My Top 10 Favorite Stephen King Novels: Part II
There’s not much sense in doing a preamble to the second part of an article and as a great horror writer once wrote, “Like all sweet dreams, it will be brief, but brevity makes sweetness, doesn’t it?” So without further exposition here is the second half of my top ten favorite Stephen King novels.
REMEMBER: SPOILERS BELOW!!!!!
5. 11/22/63 (2011)
Some of you might be surprised that I have this book so high on my list but I just can’t help it. I flat-out love this book. I mean how can you not? Time travel? Preventing JFK’s assassination? A legitimate love story, which I might add Stephen King is rarely good at? Oh and don’t forget the fact that there is a whole section devoted to a quaint little town called Derry. Divorced school teacher Jake Epping’s journey is nothing short of fascinating. The best stories are often ones where an ordinary man is thrown into extraordinary circumstances. That’s certainly the case with 11/22/63. What’s fascinating about the novel is how much research King put into the book, including interviewing the curator of the Texas Schoolbook Depository museum at length, as well as speculative historians who proposed what an history could have like had JFK lived. Throughout 11/22/63 I felt a strong attachment to Jake, who keeps himself flush with cash by making the occasional sports bet, a trend that results in some violent circumstances. As Jake is fond of saying the past is “obdurate” and doesn’t like to be changed. I felt the same attachment to Sadie, Jake’s love interest in the 1960s. As I said it’s the best love story King’s ever put to paper. That’s not to say 11/22/63 is The Time Traveler’s Wife. Far from it. The thrill of the chase, especially on the fateful day, as Jake and Sadie track down Oswald is about as gripping as it gets. Although King possesses a reputation for disappointing endings, he absolutely nails it with 11/22/63, especially in light of the original ending. When it comes to 11/22/63, my family member’s reaction to the novel is probably the most apt: “When King is on, he is ON.”
4. ‘Salem’s Lot (1975)
Next to Bram Stoker’s Dracula I think ‘Salem’s Lot is the finest vampire novel ever written. It has a Shirley Jackson feel to it, and indeed Jackson’s presence is prevalent throughout, especially regarding the Marsten house where vampire Kurt Barlow and his familiar Richard Straker reside. The entire book resonates with a classical gothic feel, reminiscent of Poe and Shelley. It’s also an interesting exposition on faith, specifically disillusionment and loss of faith, such as Father Callahan deals with throughout Salem’s Lot. Callahan’s ultimate confrontation with Barlow is the culmination of the faith theme and Callahan fails. Spectacularly. The irony is that while Callahan’s faith is found wanting, the main character Ben Mears’ (an unbeliever) faith prevails. While I loved Doctor Sleep, of all of King’s 70s novels I always wanted a sequel to this one, especially in light of the ending. But as a stand alone novel, it’s still terrifying forty years later.
3. Pet Semetary (1983)
It probably sounds strange for me to say this, but King’s novels never terrified me. To be sure they are scary, however I’ve never experienced the visceral had-nightmares-slept-with-my-lights-on experience that many King fans claim to have. Except Pet Semetary. There is something intensely disturbing about this novel. We’ve all wondered what it would be like if we could bring back dead loved ones. This novel explores the dark side of that desire and then cranks up the volume to eleven. It’s kind of an expansion of the classic short story “The Monkey’s Paw.” Some of you may know that King never really had a father growing up and in some ways the relationship between Louis Creed and Jud Crandall serves as a tacit father/son relationship on paper. We always trust our father’s to know what’s best and to give us good advice. That’s why it’s so devastating when Jud reveals the real pet semetary to Louis in order to revive his daughter Ellie’s cat. It opens a Pandora’s Box of horrors that escalates to a final page that chills the bones. As horror fans we’ve all dealt with ghouls and zombies coming back from the dead, but what makes Pet Semetary infinitely more terrifying is that the main ghoul in this case ends up being Louis’ toddler son Gage. The line, “Daddy I want to play with you,” will haunt my dreams forever. From a literature standpoint, Pet Semetary proves to be a very Sophoclean piece of work. The main character Louis just continues to make a series of bad decisions based on faulty logic, ultimately leading to tragedy. Pet Semetary is like Oedipus Rex, just with ancient Indian burial grounds and bloodthirsty children with straight razors. All the unfortunate events of the novel really hammers home Jud Crandall’s words, “Sometimes dead is better.”
