Before I discuss my infamous list, a list some readers have paid over a thousand dollars to see (oh, wait a minute, that was in a bad dream), I want to state up front that I consider The Bottoms by Joe R. Lansdale to be the best novel I’ve ever reader. Though it has elements of horror in it, this novel is definitely not horror fiction. It’s about a young boy living in East Texas during the Depression. His father’s the town sheriff. The boy and his younger sister quickly learn the hard way about man’s inhumanity to his fellow man as a serial killer wrecks havoc upon the Texas community. If I had read the book when it was originally published instead of the year after, I would have nominated this novel for the Pulitzer Prize.
It’s that good.
Another novel that runs a close tie to Joe’s book is 11/22/63 by Stephen King. Being from the Kennedy era, I devoured this very long novel about a teacher going back in time to try and save the life of the President. I read it in less than two weeks (which surprises even me), and then I cried at the end of it like a child because against all odds the hero does gets the girl and finds a sense of true happiness in his life.
You’re going to see a lot Stephen King’s fiction on my list. The reason is that in many ways I consider King to be the first really great writer of horror fiction. I love his stuff. Before King, I’d read Lovecraft, Richard Matheson, Ira Levine, Whitney Streiber, Thomas Tryon and William Peter Blatty. All of these authors are excellent in their own right. Stephen King, however, literally paved the way and set the high standards for horror fiction with Carrie, Salem’s Lot, The Shining, The Stand, The Dead Zone, Firestarter, Cujo, Pet Sematary, and so many other wonderful novels. And, the man is still going strong after thirty-eight years. He is one of the truly magnificent miracles of the 20th Century…a natural-born storyteller, who knows how to spin a believable and utterly terrifying yarn.
So, here we go for better or worse.
1) Hell House by Richard Matheson—Stephen King has attributed his career in writing to the late Richard Matheson, who wrote so many fantastic short stories, novels and screenplays during his fifty years in the business. Matheson brought horror into the home, displaying it in a modern setting and showing the reader that the next-door neighbor could be his worst nightmare. Not only did he write brilliant teleplays for the famous Twilight Zone series with Ron Serling, Matheson also wrote several novels that were made into feature films.
One of them, Hell House, planted the seed in the back of my mind about wanting to be an author of horror fiction and one day writing a haunted house novel that surpassed even Matheson’s book. What Matheson did was take Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House and jacked it up several notches with sex, violence and pure, unadulterated evil. A small group of psychic investigators are paid to spend a week inside the most evil house in the world. One of the investigators nearly died years earlier inside the large, bricked-in manor. This time around the energy of the house wants to see everyone dead and is determined to accomplish that one way or another. The book is certainly tame by today’s standards, but during the early seventies it took the haunted house motif outside of the box and scared the bejesus out of its readers with its frightening realism. The movie wasn’t too bad, either.
2) Salem’s Lot by Stephen King—I read the paperback version of this novel when it came out in 1976. Actually, a customer of the used bookstore I worked in bought a copy and gave it to me to read. I did so in one night and became an instant fan of this unbelievable author, though it would be years before I finally read his first book, Carrie.
Oh, boy, Salem’s Lot. What to say? King took what Richard Matheson had started and shoved it right in your face like a custard-filled pie. The book made me believe vampires existed and that they were on their way to take over the town I lived in. Think Peyton Place meets Dracula. A small-time writer returns to his home town to write a book about the evil Marsten House and the murders that took place there. At the same time he arrives, a travelling vampire moves into the infamous house and begins to quickly destroy the community, turning men, women and children into fellow blood suckers. Only the writer and a tiny group of people have a chance of stopping the evil from spreading, but at what cost? No other author had ever come close to writing as novel as electrifying with goose-bump horror as Stephen King did with Salem’s Lot. More than Carrie, I firmly believe this is the book that really began his career. Unfortunately, there were two television movies based on Salem’s Lot. They weren’t bad for the time period, though I honestly feel the second one with Rob Lowe, Rutger Hauer and Donald Sutherland steals the show with more actual fright scenes and fun.
3) The Shining by Stephen King—This was the third novel by the Maestro (that’s my nickname for King) and cemented any doubts I might have had about whether he could scare me again, and oh, man, did he. After I’d read Salem’s Lot, I drove down the street that night after work to the bookstore handling new publications and found a hardcover of The Shining by King on their shelf. I bought it without hesitation, handing over a fistful of ones to the clerk, and then read the novel that night. I was young and could go days without sleep. Afterwards, late in the morning hours, I remember repeating Stephen King’s name over and over again like it was a mantra, wondering where this amazing author with the black horn-rimmed glasses and wooly black beard had materialized from. I didn’t know it at the time, but I would become a die-hard fan of this author that would last right up to the present. Hell, I was only married for five years each time. My relationship with the Maestro would out last both of my marriages and add greater fulfillment to my life. I can’t help it, Steve. I love ya, man!
