Saturday, September 28, 2013

The Pop of King: Essential Novels in the Stephen King Canon

Last night, in one of my many dreams, I found myself talking passionately to someone about the literary merits of Stephen King.  A copy of The Stand, thick as a slab of concrete, sat on a table between us.  I placed my hand on top of the The Stand, leaned forward, and barked, "Stephen King is the Charles Dickens of our times!"  I'm certainly not the first one to bring up that comparison, but I think it's a valid one.  King is not only one of the most popular authors in our modern culture, he's had a longevity on the shelves that is truly breathtaking.  I expect there will be a public mourning when he passes, just as readers rent their garments upon hearing news of Dickens' death.  This week saw two major events in King's life: he celebrated his 66th birthday last Saturday, and then three days later, he released his newest novel, Doctor Sleep.  In honor of those two milestones, guest blogger Brandon Engel gives us

The Top 5 Must-Read Stephen King Novels

Love him or hate him, there’s no disputing his stature as one of the most influential pop novelists of our time.  From his first novel Carrie about an outcast, telekinetic high-schooler, to Doctor Sleep, a long-awaited sequel to The Shining, Stephen King has left an indelible mark on the world of literature, film, and television.  Several of his novels have been adapted for screen.  Some have been superb, while some have left much to be desired.  Even in the instances where a film does capture the essence of a King novel, rarely, if ever, has a film surpassed the quality of his novels.  Much attention is dedicated on the web to film adaptations of his novels, but let us revert back to the novels themselves.  His back-catalog is indeed extensive, as King has nearly 60 books to his credit.  But there are a few titles with which everyone should familiarize themselves.  Here are the 5 Stephen King books everyone should read.

The Shining (1977): King’s classic novel about the bizarre, demoralizing spiritual presence in the Overlook Hotel, a remote lodge in the middle of Colorado.  Jack Torrance is a temperamental writer, overcoming a drinking problem, who has signed on to serve as caretaker for the Overlook during the harsh, Colorado winter.  Along for the ride are Jack’s wife Wendy, and telepathic son Danny, who has keen insight into the bizarre spiritual presences in the hotel.  Danny meets the hotel’s cook Dick Halloran, who is also endowed with psychic abilities, and the two of them form a special bond.  Jack’s frustrations, coupled with cabin fever, and the corrosive influence of the ghosts in the hotel, drive him mad.  Danny summons Dick for help, as Jack goes insane, and pursues his wife and children through the hotel with a roque mallet.  The topiary animals outside of the hotel spring to life!  It’s a highly imaginative tale, and one that King used to exorcise his own alcoholic demons.

Carrie (1974): King’s classic novel about a young, socially outcast girl with psychic powers who lives with a mother who is an overbearing, religious zealot.  Carrie is ridiculed without mercy by her peers in the girl’s locker room when she panics in the shower after seeing her own menstrual blood for the first time.  As if the ordeal wasn't troubling enough, Carrie’s mother chastises her when she returns home.  The girls who taunted Carrie are punished, and one takes it upon herself to get revenge.  One of the girls who teased Carrie, named Sue, feels remorse for teasing Carrie, and arranges to have her boyfriend, a popular jock, escort Carrie to the prom.  While at the prom though, Carrie is the victim of a cruel practical joke which leaves her drenched in pig’s blood on stage during the prom--which, beyond being grotesque for the most obvious reasons, is also a sort of sinister joke about menstruation.  Carrie then uses her telekinetic power to decimate her entire town, starting with the high school prom.

Christine (1983): Arnie is an impotent teenage nerd who is bullied, and shy around girls.  He first sees Christine as a dilapidated old Buick in a state of total disrepair.  Arnie makes conversation with the car’s owner, a crude, rumpled old man, and ultimately purchases the car for $250.  Arnie’s friend Dennis tries to persuade him against buying the car, but it’s no use.  The car is possessed, and also serves as some sort of portal through time.  Arnie’s whole persona changes.  He becomes an aggressive, “greaser” tough guy, and starts dating the most attractive girl in school, Leigh.  We learn, after a gang demolishes the car, that Christine has bizarre regenerative powers, and can restore herself if damaged.  Christine is intent on killing anyone who tries to come between her and Arnie--including Leigh.  This killer car trope is one that Stephen King would revisit a few times in his career, but Christine stands head and shoulders above his other efforts.

Dolores Claiborne (1992): Dolores Claiborne is a foul-mouthed New England woman, who has become the stuff of local lore, with rumors abounding that Claiborne had murdered her husband years earlier.  For decades, Claiborne has provided in-home care for her client Vera Donovan, a wealthy old woman.  When Vera dies, the whole town suspects Claiborne murdered her, but Dolores insists she did not.  She does, however, 'fess up to police that she killed her husband years earlier, on the night of a total solar eclipse, to protect the couple’s daughter, whom Joe had been molesting.  This one is remarkable structurally, in that it plays out as one continuous narrative, with no breaks.  The novel reads like the transcription of the titular character’s testimony given to police.  While he doesn’t shy away from the scatological (a staple of King’s work, for better or worse) King still manages to treat certain taboos with a surprising level of depth and sincerity, if not subtlety.

Firestarter (1980): Andy and Victoria were a couple who met in the 1960s when they were test subjects in experiments with a highly effective psychoactive drug conducted by The Shop, a secretive government agency.  The drug equips the couple with psychic powers, which they pass on to their daughter, Charlie.  She is pyrokinetic, meaning she is endowed with the ability to start fires with her mind.  The full extent of her powers is unknown, and members of The Shop want to capture Charlie, so that they may study her.  Shop agents torture and murder Victoria in an effort to extract information from her about Charlie.  They relentlessly pursue Charlie and Andy, even recruiting ex-Vietnam agent John Rainbird, whose intention is to ultimately kill Charlie.  Will Charlie escape?  Will she be forced to learn the full-extent of her strange power?  Read on, Constant Reader.

Brandon Engel is an entertainment blogger whose favorite authors include Kurt Vonnegut, Oscar Wilde, Stephen King and James Baldwin.  Follow him on twitter: @BrandonEngel2


  1. Where's "Dead Zone?!" My husband and I both agree it was one of King's best.

  2. The Shining is the most terrifying book I've ever read.
    I'm wondering if I'll survive Doctor Sleep. ;)
    I loved Thinner and Misery, too.
    Great choices- I enjoyed them all. Delores stayed with me a long time after I finished it, but The Shining will never leave me.

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