The great thing about writing about an author with a prolific output is that everyone has a different top five books, and no end of debate will often ensue. I’ve been reading King’s books for 20 years so, inevitably, my own top five has shifted as new books have come out, so do expect future amendments!
Unlike so many King fans, none of the Dark Tower series are on my list, and neither is The Stand. Not because they are bad, but they are not, for me, his best work. Stephen has so many oeuvres within his back catalogue that they are many different takes on what ‘classic’ King actually is – is it the gory horror (Carrie), the nostalgic works (It, The Body) the ones with the Sci-Fi element (The Tommyknockers), the post-apocalyptic tales (The Stand), or the books dripping in pathos (Rose Madder)?
Now, I enjoy all of these, but, for me, the best King books are primarily character-driven, it just happens that those characters wear overcoats of gore. So the pathos/nostalgia/gory horror books are my preference.
I’ll look more at his short stories and novellas later (although a novella collection is included here, I couldn’t resist); these really deserve their own analysis.
So, my top 5 King books are (in no particular order);
This fairly recent offering is, in my opinion, one of King’s best books for years. It is being made into a film, so let’s hope the casting and script can do it justice. Despite the repetition regarding the issues of time travel and return visits to the same places and times, this does not become confusing, dull or tedious. The cyclic nature of the story works well, in fact, and establishes the characters. I enjoy the correlation between ‘real’ history, and King’s invented world and people. I think too, given the recognition of the date and the facts around the Kennedy assassination, this could have gone very wrong, so was a bold move. Fans of ‘The Dead Zone’ should enjoy this one too. A great read.
This one infrequently appears on this type of list, but is in my opinion an overlooked gem. Released in 2008, this book did not seem to get the usual level of publicity, and as such is one many have not heard of. I feel this is the first book that saw King return to his usual level of excellence following his cessation of drinking and drugging.
Unusually, it is set away from Maine and the usual King geography, and is instead based in Minnesota and Florida. This in itself was fascinating, as it moved King successfully outside of his comfort zone. Art is a big feature, and the lavish description of the paintings really draws you into the story. I would recommend this to fans of ‘Rose Madder’, ‘Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption’ and ‘Bag of Bones’. Speaking of which...
Bag of BonesAs I mentioned in an earlier post, every Stephen King fan has their own preferred King style – for me it is the quirky combination of horror, nostalgia and pathos so evident in books like Duma Key and Bag of Bones. Recently adapted into a TV movie with Pierce Brosnan that really didn’t do it justice, this is a tale of grief and love, of righting old wrongs, connections to the past, and, almost incidentally, great horror that springs from hurt and denial. I went to a book signing with King (more in another post!) when this was released, and that only added to the hype, but this really lived up to all expectations, and is a book I can read again and again. Like many of King’s books, the central character is an author, and this really does make the book seem more personal, and Mike Noonan more lifelike.
The Bachman Books
(strictly speaking, the first two of the four novellas contained within)
Before the world knew that Richard Bachman was Stephen King, he published four separate novellas under the Bachman name (as well as the novel ‘Thinner’). In 1985, they were published together as the Bachman Books, featuring an intro by King discussing why he took on a pseudonym – an interesting read. Comprising ‘Rage’, ‘The Long Walk’, ‘Roadwork’ and ‘The Running Man’, this collection brought together works that fell between short story and novel lengths.
‘Rage’ has now been withdrawn from publication by King, so newer versions do not contain it.
For me, ‘Rage’ and ‘The Long Walk’ really are prime King – long enough to be great stories, not as overtly long as some of his later works. Both focused on teenagers; this is nostalgic, angsty King at his peak. Both are also controversial works in terms of their themes, but have central characters that are likeable (which is a bit disturbing in terms of ‘Rage’ if you think about it too much!).
If you can get hold of a copy containing ‘Rage’ then it’s worth the read, if not, still do check out the newer edition and read ‘The Long Walk’.
‘Roadwork’ and ‘The Running Man’ are good too, you get your money’s worth with this collection, but it is the first two that I find memorable and re-readable.
The Green Mile
I suppose that when you are as prolific as King, the incentive to try something new, a different format, must be huge, simply to shake up your routine. With ‘The Green Mile’, King looked back to prolific authors of old, particularly Charles Dickens, and initially issued it as a serial novel in six volumes which were available monthly, akin to older publications that were serialised in newspapers, or sold piecemeal as penny dreadfuls. Later, ‘The Green Mile’ was issued as a single volume.
This is one of SK’s best known books, largely because of the popularity of the film which stayed very true to the written story.
Taking team building and workplace bonding to the extreme, this is a very relatable narrative, in spite of its unusual setting. The boundaries between the good and bad guys are blurred at best; it’s a talented author who makes you root for many of the death row inmates we get to know here. It’s evocative of a gentler time, which is in dramatic juxtaposition to the action, and as a real bonus, it features a very talented mouse. If you’ve not read this one, do so, it’s worth it, and if you can get hold of the serialised volumes, you can take it bit by bit too.
I could go on of course, I also considered Dolores Claiborne, Rose Madder, Insomnia, The Shining, Carrie, It, The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon, Misery, and Hearts in Atlantis, and on another day these might have made the cut. Isn’t it great to have such choice?
I’m sure you will all disagree with me, or have your own top 5, this is why King’s work works, it speaks to people on an individual level, and we each form our own relationships with it. So, which ones are in your top 5?