As most readers of horror fiction know by now, The Shining deals with Jack Tolerance and his wife, Wendy, and their young son, Danny. The family takes over the isolated Overlook Hotel in Estes Park, Colorado during the winter months as caretakers. The hotel, however, is possessed with a pure, rotten, stinking, evil energy that wants Danny and his unique ability to shine, or to see glimpses of the past and the future. The hotel uses Jack to get to his son. It isn’t long before Jack is chasing the boy around the hotel with a croquet mallet in his hand, wanting to bash the little kid’s skull in. What King did here was take The Haunting of Hill House and Hell House and added more extreme elements of debauchery and murder and outright frights, keeping the reader shaking in his snow boots as he reads each gripping page to the bloody end. You see, Stephen King has a particular magic with words and storytelling that causes a reader to feel as if he personally knows each of the characters and is experiencing many of the horrifying moments the fictional people are dealing with in the story. This September, Stephen King will be coming out with the sequel to The Shining. It’s called Dr. Sleep and promises to finish the job The Shining started so many years ago, which was to scare the living crap out of you. God bless the King!
4) The Stand by Stephen King—This was King’s fourth novel, or fifth published book in the fall of 1978. Before The Stand came out, there was an anthology of short stories, Night Shift, which was put out by Doubleday in 1977. First, this is the uncut version of the novel. The complete edition wasn’t published till 1990. Now, I’d read long novels before reading The Stand. For the old-timers out there like me, they might remember some of these that were later turned into TV movies—Shogun, Noble House, The Winds of War, Centinnial, Hawaii, Chesapeake, Roots and The Thornbirds. Oh, and you can add War & Peace to this, too. I was used to reading heavy hardcovers. What literally floored me at the time was that The Stand dealt with the end of the world as we know it.
A super flu wipes out 99% of the population in the United States in under a month. The few people still alive are divided into two camps—the good and the evil (I wanted to write The Good, the Bad and the Ugly). The good folks are converging from different locations to Boulder, Colorado under the guidance of an old, black lady named Mother Abigail. She follows the word of God and understands the battle looming ahead of them. The evil side, led by a supernatural being named Randall Flagg, or the Walking Dude, are winding up in Las Vegas. Uh, this is where I live, but I swear I’m not a follower of Flagg’s. The novel basically centers itself around the journey both parties are taking with the “ups” and “downs” encountered along the way. A final confrontation is guaranteed at the end. One of the “good” characters of the novel is Stu Redman. I have to tell you that I loved this guy because he was an everyman who becomes a hero much against his will and struggles to do the right thing for the people looking out to him for guidance and inspiration. There’s a scene about a hundred pages from the end where Stu and a few other men are headed to Vegas to fight Flagg and his crew of cutthroats. Stu injures himself and has to be left behind. I remember shedding more than one tear during that scene. I didn’t want to see Stu die, though I know we all must die sooner or later. Still, I’d spent the journey with him and didn’t want Stu to be left behind by the others. Yep, King is one of the few authors who can bring tears to my eyes with his characters and storylines.
When the complete edition of The Stand came out in 1990, adding nearly 400 pages to the 1978 version, I read it again and found the book even more compelling and thought-provoking with more details for the characters, not to mention a new character that had been cut from the original book.
On a side note, there’s a lady at work I know, who had a stand-in role during the making of the TV movie of The Stand. She was one of the people in the elevator with Lloyd (the Walking Dude’s top henchman), going up to the penthouse. She’s only in the scene for a second before the camera closes in on Miguel Ferrar, but boy did she look good in her black leather and fishnet stockings back in 1994.
5) Ghost Story by Peter Straub—In 1979, along with Stephen King’s The Dead Zone, another unique horror novel appeared, introducing a new author who was relatively unknown at the time. This novel, Ghost Story, is probably the most literary of all the modern horror fiction written during the 20th Century. Strangely, it seems to be that Straub is somewhat unknown amongst the younger readers. I think this is because, after writing Floating Dragon in 1982, Peter Straub changed over to other genres. Had he stayed in the horror genre, he would be more well-known as an author today. But about Ghost Story? Is it scary? Damn right it is!
This is a novel about supernatural revenge. Five men who live in Milburn, New York and form the Chowder Society, tell ghost stories to each other at their regular meetings. Each man has lived in Milburn his entire life and become somewhat successful. All five have known each other since they were young men and loved the same woman, Eva Galli. Accidentally killing the lady, they cover up the secret and never speak of it again. Fifty years later, the spirit of Eva Galli has come back for murderous revenge and is determined to kill each member of the group. Dark and frightening, Ghost Story is a novel that lingers in your mind long after you’ve finished reading it. A feature-length movie was made from the novel, but failed to capture the teeth-rattling tension and creepy atmosphere that Straub so deftly created. The book was also cut down to four-fifths of its length for the movie. The one good thing about the film is the actress who played Eva Galli—Alice Krige. She was not only beautiful and sexy, but clearly smart and utterly capable of having five young men fall madly in love with her. I bought the DVD just to see her.
To be continued…