If ever words in a book have danced around in your mind creating equally magical and nightmarish worlds and ultimately have made you put the book down in fear then chances are, you’ve been reading a Stephen King book. When you talk about horror books then you cannot ignore the man that most people will refer to as the master of horror as there are so many classic stories to choose from such as Carrie, Firestarter, Pet Sematary, IT, Bag of Bones and The Outsider. Some of those novels will be spoken about here in this article, clearly there are so many books to choose from that you can’t possibly write about them all so I will write about some of my favourites and hope that you will enjoy reading my experiences of these stories. Don’t worry, this won’t be a pretentious book club lecture but rather an appreciation of someone who is truly a master of their craft.
Anybody who has read at least a couple of Stephen King books will know that he has an amazing eye for detail in his stories and very much has a talent for describing what seems to be the most innocuous details in painstaking detail but yet still has you glued to the pages reading these descriptions. I imagine that not only would a lot of authors not go into this level of detail but a lot of them would perhaps not have the talent to do so without making their readers yawn. I don’t mind admitting that this isn’t something that I have been able to achieve in my writing but then this is a part of what makes King such an intriguing and master of the art of storytelling. This is part of why I read his novels, yes, I read for the suspense and scary nature of the stories but actually the style of writing within the stories are like nothing you will get anywhere else, from anyone else.
Without any further ado, lets get on with looking at some of my favourite Stephen King novels.
As a child, I loved reading and made my way through a good portion of the books in my school library and would try to stay up at night in order to devour Enid Blyton and Roald Dahl books. Reading was in my blood and always will be, however as a 14 year old boy, I was looking for something different – I was too old now for The Famous Five or Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and as a typical teenager I wanted something more adult. Now I don’t know where other kids my age went when they wanted a more grown up book to read – I never thought to ask – but this is where I went – Pet Sematary!
I found this on my parents bookshelf, I think it had been left there by my sister who had left home a few years before. So, I picked it off the shelf to have a look and something about that tagline grabbed me – “Sometimes Dead is Better!” To me that was all the reason I needed to start reading it. Little did I know that these few hundred pages would start a love affair with Stephen King (his writing you dirty minded people!) that continues to this very day in my 40th year on this planet!
I had never read anything like this at all, I was riveted as I sat there and read about the family cat getting killed and subsequently placed in the Pet Cemetery. I read with fiendish delight to see what happened next as the cat comes back to life and is nowhere near the same animal it was when it was alive. Changed, bloodthirsty and vicious the animal became and the more these changes became apparent the more I was glued to the book! As a bit of an aside, before I started reading this, I was convinced that Semetary spelt the way it is on the front cover was genuinely the way that Americans spelt the word! It wasn’t until it was pointed out in the book that it was a mis-spelling by a character in the story that I realised that my initial theory wasn’t correct.
The story, of course, has many twists and turns and shocks but I must admit that I was particularly shocked when (*spoiler alert*) the little boy, Gage dies. Up to now I’d always read books where the protagonists rescued anybody in danger especially if it was a child. If there is one thing you learn about Stephen King it is that he knows how to shock and he certainly isn’t averse to killing off a child here and there – read Cujo for further proof of this!
I also want to speak about the film versions briefly, I won’t spend too much time on them but I think both films certainly have their merits. The newer movie that was made last year has changed certain things in the story which can sometimes be a cardinal sin with Stephen King films but this one kind of works in a way that I think you might be pleasantly surprised by. I won’t give it away if you’ve not seen it but it does provide an interesting spin on the story as a whole.
The original film is what I would like to speak about though really or at least the performance of Miko Hughes as Gage. Now, I’m not sure how old Miko was here but he turns in an absolutely captivating performance as Gage in this movie. As the version of Gage before he gets run over by the truck you could almost forget about him but as the post burial Gage, you could honeatly believe that Miko might actually kill you, he played it demonically which was perfect for the role. He was also great in Wes Craven’s New Nightmare which may be a future blog post here. I’m not sure about his career as an adult but output as a child horror actor is phenomenal and always worth a watch.
