most tragic and compelling villains, and Danny would go on to become one of the most enduring protagonists he ever created.
6. ‘Salems Lot
Sometimes, you just want a scary story, right? No deep thematic elements, no metaphor, just something that spooks. And ‘Salems Lot is exactly that. It’s a superb slice of American small-town gothic, a vampire story all wrapped up in one of King’s most instantly-iconic locales. From Straker and Barlow to the sinister Marsden house, ‘Salems Lot is straight horror – and there’s nothing he does better than that.
Christine sounds like a ridiculous premise – a haunted car? Yeah, okay. But instead, it stands out as King’s most enduring coming-of-age story, as well as exploring a tale of obsession and self-destruction. Not to mention the fact that it features my favourite King villain of all time, Roland LeFay, who hangs over the book even in death as a twisted spectre guiding our protagonists towards doom.
I found Rage in a second-hand copy of a Bachman books collection a long time ago, long after it had been taken out of print, and then I leant it to my ex and never got it back and I’m still salty as fuck about it. Rage is a tremendous piece of writing from King (as Richard Bachman again), an unsettlingly human exploration of extreme violence through a surprisingly sympathetic lens.
9. Needful Things
Needful Things is just one of those delightful twisted horror parables that make up the mainstay of King’s comfortable mid-career run – the Castle Rock setting, the glorious small-town backdrop, and King’s pinpoint-accurate character work coax a surprising amount of depth from the simple fairytale starting point.
10. Doctor Sleep
It’s strange to me that this is so high on this list, since there is a lot about the book that I don’t like – but Doctor Sleep is, for about a hundred pages, probably the most potent and eloquent look at addiction and how trauma feeds into it I’ve ever come across in my life. A sequel to The Shining, Doctor Sleep draws the line between Danny Torrance’s childhood traumas and his painful adult existence with a startling and stark potentcy. Roll on the Mike Flanagan adaptation!
IT is half a truly exceptional book. Stephen King has always been able to write children better than almost any other adult author I’ve read, and the childhood half of this story is a work of his utmost magic. And then, you know, he actually has to explain it, and it all sort of falls apart. Still, IT gave us Derry, the Loser’s club, and one of the best adaptations to date, so it can’t be all bad.
12. Bag of Bones
Ah, fuck it. I know that Bag of Bones swerves catastrophically off the rails in the third act, but I love what comes before it enough to keep it this high on the list. The horror and mystery of the thought of not knowing your life partner is just compelling and eerie enough to lift me over the hump of some bad plot choices (and unfortunate self-inserts).
Look, I know people don’t like Cell, and I get it – it’s high pulp and it’s immensely daft and the premise is so silly it’s hard to get over in the first place. But I love it. It’s propulsive and committed and kicks off with one of the most striking openings of King’s career, and features some of my favourite late-era characters in the post-apocalyptic group that we follow throughout the story.
14. The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon
There’s a real fairytale feel to this, one of the shortest novels King ever released, but it has the traditionally fucked-up Stephen King twist, and features another one of his great child protagonists to boot. I’ve only read this once, and am sure that it would be a lot denser on a re-read, but as it stands now, it’s a firm mid-table insert.
Never analyse your heroes, right? I loved Carrie when I first read it, but damn, picking it apart at the seams (check out my recaps of the entire book here!) has left me feeling a lot less kindly to it. It’s classic first-novel problems (hey, uh, also, buy my first novel?), of messy narratives and cliche characters, but there are flashes of his finest work as well as some exceptionally cool horror moments to keep this in the upper end of the pack.
6. Duma Key
Do you remember reading Duma Key? I know that I did, but it felt like such a standard piece of King lore that it fades into the ether for me. Huge, ungainly, and slightly chaotic, it’s one of his messier outings, and most forgettable to boot.
5. The Running Man
I can go either way of the sci-fi in King’s catalogue, but this one slides firmly into the “no” category. Where The Long Walk takes the simple premise and makes it work, The Running Man feels thin and a little empty – and hey, it probably didn’t help that my first introduction to this story was a shitty Arnie movie, to boot.
I know the point of Thinner is that the main character is unlikeable. But, y’know, I also don’t like him? And that makes it immensely hard to care about what happens to him? And so I don’t like this book at all?
3. Sleeping Beauties
Look, I do like the idea of Sleeping Beauties, really, but I also have a lot of issues with the way Stephen King writes a lot of his women – and this is one of the most glaringly egregious examples of those problems. Front-and-centreing the female gender just shines a light on his thin character work, and the alleged co-writing with his son Owen King just feels tacked-on, given that Sleeping Beauties never feels like anything other than a through-and-through King novel,
2. The Outsider
Ugh, this book. In some ways, I actually think The Outsider is one of the better of King’s late-era books, but man, I just won’t stand for that third act. After a compelling and deeply unsettling set-up, The Outsider tosses its hands in the air and pastes in a Wikipedia entry to explain the monster away. It also draws on the Mister Mercedes trilogy (I’m getting to it) for one of its lead characters, and really relies on you having a decent connection with them to sell the story. Which I don’t. Which I actively avoided, in fact. Which brings me to my least favourite Stephen King book of all time…
- Mister Mercedes
I honestly thought this was a parody of crime writing when I first started reading it. Cliche on top of cliche stacks to fill the plot until the whole thing comes tumbling down, in a story that inexplicably won multiple awards and spawned a whole trilogy despite how painfully mediocre and predictable the whole thing was. It’s the only Stephen King book that I outright regretted reading, and no, I’m not going to give the fucking TV show a go, dammit.
Phew. So there’s my best and my worst – what are your standouts, and which don’t make the cut? Let me know in the comments below. If you liked this article and want to see more stuff like it, please consider supporting me on Patreon, and check out my movie site, No But Listen!
(header image via Dread Central)