It’s late October: prime horror reading season. A movie version of IT just smashed box office records, and people everywhere are finishing the novel. The question, “Which Stephen King book should I read next?” sits on the lips of numerous readers. For this question, Amazon recommendations and even Goodreads reviews are next to useless. The internet is full of people who believe King never wrote a bad word in his life (pretty impossible, considering how prolific he is) or that all of his books are overrated schlock (also impossible, considering the variety in his oeuvre). Because he’s had such a long and productive career, few people have read all of his books and can remember each one clearly, so forming a recommendation may be challenging. Here, then, is a brief look at several Stephen King titles, selected because of their differences from one another.
The Shining is perhaps known best for the Stanley Kubrick film based on it, but readers familiar with the movie will find enough differences in the novel to feel plenty of wonder, terror, and suspense. The character of Wendy Torrance, for instance, is much richer on the page than on the screen. One of King’s greatest female characters, she gives the novel an emotional depth that a significant amount of genre writing lacks. For every time we see Jack Torrance imagine himself a victim, we see her or Danny actually victimized, making it clear what sort of monster sits beneath the intellectual mask Jack shows the world. The ending is completely different, so having seen the movie won’t give too many spoilers there, either. King excels at balancing horrifying things from real life with supernatural frights, and The Shining is a prime example. Based on a real place, the antics occurring in the Overlook Hotel include varieties of terror many of us fear in real life alongside demonic shrubbery, ghosts, and psychic torment. Unfortunately, this novel suffers from too much internal monologue and flashback, making the middle feel twice its length, but it’s otherwise delightful and remains a great pick for cinephiles and new parents.
Pet Sematary, on the other hand, suffers from stilted dialog in many areas but offers excellent pacing. With its chilling concept, pervasive supernatural elements, and equally strong sense of place, this novel stands up to anything else King has written without borrowing too much from other titles in his canon. Unlike the Dark Tower novels and some other works (like Hearts in Atlantis), understanding key concepts doesn’t rely on having read something else first. King offers enough exposition about the titular burial ground and its environs for the location to feel real, but he leaves it vague enough that we can use our imaginations, and the plot is never weighed down by the conversations that reveal this spooky backstory. Some of the creepiest entities in this book are never fully visible, and this ambiguity, combined with the sinking feeling that comes as the main character repeats his mistakes and plays into the hand of unspeakable ancient evil, makes for a perfect ending. The sense of compound tragedy and questions about the possible inevitability of human folly puts this almost at a Shakespearean level–this is a good read for someone whose favorite play is MacBeth, who likes some gore, and who hasn’t read much or any King previously.
Salem’s Lot does tie into the Dark Tower books, as it’s in part the origin story of Father Callahan, but familiarity with the series is in no way a prerequisite for enjoying the novel. In fact, it’s better if someone starts this having not read any of them, because part of what makes this book so interesting is watching as the characters develop during a series of chilling events. Not everyone reacts the same way to their town becoming a vampire-infested hellscape, so while this may be King’s only straightforward vampire novel, it’s certainly much more than that, functioning in many ways as a study in human (and inhuman) nature. If that makes it sound too conceptual, don’t worry–the striking nightmare images and graphic descriptions of vampires being staked grounds Salem’s Lot firmly in the world of gruesome horror writing. This is also among King’s best endings, as good as you’ll find in any of his novels. While many consider the ability to wrap up a storyline his greatest weakness, the final portion of this book suggests history may be repeating itself or that it may do so again, but without leaving loose ends. Compelling, haunting, and unpretentious, this is a great pick for anyone who likes reading about bloodsuckers but finds Anne Rice’s work too over the top.
Needful Things is another King novel set in a small Maine town–specifically, Castle Rock, where many of King’s stories unfold. This may be the best of all King’s Castle Rock books, partly because it’s so much fun and partly because it doesn’t have the complicated political intrigue that bogs down The Dead Zone, the slow start that keeps some people from finishing The Dark Half, or the derivative plot of Bag of Bones.
Between the characters’ creative profanity, a gleefully evil villain, and some truly bizarre imagery, it’s hard not to smile through long stretches of this book. This balances some of the deeply unsettling aspects of the novel, like child suicide. The only part of the book that doesn’t work well is a sex scene that challenges the laws of physics. It’s easy to forget about that, though, as King weaves a complex web of characters and storylines into one satisfactory conclusion. Fans of The Body, a novella published in Different Seasons that later became the film Stand By Me, will particularly enjoy finding out whatever happened to Ace Merrill, but it’s not really necessary to have read Cujo or anything else by King to become immersed in the life of what at first appears to be a sleepy little town. Clocking in at 256,217 words, this one is a good choice for people who enjoyed King’s other very long novels (Insomnia and 11/22/64) or who like some comedy with their terror. Physicists, engineers, and others who might demand a certain degree of plausibility in their fiction may not enjoy it as much.
Rose Madder is a novel with many problems. It’s one of only two books for which Stephen King apologized to his fans. That said, the people who enjoy the story truly love it. The antagonist, Norman, is a caricature who seldom feels real and instead seems a composite boogeyman made from a list of despicable traits. Much of the dialog is stiff, and the slang in some of the internal monologues is just plain bizarre. Despite being one of the least supernatural books King has written, it would probably be better without anything fantastic at all. Instead, it should’ve been left as a psychological thriller about a woman leaving her violent husband. The ending is too long, King does not seem to understand how women see each other’s bodies, and his usually careful sense of place is marred by King awkwardly combining the real city of Chicago with some generic version of it. Despite all this, Rose Madder has some great imagery and contains one of King’s most compelling female characters (though she’s not as fun or complex as Annie Wilkes from Misery). The fight scenes are also very well written, and there are quite a few of them. People who prefer thrillers to supernatural horror and have rejected books like IT and Salem’s Lot because of their otherworldly nature might like this one, as well as people who enjoyed Dolores Claiborne for its deeply personal perspective or because it shows a rotten man getting his comeuppance.
Nightmares and Dreamscapes, on the other hand, has something for nearly everyone. While it lacks cohesiveness, that’s a nonissue for readers who appreciate multifariousness. This short story collection demonstrates why some people think King is a better short form writer than a novelist, and it also shows the lie to claims that he’s a one trick pony. There are truly unusual stories like The Moving Finger, which verges on surrealism and feels much more absurdist than most of King’s work. There’s a Sherlock Holmes story, an homage to the John Carpenter movie They Live, and even a nonfiction piece about little league baseball. Longtime fans will find familiar themes and locations, like the Castle Rock story, It Grows on You, and a tale of organized crime reminiscent of The Ledge in a previous short story collection, The Night Shift. The book also contains two traditional vampire stories, and both are standouts, though Night Flier in particular is especially fun, shadowing a tabloid reporter as he almost wrecks an airplane and discovers what undead urine looks like. Because of its variety and depth, Nightmares and Dreamscapes is perhaps the perfect late October read for all but the most fervent haters of the short story form.