It wasn’t long after reading this novel that I was longing for more and this one is what I chose as my second one…
It was the same Summer in which I read Pet Sematary that I started IT. This novel would be different, this was no finish it in two weeks job like the last one, this one would take me a solid couple of months to read. Now, you have to understand a couple of things about IT, a) it is fucking long and b) there is so much content to it in terms of characters, exposition, suspense and good old fashioned horror! The main thing about IT is that you really get to know the characters you read about, even supporting characters like the policemen, i can’t remember know if they’re investigating George’s death or it’s a flashback to 27 years previously. Either way, you know exactly what drives each and every character in the story.
Despite the length of time it actually took me to read IT, this is undoubtedly a stone wall classic and must be revered as one of Kings crowing achievements. I would say it was THE crowning achievement but for the existence of The Dark Tower but I’ll come to that later on.
To me, IT represents the ultimate coming of age story, a bunch of rag tag individuals thrown together by circumstance and a mutual hatred of the school bully, Henry Bowers. I don’t know about you but this story kind of represented my school life – I didn’t have a Henry Bowers thankfully but I did have a Losers Club and there wasn’t anybody else I wanted to share my experience with. This was largely how I got through those years and so is the case in IT. The Losers Club is greater than the sum of its parts and just by being together they survive school and it is by being together that they are able to take on Pennywise as kids and later, as adults.
Pennywise, is an amazing villain. Very possibly the greatest that Stephen King has created and it’s largely because it is fear itself, the creature knows what you fear the most and can project it back at you. But, for all that it is the creatures default setting that has terrified people for 34 years now. I am, of course, talking about Pennywise the Dancing Clown. He has plenty of wise cracks as the clown but a nasty, violent streak to him that could scare the pants off you as he toyed with his potential prey.
Pennywise has had two amazing actors play him over the last 30 years but my own personal favourite was Tim Curry in the 1990 mini series who was a truly inspired piece of casting. He got the campness of the clown exactly right but when it becomes time for Pennywise to make the kill you see the change come over him and Curry switches to full on psychopath mode and really cranks up the chills. Tim Curry always bring something special to any character that he portrays but I think Pennywise is his crowning achievement as an actor and almost definitely, he is the reason why so many people hold this tv miniseries so dearly.
In the more recent two remake movies, Pennywse has had another actor don the greasepaint and Bill Skarsgard’s portrayal of the killer clown is very nearly at the level of Tim Curry’s performance but not quite. That is just my humble opinion though. The two actors obviously bring something different to the role, Skarsgard is more like a venus fly trap in trying to attract children towards him by appearing super friendly and then just when they get that little bit too close, the teeth come out and bam! One less child. Curry’s portrayal is more of a cat playing with their prey and the wisecracks he makes is the animal toying with its food before it devours them to harvest the maximum amount of fear possible. In terms of story, the new movies stick much more closely to the original novel than the 1990 miniseries but that is probably more to do with budget than anything else. As much as it pains me to say, despite Tim Curry’s amazing portrayal of Pennywise, the new movies are much better story wise and get so much closer to King’s original vision. Although it has to be said that nether the ovies or the miniseries dealt with the ending as satisfactorily as Stephen King does in the novel – one in the eye for anybody who says King can’t write an ending!
The Shining is the final novel of Stephen King that I will be looking at where the motion picture is as famous as its source material. Published back in 1977 and the film version released in 1980, I would never have had a chance at reading this novel without my image of the characters and the Overlook Hotel being influenced by the movie version. Famously, Stephen King has oft been critical of the movie version having expressed his dislike of the way Wendy’s character was handled in the film as I think she should have been shown to be much stronger in the movie and I can’t imagine he would have been massively keen on the ending of the film either which, as seemed to be the norm for King adaptations, was changed massively once again. With this in mind, I will just talk about the novel here rather than the film which, in my opinion works much better than the movie ever could.
