It’s like taking a Rorschach test when you try to rank the best Stephen King books. The things that people say are their favorite things show you a lot about who they are and what they are afraid of the most. What scares or terrifies us can help us figure out what we care about, what we value, and what we love. This is a map.
In the last four decades that he has been writing, Stephen King’s stories have become a part of many people’s lives. Growing up is part of many people’s lives. Taking pages from the book when you were younger felt like an act of courage and defiance. The stories that were part of that coming-of-age tend to be a little more important. It’s also hard to figure out how King is because the best and worst are so obvious that you can figure them out ahead of time. Like Superman, Wonder Woman, and Batman, The Stand, It, and The Shining are all competing to be the best DC Comics hero, too. When Dreamcatcher or The Tommyknockers is talked about, it doesn’t look good to King, who looks like he doesn’t want to say anything about them.
There’s a lot more debate about which of King’s classic novels, his near-perfect memoir On Writing, and the serialized Dark Tower books are the best. The best of them, The Drawing of the Three and The Waste Land, don’t make sense on their own. Let’s also not forget about his collaborations with Peter Straub, Owen King, and Richard Chizmar, like The Talisman and Black House, The Talisman and Black House, and Gwendy’s Button Box. I’m also going to get rid of the short story collections, but I’m going to keep the novellas, which are longer. In the long-form King stories, his imagination runs so far away that we race to keep up even though we don’t know what’s coming next. These ground rules may annoy some of his fans, but I want to focus on the longer stories. To start the countdown, let’s start with the most lucky number of them all.
The Haunted [Something] is one of the first books by Stephen King. Here, it’s a candy apple red 1958 Plymouth Fury that has its own mind, can heal itself from damage, and likes doo-wop and revenge. I think this book is one of King’s best. There is a lot more going on beneath the creepy title and cover story. When Christine is talking, she talks about how much she wants to be loved. A lot of it is also about toxic masculinity, even before the term “toxic masculinity” came into use. On the cover of the book is the picture of Arnie, a high school geek who turns his life around after taking over Christine (or is it the other way around?). Those who don’t belong have an air of bitterness around Arnie, like a person who finds something that gives him strength even as it eats away at his soul.
Time travel stories have been done many times before, but King’s is different because his method of going back in time isn’t very clear. When John F. Kennedy was killed, Jake Epping can’t just go back in time. He has to go back in time. For five years, his portal takes him back to 1958, which means he has to live in the past so he can stop a moment in American history.
There is a lot of complexity in King’s story logic: A portal lets Jake go back in time and see how his changes have changed things. If he goes back in time, he’s back in 1958 and everything starts over. As Jake tweaks the past, he sees worse results, but he keeps messing around like a gambler who thinks “this time, this time it will work.” The movie 11/22/63 is about the fear of looking back and getting stuck in a loop of thinking about what could have been if only…
It’s one of King’s least-liked books, but the critics were wrong. Needful Things was a little ahead of its time, but it was still a good idea. There is a lot of violence in this dark 1991 book about how a society turns on itself. In this case, it’s the town of Castle Rock, which was the setting for a lot of other King books. People who look like Norman Rockwell start to look like things from Hieronymus Bosch when a new curio shop owner, Leland Gaunt, takes advantage of their low-grade rivalries and resentments and makes them angry.
As with real-life demagogues, Gaunt knows what people want and how to manipulate their anger. He also knows how to eat and power up from the explosions that follow. When you think about it, it’s scary how easily good people can be led into the dark. It’s also scary how familiar it all looks as friends turn against each other, families turn against each other, and a society that was once united turns into hate and mistrust.
The Long Walk
One of the few books King wrote under the name Richard Bachman is one of his most disturbing. The Long Walk, which was written in 1979, is set in a future where the Super Bowl is a cruel race in which 100 young men walk nonstop. First, you’ll never have to want for anything again. Death is the second prize. Those who walk too slowly get three warnings from the military that is in charge of the show. Then they are executed by the military. The race ends with the last person still alive. As the story progresses, empathy, mercy, and kindness fade away from the contestants in favor of animal-like survival instincts. It has a lot in common with Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery,” and it also foreshadows Suzanne Collins’s “The Hunger Games.”
Four short stories are in this book. “Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption” and “The Body,” which are two of King’s best, are two of them. When they were made into movies, they were two of his most successful ones. In conversation, King himself often refers to the second story by its movie title: “Step By Me.” “Shawshank” is an inspirational story about living life to the fullest even when things aren’t fair or easy. It has a core of hopefulness that makes you feel better. When we’re young, we have to deal with death and the friendships that help us get through it. Both stories are bittersweet and hopeful. With our defenses down, King tells us the third story, “Apt Pupil,” which is about a young boy who finds out that his neighbor is a Nazi war criminal who lives in hiding.
ne, like Apt Pupil, has a main character who is an awkward kid who fills the holes in his heart with poison and finds strength in cruelty. This leads to the familiar explosion of violence as he lashes out at the world with a gun. You can start with “The Breathing Method,” which is a more traditional supernatural thriller about a young pregnant woman who fights back. It’s literally told around a roaring fire. After learning about the highs and lows of human nature, the fantasy of a spooky campfire story feels like a welcome break from all that hard work.
Different Seasons was a way for King to show that he was more than just a horror writer. Misery is about what happens when a romance writer tries to do the same. It doesn’t go over well with Annie Wilkes, Paul Sheldon’s “Number One Fan.” She is a nurse who is very excited about her job. She is happy that she was able to save him from a snowy car accident, but now he is her slave. And she’s willing to put up with the most heinous torture possible to become his new muse.
This is a good example of why it’s important to know what King was going through at the time. He has said that Wilkes is an analogy for the drug addiction he was trying to get away from, but now the years have shown him that there was another parallel. Fans today are becoming more and more like Annie Wilkes from the movie Misery, as social media trolls attack Star Wars, Marvel, and other franchises for trying to improve their storytelling. Annie Wilkes was the first troll. She was determined to destroy the writer she loved rather than let him change, so she tried to kill him.