Last November, I posted the original version of this list, which was a lot of fun for me to write. Well, a mere four months later, King's list of books has already grown by two (11/22/63 and The Dark Tower: The Wind Through the Keyhole), and that got me to thinking about where I might rank those new novels.
In order to find out, I decided to just sit down and do it. I find that my opinions are constantly in flux, and so it might be a good idea to update and revise the list once a year or so. This time 'round, I've eliminated several titles from the list altogether (Stephen King Goes to the Movies, for example, which was -- thanks to its near-complete irrelevance as a collection of previously collected stories -- our previous holder of "bottom of the list" honors). As a result, I think what we've got here is a better, more focused list, one that is a truer representation of how I feel King's books rank from bottom to top.
You are forgiven if your giveashit tank has run completely dry; I know this is a nerdy pursuit, and I'm okay with the idea that nobody cares about it but me. Despite that, comments are welcome!
So, without further preamble or goofery, let's find out what is at the bottom of the heap:
- (68) The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon: I’m just not a fan of this one. I don’t have much interest in the characters, and the quasi-supernatural elements don’t work at all for me. It feels weird for me to say about any book that of all of Stephen King's books, this is the one I like the least. But hey, you can't make a pile without something being on the bottom ... and for me, this is it.
- (67) Blockade Billy: It's merely a short story given its own front and back covers, and not a great one at that: readable, but that's about the best I can say for it. It probably ought to have just been held for inclusion in the next story collection. The mass-market edition adds in a second story ("Morality"), which is considerably better, but not enough so as to change my mind about where to place this one.
- (66) Faithful: I may as well admit that I'm not a baseball fan. It's too slow for my tastes; a game goes by and all I can think is that I could have just watched an Alfred Hitchcock movie ... two, if extra innings are a factor, or if the pitcher develops a sudden hard-on for the idea of trying to catch a runner off base. But that's okay; I don't have to be interested in a subject to be interested in someone writing about that subject. A good writer will make you interested, at least while you're reading as he waxes philosophical about his own obsessions. And King's sections of this book are predictably engaging, entertaining, and illuminating. So why so low on the list? Well, the answer is that King wrote only about half of the book; the other half is by Stuart O'Nan, whose contributions I did not enjoy. In fact, I only read about maybe the first half of them; after a while, I began simply skipping ahead to the next King-written section. So, on the whole, I can't rank it any higher; just can't do it. (By the way, it has not escaped my attention that the bottom three books on this list are all baseball themed. I'm not a fan of the game, as I admitted ... but I feel bad for what might be perceived as undue bias. Don't take it that way; it's just how it worked out!)
- (65) The Eyes of the Dragon: King's only true high-fantasy novel (with the novel-length "The Wind Through the Keyhole" -- the story, as opposed to the novel -- being a bit of an exception) comes off as an interesting experiment, but not much more. His style is simply too modern to work in this mode, and the story itself is a too flat to sustain the novel's length. It would have worked better as a novella, but the overly modern tones in the narration would have harmed it at any length. The crossover elements with other King works are mildly interesting, but if I'm being honest, I can't reconcile this Flagg with the Flagg in The Stand, much less the one in The Dark Tower.
- (64) Cycle of the Werewolf: Some of the vignettes are well-done, but this feels like exactly what it was: a toss-off, and a very minor work. The artwork by Berni Wrightson, though, is spectacular; so much so that it tempts me to bump this one up the charts a bit. Still, a minor work.
- (63) Rage: I get what King – pardon me, Bachman – was trying to do here, but the ultimate resolution, in which the class rallies around the killer, seems forced and unrealistic. Still, there is some good writing, and it makes for interesting comparisons with the other “Bachman Books” and with King novels such as Carrie. For all intents and purposes, this was written by a teenager; and as far as that goes, it's pretty good. What, you ask, is my stance on whether or not King ought to relent and allow the book to see publication again? Well ... let's leave it at saying that I understand why King would want to leave it off shelves.
- (62) Blaze: I'll be honest: I don't remember a whole lot about this novel. I know I enjoyed it to a mild extent as a curio, but that's about it. I'm glad King brought it out of his trunk, but I can also see why he left it in there for so long. I'd love to someday be able to read the original version to see for a comparison how much King changed to get it ready for its published form.