Now, as I mentioned because I was 15 or 16 when I first read this book, I was already aware of Kubrick’s film version which has a knock on effect of making you imagine Jack Nicholson in the main role which I don’t normally like but it can perhaps be seen as a reflection of how well Nicholson played this character. As a 15 or 16 year old boy I remember being struck by just how much of a different story The Shining is than Pet Sematary or IT. You never read the same story twice and when you consider the sheer volume of Stephen King books there are is an amazing achievement and testament to the vast imagination the man has. True, there are stories everywhere in life if you look hard enough for them but to have over 80 books to your name it is quite the achievement.
As different as this story was to anything that I had read before at this point, I absolutely loved the story and how claustrophobic it is being set in the Overlook Hotel with no way for the family to get out of the place as the winter sets in and snows them in. Although Jack turns from family man to full on psychopath during the story, the narrative is crafted expertly enough that you actually have sympathy with Jack as the Hotel itself overtakes him and twists his mind against his family and you know that he can’t help it or control it, he is unfortunately just the one member of the family who the hotel knows it can exploit and manipulate due to his own insecurities and fears.
The story itself is again, one of the best that King has written and despite the inherently claustrophobic nature of it there is a vast array of events that are kickstarted by Jack having various visions of the Hotel’s storied past and making him obsessed with the characters that have populated the place over the years. Danny, Jack’s son, also has some disturbing visions of the place too with the classic vision of the evil twins plaguing Danny at one point as well as the inhabitant of the bath tub in room 217 which also conjures up some particularly disturbing images too. It’s easy to see why Friends Joey Tribbiani used to keep this book in the freezer when it got too scary!
The character of Jack was also meant to be symbolic of Stephen King’s own personal issues with alcohol at the time. I always imagined that the long stints that Jack spends sitting in front of the typewriter, tapping out the same sentence over and over again, getting frustrated and slowly going crazy were a parallel of sorts into King’s own life, if he may have had writer’s block at this point or in the past and getting more and more frustrated with this and medicating this with alcohol, clouding his mind. I could be wrong and I probably am but this is what I always imagined.
The ending, once again, is the case of Stephen King having written a great ending that is far superior to the movie that was completely ignored by Kubrick for the film version although, to maybe give Kubrick the benefit of the doubt, it could have been considered too violent to try to commit this ending to film as the novel version features Jack smashing his own skull in with a mallet as the Hotel exercises complete and total control over him in an effort to kill the Torrances and collect their souls for the hotel. The one part of the book’s ending that I really did like was that Dick Hallorann survives the grisly encounter to guide the family to safety in the aftermath of the hotel’s destruction.
Insomnia is perhaps the most surprising entry on this list as I realise that this isn’t considered to be one of Stephen King’s best or most popular works but that doesn’t mean to say that it isn’t without its merits and it does rank in my top 10 books written by King. Any such list is clearly highly subjective and from one person to the next I’m pretty sure that everybody would have at least one entry on their list that somebody would consider surprising or controversial, such is the breadth of stories to be read here.
My experience of Insomnia (the book, not the condition!) was at university, my Stephen King obsession was still really in it’s infancy although a little further along than it was aged 15 and 16. I had made my way through most of the ‘classics’ and now was looking for other lesser known stories to continue my journey and my main University friend was also reading the book at more or less exactly the same time so we were constantly talking about it, both the story and the style of writing.
The main thing that my friend and I spoke about was probably the one thing that I think Stephen King doesn’t get enough credit for – his ability to describe something in the minutest detail for a good few pages. I know some people have criticised King for this in the past but to me, it is what sets him apart from a lot of other author’s in that I think through doing this the world that you imagine from reading one of his novels has vast layers to it and you can imagine absolutely everything down to that last detail and it’s all because the author gives you the details with which to do this. I can’t think of too many authors that do or will do this – maybe it comes with being already established, I’m not sure but when it comes to world building I don’t think you can get better than Stephen King at this.
