Saturday, July 14, 2007

List of the week: The best of Stephen King

Sorry if this one's a little brisk -- at the moment, my brain wants to continue reading Adam Cadre's marvelous Ready, Okay!, write the new Revolver episode, write a short story that popped into my head yesterday and won't leave, watch the last few nights' episodes of Keith Olbermann, eat lunch, listen to the Beatles, and go to sleep. Plus, this. At least it's in there somewhere.

But one of the things that's been left at the wayside is Richard Bach-- oh, who the fuck am I kidding -- Stephen King's Blaze, which is sitting next to me as I speak. I haven't read more than two chapters of it yet, and I've been working on it for a week. (Contrast that with Ready, Okay!, which I retrieved from the mailbox yesterday, and my bookmark is currently resting between pages 368 and 369.) It is not, at least so far, among the King's best work.

So what is the King's best work? I'm glad you asked, because it gives me another chance to shove my opinion down your throat. Behold: my personal picks for the 25 best things Stephen King has ever written. (Or, at least, published. I'm sure he's written a wykkid bitchin' birthday greeting or two.)

25. Needful Things
Oh, sure, it gets goofy-crazy in the last few pages (FRINAN and I are never going to stop making fun of the Magical Flowers of DOOM, never ever), but on the way there it's one of the most complicated, deranged tales the man has ever written. And is it just me, or were the sexual fantasies about Elvis the scariest parts?

24. Desperation
Kicking off with perhaps King's most perfect opening (a dead cat nailed to a speed limit sign), Desperation is a tale that manages to be both epic and intimate simultaneously. He creates one of his most ominous villains in Collie Entragian, and even the "God is Love" stuff in the last chapter doesn't come off at all cheesy.

23. Misery
In On Writing, King writes that his drug-addled mind came up with Misery as a way of sending himself a red flag. In the metaphor, he was poor Paul Sheldon, sick and immobilized; and the drugs were Annie Wilkes, a wicked witch who held him down and forced him to write. As far as drug-addled metaphors go, you can't get much better than Misery, which is one of King's most spellbinding reads. Interesting story: I once had a copy of this book taken away from me in 7th grade, because it was "inappropriate for school." What class was it? Reading.

22. "All That You Love Will Be Carried Away"
He doesn't crank them out nearly as much as he used to, but when Big Steve writes a short story, it's usually something interesting. The very idea that a traveling salesman would collect bathroom graffiti and write a book about it is fascinating enough -- but then King takes you inside the mind of Alfie Zimmer, and the view is heartbreaking. And I love the perfect ambiguous ending.

21. "The Boogeyman"
Let's not kid ourselves here. Some works are entirely dependent upon their endings for their success. This is one of them. Sure, the story leading up to it is high-quality stuff, but it's that last half-page that brings it all home and earns the story a spot on this list.

20. Hearts in Atlantis
The second appearance of the Dark Tower mythos on our list (Desperation was the first, if you missed it). King's lament for the folly of his generation -- the Baby Boomers -- is funny, sad, poignant, and it feels so very, very real, despite the can-toi running around and such. And I wish I'd though to call a story "Heavenly Shades of Night Are Falling" before he did.

19. Faithful (with Stewart O'Nan)
Steve hasn't done much non-fiction writing outside of Danse Macabre and On Writing, but we should write letters convincing him to do more. While O'Nan's half of the book is certainly entertaining, and a wonderful chronicle of a man lost in obsession (in a good way -- c'mon, it's baseball, obsession is my thing, too), it's the half written by King where the book is truly masterful. King's eye for detail is razor-sharp here, even when he doesn't provide the laundry list of stats one would normally expect in a baseball book. And what starts as a mere baseball diary becomes something much more -- a meditation on...well, love, and faith, and patience. And obsession. Maybe that's why the publisher put everything King writes in the book in bold. (Really.)

