|This is Stephen King, laughing at your terror.|
I have only recently started delving into the works of one Mr. Stephen King, and I am discovering that I wholeheartedly regret all those pretentious years of college when I was immersed in being an English major and considered myself above genre fiction. So when I went looking for the perfect starting place in King’s positively enormous canon, I knew there was only one person who could give me direction: my father. He is an absolute Stephen King expert. He has read all of King’s books, viewed (and critiqued) many film adaptations, and loves horror/sci-fi fiction with fervor. He has always advised me wisely, and has consented to share his top five recommendations for newcomers to the land of King as a special Halloween themed post. So take a gander and take your pick from Steve Knapp’s Stephen King library:
Since Halloween is fast approaching, many readers, avid and otherwise, look to find some good scary stories. Of course, when thinking of scary stories, Stephen King always enters the discussion. As a diehard fan of King’s, and having read almost all of his books and short stories, Katie considered me to be as close as she could get to an expert (at lease for the price she was willing to pay – cupcakes), and asked me to contribute to her blog by recommending some of my favorite Stephen King books. Let me begin by saying that this is very difficult, somewhat akin to picking your favorite child. King’s books vary. Some are really scary, some have things happen that are more just strange or unusual, some just weird. I’ve liked all kinds, just like I love my daughters equally even though they are quite different. So, I’m going to recommend several of my favorites, sort of in order of preference, leaning more toward the ones that I deem to be more scary and gruesome in honor of Halloween.
1. Pet Semetary – this is one of my all-time favorites. The story of a man, his son and the family cat. After moving to a new house, the father is led to a mysterious graveyard (is there any other kind?) near their property. Weird, terrifying stuff happens, then, when tragedy strikes, the father deals with it as best he can with many horrors along the way and a twist at the end. As with a lot of King's books, it deals as much with the family dynamic and internal struggle of being a husband/father as it does with the actual horror of the events that are unfolding.
Katie here: I want to insert a memory. My dad read this book out loud to me when I was around ten years old. It…changed me. Definitely a scary read.
2. Misery – an author is rescued from an accident by his number one, most ardent fan. Sounds fine, right? Everything should work out perfectly. But, this is Stephen King, after all. The fan is not quite as accommodating as one might imagine. In fact, she's more obsessive, psychotic, crafty, and violent. And soon the writer is not only sedated and trapped, but also forced to write a book he hates on a beat up old typewriter in an attempt to placate his increasingly manic captor.
This is a terrifying book. It would rank number one on my personal list. Not only suspenseful and full of glorious gore, but a deeply insightful look into the authorial process. It was deeply frightening to me because it seemed to me that the protagonist made no silly mistakes, and yet he still ended up trapped and fighting for his life. There is nothing to point to in this narrative to say, "See, that was the moment where he messed up and got himself into this predicament."
3. Christine – Arnie, a nerdy high schooler, finds the car of his dreams. Although it looks like a piece of beat up junk, Arnie is drawn to the car, despite the reservations of his best friend, Dennis. Arnie buys the car and begins restoring it to like-new condition. As he is doing this, his appearance improves and he becomes more confident, eventually even dating the pretty new, popular, girl at school, Leigh. However, as Arnie spends more time with Christine, his personality begins to change for the worse, and he becomes obsessed with the car to the exclusion of everyone else, including Dennis and Leigh. Eventually, to Arnie it is he and Christine against the world, and since Arnie has taken care of Christine, she will “take care of” anyone she deems a threat to come between the two of them. In the end Dennis and Leigh are the only ones with a chance to save Arnie from Christine. I’ll let you read the book to find out if they are successful. As in many of King’s books, I really like the way he portrays the young people. To me, he is right on with his descriptions of the thoughts and actions of Arnie, Dennis and Leigh. This is a creepy story with real moments of suspense. One of King’s most popular.
Proof that King can literally make anything creepy. As is typical of a lot of King’s work, this might really be considered a coming of age tale masquerading as horror. Very effective.
4. Skeleton Crew – this is a collection of short stories. If you want to commit a little less time, this is a good place to start. All are worth reading, but my favorites are The Mist and The Raft. The Mist was actually produced as a novel on its own in conjunction with the release of the movie, but I read it as part of this collection so that’s how I think of it. Plus, you get other stories as a bonus. In The Mist, terrible creatures are hidden in, what else, a mist created by a mysterious research center. It turns out, though, that some of the townspeople are about as bad as the creatures. A father and his son are separated from the wife/mother and end up in the grocery store with other townspeople when the mist roles in. Everyone is scared and many have different ideas about what to do to protect themselves from whatever is in the mist. They know there is something bad out there, just not what exactly. So, they end up fighting each other as much as the creatures.
King does an excellent job of leaving whatever is in the mist to the reader’s imagination. With only partial descriptions, you know there are lots of them and they’re not friendly, but you are left to conjure up your own scary version. I also like the way King deals with the interplay between the people, conveying the different ways in which people might actually react in such a situation, with a crazy or two thrown in for good measure. Without giving it away, I will say that the ending does not answer all questions, but leaves the reader to imagine how things go from then on. Personally, I don’t mind that one bit.
The Raft is the story of four teens celebrating the end of summer with one last swim to a stationary raft out in the lake. Of course, it turns out to be not quite as much fun as they envisioned. It’s hard to say much about the story without ruining it. Suffice it to say that an unidentifiable, but beautiful, substance floats to the raft. Looking at it too long puts a person in a hypnotic trance, which causes them to let down their guard. When that happens, the results are not pretty. Again, I really like the way these kids are portrayed. The thoughts and interactions between the two girls and two boys is always believable, and the gross things that happen make for what I consider to be an entertaining story.
Okay, I haven’t read this one.
5. Duma Key - this story about a man trying to recover from physical injuries and mental instability is more in the psychic/ghost story vein. After a construction accident results in loss of an arm and brain injuries that cause episodes of violent behavior, and the end to his marriage, Edgar Freemantle moves temporarily to Florida (Duma Key) to get himself back together. As therapy, he begins to paint ocean landscapes (he drew pictures for his daughters when they were little, but he can’t remember doing it). This helps to calm him and seems to relieve the phantom feelings of his missing arm. However, as he gains some notoriety for his paintings, he discovers that his works of art have a power of their own. They either predict the future or cause it, and bad things happen to those who buy one. Edgar investigates the island and meets his neighbors, finding out that there are many mysteries surrounding the island and its past and present inhabitants. Ultimately, Edgar is thrust into a situation of trying to save his family and friends from the evil that resides in Duma Key. This story tends to be more psychological and supernatural, but still has plenty of scary moments.
Or this one. Oh well. I can say though, that there is a sizable faction of people who agree that King's short fiction is superior to his novels. This is definitely a personal preference thing, but if you find reading an entire novel daunting, know that the short stories are likely to be just as satisfying.
If you know anything of Stephen King at all you probably noticed the absence of The Shining and Carrie in the list above. While they are must reads for the most ardent King fans, they are not at the top of my favorites list. Plus, everyone knows those stories so I wanted to go with some lesser known stories. There are, however, many other Stephen King books that are every bit as good as the ones I did list, but got left off for various reasons, and I would be remiss if I didn’t mention a few of them. Such as; the Dark Tower series (7 books), Thinner, The Stand, The Shawshank Redemption, The Green Mile, and Secret Window. If you like King’s writing, these are definite reads.
So, I hope I’ve given you some ideas for the Halloween season and beyond. Pick one, turn out as many lights off as you can and still see to read, and enjoy. I wish you good reading and a scary Halloween!
Are any of you fans of Stephen King? Which of his books had the biggest impact on you?