The particular part of Insomnia that sticks out to me when I think about it, in terms of story telling, is when Ralph is first getting to grips with the different coloured aura’s that he can see appearing around other characters in the book. The level of detail used to describe this is immense, going on for quite some time but by the end of it you would swear that you were able to see these aura’s too! This is what I believe good storytelling is all about – you don’t need augmented reality glasses when you have a book this well detailed and written. Another scene which springs to mind is a conversation that Ralph has which spans over 40 pages – some people may baulk at this level of dialogue and each to their own I guess but the level of detail conveyed here is essential to your understanding and imangination of the novel.
Stephen King himself has been critical of this particular book saying that it tries too hard. I imagine when speaking about your own work, you’re always your own worst critic but I believe he was being too hard on himself here, there is a great story here with a great villain in Ed Deepneau – you really root for him to get what he deserves in the end. As already discussed I am a great fan of the use of detail to get your story across and this book does that very well. I understand it may not be for everyone but all I can say is that, if you get it, you get it.
The Dark Tower Series
The Dark Tower. What an epic series of books this turned out to be, but who knew it was going to end up being quite so epic? It starts innocently enough with The Gunslinger who is in pursuit of The Man in Black. It was quite a departure for Stephen King to write such a fantasy led story such as this but it worked really well and proved that Stephen King could turn his hand to quite a different type of story. If you were reading the Gunslinger in 1982 when it was released, I’m not sure you would have necessarily have thought it would develop into such an epic series, The Gunslinger was a good story but not one which you would have necessarily thought would spawn a series due to it being a very quick read with a small set of characters but it is actually Roland’s (The Gunslinger) interactions with the boy Jake which sets the chain of events which take this from standalone story to series.
The second book in this series didn’t appear until 1987 a full 5 years after the original which suggests to me that maybe King hadn’t intended the series to exist, again I could be wrong, but I for one am glad that it did become a series. To me this is Stephen King’s Lord of the Rings and in many ways, I feel, The Dark Tower actually surpasses the Lord of the Rings Trilogy with the vast detail of the world depicted here and the emotional rollercoaster that these stories take you on – who can forget when Oy, the Billy Bumbler, died? I’ve never actually cried whilst reading a book but my goodness I was pretty close when that Billy Bumbler copped it saving our main characters!
I find this series of books, extremely symbolic, encompassing Stephen King’s other works and really tying them together. The Dark Tower, talks about The Beams – “everything serves the beam”. The beams in the story seem to be kind of mystical forces which are holding up The Dark Tower and to some extents all of reality. The beams in real life I take to be Kings other non Dark Tower books which effectively hold up this epic series. I say this because various other books are referenced by the Dark Tower and some books mention the Dark Tower or reference some part of it’s world in King’s other novels. It, The Stand, Salem’s Lot, Insomnia, Hearts in Atlantis, The Eyes of the Dragon, The Shining, and Cell are all either referenced within The Dark Tower or reference the Dark Tower in those stories. The Stand’s Randall Flagg is possiby the most directly referenced character to have a part in The Dark Tower story. Black House (one of King’s collaborations with Peter Straub) also has quite a hefty part of it’s story that features The Dark Tower and indeed Roland Deschain, so there are quite a number of books that are interwoven with The Dark Tower and I believe this makes King’s work unique to all be tied to something as big as this.
When I started reading these books, I had just started a new job where I had to travel by bus to my new workplace so I needed to train myself to be able to read books on the bus (I was very travel sick at this point) and The Dark Tower series books 1 – 4 were my books of choice at the time. I think I actually had impeccable timing in starting these books when I did because I started in January 2003 when only The Gunslinger, The Drawing of the Three, The Waste Lands and Wizard and Glass existed. However, I didn’t have to wait too long for the series to be concluded as The Wolves of the Calla was released later in 2003 with Song of Susannah and The Dark Tower released in 2004. I always felt like I was kucky in this respect because I’m not sure I could have contained myself to wait six years for the series to continue after Wizard and Glass.
I don’t want to give away anything about this series but if you haven’t read them, you should as these really are the centrepiece of all Stephen Kings works and quite honestly, I’m not sure that there has been or will be a book series that can surpass this. Go and read them now!! As ever, please leave comments or likes to the article and don’t forget to subscribe to the page by following All Things Horror.