18. The Long Walk (as Richard Bachman)
King's taste for The Long Walk would decline over the years -- he'd later declare it full of "windy psychological preachments" -- but of the works he published under the name of his "evil twin," Richard Bachman, this is clearly the one that holds up best. A harrowing tale of mental horror, The Long Walk is a book that you simply cannot stop reading. Much like the race itself -- stop and die. And it features one of my favorite closing lines ever: "And when the hand touched his shoulder again, he somehow found the strength to run."

17. "Umney's Last Case"
One of King's many (many, many) looks at the relationship between a writer and the characters he creates. Of course, it doesn't start out that way -- it starts out as a simple Raymond Chandler pastiche, but he turns it upside down pretty quickly. And another of my favorite closing lines: "This time nobody goes home." (And I'm quoting these from memory, of course. Um, geek.)

16. Bag of Bones
Leave to New England's Horrormeister to wait until he was in his fifties to do an old-fashioned ghost story. But Bag of Bones is so good that it was worth waiting for. It was this book that finally got the uptight literary types to pay attention -- critics who'd scoffed at him before actually read the thing and realized, hey, he really can write. Five years later he'd win a really fancy award.

15. The Dark Tower IV: Wizard and Glass
(Yes, I've decided to rank the Dark Tower novels seperately. Why? 'Cause they're different novels. Silly. And they actually vary quite wildly in quality. To say nothing of style. They were written individually, so I shall rank them so. And my, what a long parenthetical.) For three books, King kept Roland as the stone-faced seeker of the Dark Tower, the unflinching Gunslinger that served the great wheel of ka. But in Wizard and Glass, King breaks Roland open and shows us the pieces, and the picture they paint is terrible indeed. And it also features a mind-bending Wizard of Oz sequence, and a surprise revelation as to who the Man in Black he's been chasing really is.

14. The Langoliers
Stephen King doesn't like flying. You'd never be able to tell that from this novella, no sir, not with its horrifying premise -- what if you went up in an airplane and when you came back down the world was gone. Not the buildings, not the places, but everything alive. Talk about horror. And even though the blind girl with mental powers is a rather odious cliché, he makes up for it with Craig Toomey, one of his most fully realized villains.

13. Insomnia
This is a hefty tome indeed -- I tried three times to get through in junior high school and couldn't. But once I finally sat down and made an effort of it (and got past the first 200 pages or so), I became so lost that I think I read the last 400 pages in one sitting. And hey, it's not only phenomenally entertaining, it also explains a lot of the mechanics of -- guess what -- the Dark Tower series, even showing us the Crimson King.

12. The Dark Tower III: The Waste Lands
King's technophobia goes wild: we've got a giant cyborg bear, a city run by a giant computer, and a self-aware train set on committing suicide. In between all that, he gives us a dog/raccoon thing that can talk and a gripping scene in which young Jake is pulled from our world into theirs. It was reading this book that made me realize what an idiot I'd been for ignoring those Dark Tower books on the shelves on the public library for all those years. Stupid, stupid!

11. Apt Pupil
Years before Columbine, King wrote this chilling novella, an examination of the dark allure of evil. A simple all-American boy (he plays baseball, he has a paper route, he'd probably eat a whole apple pie if you put it front of him and recite the Pledge of Allegiance while doing so) becomes so obsessed with the Holocaust that he blackmails a Nazi war criminal into describing it to him. He just wants to know what it was like. Of course, evil spreads like a fungus, and it isn't long before people start dying. The film version was pretty good, but loses several million points for its cheap, weak, cop-out ending.

10. "The End of the Whole Mess"
You can write it off as a stylistic gimmick if you want, but King's story about the end of the world is all the more harrowing because of its gimmick. The ending is indescribably sad, as you realize the world's last remaining human is left to babbling "i hav a Bobby hiz name is bruther." No good deed goes unpunished, indeed.

9. The Dead Zone
Oh, how FRINAN won't like that. And I admit, The Dead Zone is another of those books I just couldn't get into at first. But years later, I picked it up again and wondered why I never finished it before. Everyman Johnny Smith's struggle with his special power is incredibly moving, especially when he meets weasel-of-the-millennium Greg Stillson, who will one day start a nuclear war. And I love, love, love the book's final scenes in the graveyard.