2. The Stand* (1978, Complete and Uncut Edition 1990)
*Side Note: While I’ve read both editions, I prefer the Uncut edition.
Whenever someone says Stephen King’s works aren’t literature I throw The Stand in their faces. In my opinion this novel is the War and Peace of the 20th century. There are so many delicately interwoven themes: the nature of good and evil, redemption, science versus God, Biblical analogies, abortion, loner theory, and on and on. You’d think that with all these motifs that the book would get bogged down. However, The Stand never comes across as convoluted or preachy. An epic and sprawling work written decades before the current post-apocalyptic literature phase (The Hunger Games, Divergent), the novel is the epitome of a good versus evil tale. ironically the “good” segment is composed of very flawed individuals such as Larry Underwood, an extremely selfish man when we first meet him. In many ways Underwood serves as a microcosm for the entire human race. Essentially, will the better angels of our nature overcome our tendencies to destroy? And of course, King gives us one of the most memorable villains in modern literature: Randall Flagg. Has there ever been a more fascinating villain in a King novel? Everything from his cowboy boots with the rundown heels to the button that says “How’s your pork?” just exudes malice and coolness in equal measure. Like many of my favorite books (including the upcoming #1) it’s an old friend I revisit often and certainly a novel I never get tired of.
1. IT (1986)
I really struggled over putting this novel #1 or The Stand, but in the end IT won out. IT is the pinnacle of Stephen King’s works and in my opinon the best. My favorite novels always call to me every couple of years–by that I mean I’m compelled to read them. The Lord of the Rings, The Lords of Discipline , Ready Player One, and IT fall into the category. While the novel is massive (1,138 pages) to me it reads faster than an O. Henry short story. Rarely have I felt such connection to the Loser’s Club: Bill, Stan, Richie, Bev, Mike, Ben, and Eddie. King brilliantly captures the camaraderie of childhood and how friendships can endure even decades later. I mean damn, are there any better friendships than the ones you made when you were twelve years old? IT is the ultimate boogeyman tale, except in this instance the boogeyman is very real. Aside from Randall Flagg, I don’t know if there has been a more terrifying character created than Pennywise the Clown. Can you think of anything worse than a monster that knows your deepest darkest fears and can use them against you? And man alive I FUCKING HATE CLOWNS. They are scary as shit to me. I can’t think about clowns without thinking about Pennywise. My son is NEVER having a clown at his birthday party. But I digress. As with The Stand, IT encompasses many literary elements: Jungian archetypes relating to monsters, the symbolism of Georgie’s paper boat, the foreshadowing of Stan’s suicide, the theme of “the other” which applies to both The Loser’s Club and Pennywise. You could write a term paper about the various literary aspects of IT. Aside from the literary aspects, the novel contains some of the most terrifying scenes ever written by King. The scene where Beverly Marsh comes back to Derry and visits Mrs. Kersh, only to find out it’s Pennywise in disguise, is particularly harrowing. And man alive I can’t hear the line, “We all float down here,” without getting a chill down my spine. Perhaps the most bittersweet element of IT is the ending. The fact that upon triumphing over IT, the remaining members of The Loser’s Club gradually forget each other is tragic. It breaks my heart every single time I read it. It’s the epitome of unfairness. Even the “lighthouse keeper” Mike Hanlon forgets. Maybe the only consolation is that Ben and Bev finally end up together. If not for a dream by Stephen King, IT may never have even existed. King was ready to abandon the novel because he came to a point in the story where he was stuck. Yet after having a nightmare about a head in a fridge, which he included in the novel, King ultimately completed the book. And for that I’m eternally grateful.
Those of you who read Stephen King novels know that he refers to his fans as the collective Constant Reader. I for one will be a Constant Reader until they bury King six feet under. And who knows? If he’s buried in an ancient Micmac burial ground, we might even get a few novels postmortem.
You can follow me on Twitter as Darth Gandalf @cocook1978.