- (61) Secret Windows: This
shaggy-dog collection of nonfiction, released as a Book-of-the-Month
Club exclusive to cash in on the hullabaloo surrounding On Writing, has at least one big strike against it: a big chunk of the book consists of a reprint of a section from Danse Macabre. In fact, all in all, about half of the book's contents are
recycled from appearances elsewhere (examples: reprints of "The Ballad of the Flexible Bullet" and the Foreword to Night Shift). Here's the saving grace: the remaining is
material that would otherwise be substantially harder to find. And it's
all well worth reading, especially the essay "On Becoming a Brand Name" and a couple of especially fine transcripts of talks given by King. This stuff is pure gold, and makes this book well worth tracking down. Someday, King needs to sit down and edit
together a proper collection of his nonfiction writing, which is
frequently as dazzling as the best of his fiction. Until then, Secret Windows is
the closest thing we've got, and it was a missed opportunity that
focused too strictly on the theme of King writing about writing, when it
could have focused simply on King writing nonfiction. To be fair, this is a semantic issue; it's the arrangement and conception that I find fault with; the contents themselves are mostly great.
- (60) Rose Madder: I don’t much care for the supernatural elements here; they very nearly ruin what is otherwise a darkly compelling story of surviving domestic abuse. My least favorite King novel, this would have been better-served as a straight drama. Or perhaps should have been a great deal shorter; at this length, it falls apart.
- (59) Lisey's Story: It’s kinda split into three distinct styles, all of them intermingled throughout the novel. I love one of those (Scott's backstory), am so-so on another (Lisey's relationship with her sister and their attempts to stave off a psycho), and am actively disdainful of the third (the Lisey/Scott love story -- specifically, the overuse of their "private language," which is like a prose hemorrhoid). The good parts are very good indeed, but it’s not enough for me to say anything other than that I don’t like this novel very much. The caveat here is that if you aren't put off by the elements which put me off, then you will almost certainly like this novel WAY more than I do.
- (58) The Talisman: One of my least favorite in the canon, and I’m hard-pressed to say exactly why. Part of me thinks it’s because the novel is told in too realistic a fashion to make it believable that a child could do all the things Jack does in this novel. Or perhaps it's that, despite being an epic, parts of it feel incredibly rushed. Beats me. All I know is that parts of the novel work well; I just don't think they add up to anything meaningful.
- (57) Dreamcatcher: The first third or so of the novel is terrific, but the rest is a grind to get through: just like with the movie, it falls apart a bit after the infamous shit-weasel scene. Still, up to that point, it's awfully good, and there are occasional good moments in the latter sections. Not a bad novel, but not an especially good one overall.
- (56) The Colorado Kid: A minor work, and a bit of a marketing scam (in no way does this actually count as a crime novel), but those are not the same things at all), but nevertheless well-written ... and intriguing, if not exactly satisfying. At any rate, it's better than the lame television "adaptation," Haven, which is almost entirely unrelated, and is -- except for the fine performances by its three charismatic lead actors (Emily Rose, Lucas Bryant, and Eric Balfour) -- sloppy, forgettable filmmaking at every turn. Oh, well; it, too, is a bit of a marketing scam, so in that sense, if no other, it carries over certain aspects of The Colorado Kid.
- (55) Feast of Fear: Conversations With Stephen King: This one is another possible cheat, in some ways, and I know it. In case you're unfamiliar with it, it's the second of two interview collections -- the first was Bare Bones, which I ranked a bit higher up the chart (at #40) -- edited by Tim Underwood and Chuck Miller, who compiled edited-down versions of interviews with King from various magazines and newspapers, as well as occasional transcripts of speaking engagements. To the best of my knowledge, King himself had zero involvement in the publication of either book, which makes them both highly suspect when someone like me tries to list them AS King books. Here's the upside: they're both kinda terrific. There is simply no doubt that King's voice comes shining through in these various interviews, and I'd love to see additional volumes appear at some point. To be honest, I was tempted to slot both even further up on the list, but the unauthorized-by-King aspect troubled me enough that I couldn't feel good about doing so.
- (54) The Plant: Zenith Rising: In some ways, this one is just as problematic as the interview collections. On the one hand, it was unquestionably written and published by Stephen King; on the other hand, it was never finished, and is no longer available for purchase, so for many King fans, it may as well not even exist. But it exists for me: I printed the fucker out and had a custom-made hardback bound. What's there is unquestionably good (if a bit less than great), but the fact that it's unfinished makes it difficult to esteem too greatly. One hopes for an eventual conclusion, but part of me would be content for King to focus on new and better tales.