8. Pet Sematary
The scariest book I've ever read. And I'm not the only one who thinks so -- King himself was so horrified by it that he hated it, didn't want to finish it, refused to publish it once he had, and only did when he found himself contractually obligated to do so. Aside from its literal horrors -- walking dead of every stripe -- Louis Creed's descent into madness is so distressing that I almost didn't finish the thing myself.

7. The Shining
Speaking of descents into madness. Pretty much everything that can be said about The Shining has already been said, being among King's most famous novels. And it's famous for a reason, of course -- its terrifying look into the mind of Jack Torrence, who falls victim to the ghosts of alcoholism and those that reside in the Overlook. And if you're curious why I'm so phobic of wasps, I'm pretty sure reading this book at an impressionable age had something to do with it. Thanks, Mr. King. Thanks.

6. Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption
Frank Darabont's film adaptation was so wonderful that it's easy to forget the novella on which it's based. But the diary of Red, Shawshank's lone penitent inmate, is a story of such beauty and grace that it's probably the best thing to force on people who wrinkle their noses at the thought of reading Stephen King. The only monsters here are human; the only magical powers are those of redemption and -- above all -- hope. I love this story.

5. The Dark Tower VII: The Dark Tower
The ending is the hardest part of any story to pull off. So it's beyond spectacular to note that King completed his magnum opus, the Dark Tower series, perfectly. Not just a good ending, or a great ending; not even a brilliant ending. It is perfect. And the final page is the most horrifying thing Stephen King has ever written. (And people can whine about the death of a certain someone all they want to. Guess what? That was perfect, too.) And if you didn't like it -- hey, he warned you. King stops the book cold to tell the reader to stop reading, because the ending isn't pleasant. And then he breaks you. How marvelous. I love this book.

4. The Eyes of the Dragon
King's leap into the realm of fantasy. We apparently have his daughter Naomi to thank for this one -- he wrote this book for her after she expressed her dislike for his horror novels. But who wouldn't love this tale of magic, murder, wizards, kings, and, um, napkins? And there's a dragon, of course. I have yet to find a single person who's read this book and not liked it. Is it the Stephen King novel for everyone? It just might be. I love this book.

3. It
One of King's two "massive" tomes. He's written many (many, many) times regarding the mythical power of childhood and the imagination, but It remains his pinnacle of the style. It's absolutely gigantic -- spanning twenty-seven years and well over a thousand pages. The whole thing is perfect, but I especially love the final chapters, where King lets the past and present flow through one another seamlessly. I love this book.

2. "The Last Rung on the Ladder"
The saddest thing King has ever written. It's an easily overlooked little story -- it's in the Night Shift collection, if you haven't read it -- but it's one of his very, very best. It's hard to talk about the story at all without giving the whole thing away, so I won't. But read it. I love this story.

1. The Stand
I've read The Stand roughly eight times in the last sixteen years. Every time through, it seems I read something new I didn't see before. It's King's other giant book -- the complete and uncut edition (the only one I've ever read) is even longer than It. But rather than spanning time, The Stand spans a country -- a panoramic view of America going to hell during a single summer when the superflu kills 99.7% of the populace. Why have read it so many times? Especially such a long book? It's the book that made me want to be a writer. I mean, I'd written things before that -- I'd been making up stories since I was old enough to speak. But The Stand made me want to write those stories down and have other people pay me to read them. I'm still desperately trying to catch up to The Stand, which will likely never happen. But I keep reading it, going through once every couple years or so. Why? 'Cause I love this book.


  1. It was a pretty fantastic novel, yes. But I still question the... um, method by which the children are able to escape. You know what I mean. For me, those were the most horrifying six pages he'd ever written.

    And if you don't know what I mean, I am afraid. Or I'll tell you later.

  2. Yeah, I know what you mean. And yes, horrifying. And truly inexplicable.