Written by Matt Molgaard
Before I’m ignited in flames for this list, I ask my readers to really hang on to one specific thought while perusing this list: this is a subjective article. I don’t expect everyone to agree with my rankings, especially when it comes to an author as superb and truly prolific as Stephen King. The man’s been perched atop the horror mountain for nearly forty years. His body of work is essentially unparalleled in the realm of fiction, and selecting 10 “best” from King is a bit like attempting to squeeze the best Beatles songs on a single CD: it’s tough as nails, and something is bound to slip through the cracks.
Having said that, I’m pleased with this list, and I think these novels are great examples of a tormented mind in pique form. While you’ll note that I obviously lean toward King’s earlier works as strong favorites, the man has churned out some extremely pleasing offerings of late – a few of which have made this list. Hang on tight, reserve your inclination to bash my selections (if you really feel the need, I won’t be too angry), and feast on the 10 greatest novels Stephen King has offered the masses!
Note: All collections (including novella collections, IE The Bachman Books) have been omitted from this piece.
10. IT: Many consider IT to be King’s genuine masterpiece, but I don’t fully agree with that. The story of Pennywise and the… darker forces (shall we say) with which he collaborates is awfully eerie, legitimately frightening and in all honesty, produced one of the most memorable fictitious villains in history. The idea of children being murdered is just about as taboo as one could imagine, and King apparently revels in the idea of making readers squirm. There are some gnarly images created on paper here, and they really resonate long after the novel has met its conclusion.
With my praise issued, I’ll specify why It didn’t land a higher position on this list: the story stretches (this novel feels like a pivotal one for King, as it seems he adopted a rather strong desire to over exercise the exploration of the minutest details, something he’s now begun to make a habit of), is at times a tad inconsistent, and fails to produce another character even remotely near as memorable as our now notorious killer clown. The finale – as my mother would accurately put it – is a bit on the anticlimactic side as well. It’s a strong finish, but Pennywise deserved a bit more in my personal opinion… something more grandiose, if you will; if he’s the star, lets make him the star until the final page turns.
9. Cell: In regards to some of King’s more recent works, I stand by my belief that Cell ranks amongst the absolute finest. I’m sure some will disagree, but this is a story that produces a heavy dose of action while incorporating an awesome contemporary awareness that, at times, seems to be lacking in King’s more modern fiction. Conspiracy theorists should love this tale, as should those who simply loathe technology. Hell, even zombie fans will get a kick out of this furious novel that really never lets up once the ball of catastrophe begins to roll.
If I had to point to any one area of this story as “weak” (I hate using that term when discussing Mr. King’s work, as he simply doesn’t offer much of anything that merits such a moniker), it would be the character focus. The development is there, no doubt, but by the time the novel has met it’s finale, ask yourself this: do I care about any of the characters introduced in this story?
8. From A Buick 8: There’s a level of connectivity within this story that hearkens back to King’s early works, and I love it. Driven by flashbacks delivered through pitch-perfect dialogue, From A Buick 8 is somewhat light on the action, but sometimes less is far more. It’s remarkably easy to leap into Ned Wilcox’s world of curiosity, and there are moments within this narrative that really illustrate flawless character development. Furthermore, the connection to The Dark Tower is all but undeniable, yet not so overtly pronounced as to feel forced. This one is quite the homerun, I’m just not completely sure I’d like to travel to the ballgame in that old Buick.
It’s tough to isolate any faults within this one, in fact if I can think of anything to really nitpick, it would be the fact that the story isn’t really scary, at all. On the flip-side however, From A Buick 8 doesn’t really need to be. Go figure.
7. Cujo: There are a few things about Cujo that have always struck me dumbfounded: first, the premise. Sure, dogs can be intimidating, vicious creatures – especially rabid canines – but to center an entire story (there are some obvious relationship issues between our heroine Donna and her spouse, but the true fear factor lies in the hairy situation Donna finds herself in when visiting the garage of Joe Cambers) around a battle between woman, an uncontrollable dog and the elements seems awfully bold to me. This is the kind of story that could have easily put readers to sleep, but it’s so unbelievably intense, there’s no rest to be had when Cujo is in your hands. This frantic fight for survival is a damn fine piece of work. Knowing King crafted this gem while in a substance induced haze is absolutely remarkable to me.
The only element of this story that got under my skin a bit was the fact that Donna – not her husband – is the promiscuous figure who travels outside of her marital relationship. I think in general, man is viewed as the betrayer… the pig, when it comes to infidelities. And now, really thinking about it, I’m not sure there’s any validity in my distaste for that angle of the story, it’s really rather unique!
6. Misery: Realism baby! That’s the true beauty behind this harrowing tale of fanaticism taken way, way too far, well beyond the point of obsession in fact. I believe that what makes Paul Sheldon’s plight so impacting is the fact that it feels personal. And knowing King’s status in the public’s eye, I don’t have any issues with seeing him suffer a little paranoia when it comes to his followers: people worship the man. It might make you nervous as well, were you in the same career position. Both Sheldon and his number one fan, Annie Wilkes are memorable characters illuminated to perfection. There’s no difficulty in sympathizing with Sheldon, and as crazy as it sounds, Annie’s insanity doesn’t feel like a stretch, in fact her personality is genuinely melancholy… you can almost feel for this freak. Both Wilkes and Sheldon rank among the strongest personalities King has ever brought to life, and for that, I as a crazy fan am eternally grateful.
Why doesn’t this one rank higher? Because my top five selections are just plain amazing, it’s that simple.
05. Needful Things: I don’t recall ever having any don’t deal with the Devil talks with my folks, but after reading Needful Things, it almost seems as though perhaps that was a discussion that should have taken place at some time. King really plays on the dark side of humanity with this novel, but furthermore, he brings mans weaknesses into a clear forefront that echoes in the mind. What would you do to have your hearts desire? That’s really what it all comes down to, wisdom and moral values, and unfortunately for the small town of Castle Rock, morals seem to hold little weight, which leads to some absolutely heinous acts and a whole lot of bloodshed. A multi-layered tale that conjures just about every emotion imaginable from readers, Needful Things feels more like a horrific experience than a work of fiction.
My lone issue with this beauty is the overall scope of things. I wouldn’t have minded if King reeled it in a tad and eliminated a few of the minor players to place a stronger emphasis on the focal figures of the tale. Then again, some of those minor players work to set a gruesome tone that never seems to subside in the quirky shop of Needful Things.
04. The Shining: Jack Torrance’s life really, really sucked. The poor bastard about drowned himself in a castle sized vat of alcohol, abused his kid while in a drunken stupor, took a depressing job, became overrun by a presence too powerful to put in justifying words, attempted to kill his family, and eventually paid dearly for what really amounts to mental weakness. That’s not an appealing life, but The Shining was an undeniably appealing novel. This unforgiving take on the good old haunted house idea is genuinely heart breaking and quite savage, as King takes the idea of possession much farther than many of his peers would ever dream. There are so many profound moments within this novel it’s impossible to isolate each without providing you a novella’s worth of words, but if you’ve read the story, you know exactly what I mean.
At this point I’m done pointing out what I consider detracting elements of the stories, my selections are golden (you’ll likely agree with that even if you don’t agree with the particular order in which I’ve used) from this stage on. I will however say this: The Shining is a damn informative novel. I learned that isolation for an alcoholic can be absolutely fatal, and when it’s time to put the bottle down, you’d best to put the bottle down forever. I’m also now tearing at the seams, salivating over the idea of visiting the Stanley Hotel, King’s root inspiration for the novel.
03. Pet Sematary: What’s more terrifying than losing a child? How about the idea of seeing to it that the child was resurrected, only to learn that he (or she) had returned as a brainless homicidal ghoul you’re going to have to “kill” a second time? As a father, Pet Sematary tugs at my strings and really puts my emotional fortitude through the meat grinder. What makes the novel so special isn’t the wild action (there’s plenty), or the very, very legit scares (plenty of those too), but the fact that it’s easy to relate to Louis Creed’s decision making, poor or not. The guy repeatedly trips over his own shoelaces, but these are laces that damn near any father would find himself tangled up in. It’s terrifying on such a personal level that it almost feels as though King managed to write this novel for every father out there, each specifically, somehow. An enigma of a tale, Pet Sematary not only works, it’s gorgeous in a haunting, petrifying way.
02. Christine: Christine and The Shining run this awkward parallel course… they feel like the perfect companion pieces because they’re astonishingly similar: troubled individual finds himself in a position in which he’s lost all control of his sensibility, overrun by the residual yet intelligent power contained in one specific location. For The Shining, it’s an expansive hotel, for Christine, it’s the cramped confines of a ’58 Plymouth Fury. What gives Christine an edge over The Shining is the alarming faithfulness King invests in youth. It’s actually really easy to imagine the brightest 17 year old on the planet crafting this masterpiece, that’s how authentic it feels. I recall reading this for the first time while in high school and being stuck in a state of awe at just how right King got it, from the attitudes to the mannerisms to the conflicts that count as a youth, it’s all here in startling purity. Christine is, still to this day, one of the absolute best novels I’ve ever read.
01. ‘Salem’s Lot: As strange as it sounds, I don’t think it’s an easy feat to make vampires frightening. They’re equally as erotic as sinister, first off, and we’re talking an idea that’s been exercised so many times, over so many years, it seems unfathomable that a recent bloodsucker tale might successfully stir any level of fear, or dread. But King did it, and he did it big. Ben Mears is the novelist hero you totally and completely want to root for: a good, kind-hearted guy who’s got a skeleton or two tucked away, but not enough to keep his back to the wall. A terrific group of individuals make for the supporting crew, and our villain Barlow is everything you hope to find of an antagonist. There isn’t a shred of downtime to be found in ‘Salem’s Lot, and there’s an atmosphere that just oozes from every page. Nearly every “turning” ultimately results in an amazingly taut confrontation between Mears and the undead, and we’ve got enough transformation at work to keep readers stunned, silent and transfixed by what may very well be the greatest vampire novel ever written.