- (53) The Running Man: The first King novel I ever read, oddly; I thought it was a novelization of the Arnold Schwarzenegger movie! (I wrote about that at some length here, by the way.) Of the early Bachman books, this, to me, is the one that feels the least like Stephen King; even Roadwork, which is in no way a horror story or a fantasy of any kind, feels like King. This one feels more like the work of some budding socio-sci-fi author who died in a car crash after writing only a novel or two, before making a real name for himself. Don't get me wrong, though: it's a decent novel, and one which has somehow managed to remain just on the edges of plausibility. As far as socio-sci-fi goes, that's a good achievement for a forty-year-old novel.
- (52) The Regulators: In some ways, I consider Desperation and The Regulators to be two volumes of the same novel, and I considered treating them as such. If I had, I might have placed it a bit further up the list than the two component parts will be ranked. After all, to my knowledge, nobody has ever published two novels on the same day which serve as parallel-universe reflections each of the other; thematically, it's a compelling concept. For now, though, I'm going to leave them as separate entities, since that was how they were published and how they have remained ever since. And this one, I think, is the weaker of the two, despite being tighter and better-paced; the characters don't pop quite as well, and the themes are stronger in Desperation. But this is a pretty decent Twilight Zone-ish novel in its own right.
- (51) Thinner: The Mafioso elements are problematic for me; they feel a bit like something out of a Creepshow segment. Maybe that's appropriate, especially given the heavily moralistic leanings of the novel, but it's also too serious to support a somewhat goofy element like that one. That aside, though, this is a pretty good novel, with a memorably pitch-black ending.
- (50) Black House: I still don't think that King's voice and Straub's voice mix terribly well, but Black House is -- in my opinion, at least -- an improvement over The Talisman in virtually every way. The links to the Dark Tower series are compelling, and this is really essential reading for fans of that set of stories. My biggest complaint: this novel set up an expectation that Jack Sawyer would appear in the later Tower novels, an expectation which was completely unrealized. Oh, well.
- (49) Cell: I’m a sucker for end-of-the-world stories, and this one is pretty good. You may well despise the way the story ends, but I found it to be both logical and exhilarating; I love it when King goes into heavy-duty pulp sci-fi mode, which he assuredly does here. Not, however, before he gives us his version of a zombie story. Say, Hollywood: where the fuck is my movie version of this, already? Get your act together!
- (48) Just After Sunset: Out of the stories represented here, there are only four which I love, and there are at least five to which I am rather indifferent. The great ones -- "Willa," "N.,""Graduation Afternoon," and the icky "A Very Tight Place" -- are really fucking great, though. This is King's weakest story collection, but it's still well worth your time.
- (47) The Dark Half: The plot is moderately hard to swallow, and is somewhat lacking in clarity, but King’s prose is solid. Don’t believe the hype about how this is a parable for the way King’s own “Richard Bachman” pseudonym story played out in real life; this is actually a story about a writer wrestling with his own demons, not demons foisted upon him by the outside world. As such, it makes an interesting companion piece to both Misery and The Tommyknockers.
- (46) Desperation: I'd argue that the book is probably a tad too long, but so what? I prefer overlong to undercooked. The characters are what make this work; that, and a compelling theme about faith (also strongly in evidence in The Green Mile, published the same year). If anyone ever asks you which you should read first, this or its sister novel, The Regulators (both of which were published on the same day), answer them thusly: Desperation. Why? Because it's the one King put his name on, rather than his pseudonym; it's just that simple.
- (45) Everything's Eventual: There are fourteen stories here, and of them, I can only claim to be truly engaged by maybe six. That's not to say the others are bad; no, there isn't a bad story in the bunch. But only "The Man in the Black Suit," "The Little Sisters of Eluria," the title story, "All That You Love Will Be Carried Away," "1408," and "That Feeling, You Can Only Say What It Is In French" really pop for me. Still, though, it's pretty good.
- (44) Four Past Midnight: "The Langoliers" is a fine dip into the Twilight Zone (or, possibly, the Outer Limits, which might be King's preference), and while the end doesn't quite come together, it's still a fun ride. "Secret Window, Secret Garden" is probably the best of the four, and while it ought to feel like a ripoff of The Dark Half, it's anything but. "The Library Policeman" is a silly concept with a harrowing execution. "The Sun Dog" is the weakest of the bunch, but even it is fairly good.
- (43) Nightmares & Dreamscapes: This whopper of a story collection is generally pretty strong, with a few standouts -- "Crouch End," "Umney's Last Case," "Dolan's Cadillac," and "The End of the Whole Mess," for example -- but perhaps no real classics. Oddly, my favorite piece here may be "Head Down," the nonfiction essay about Little League baseball which has no business in this collection ... but for which I am nevertheless thankful.
- (42) Needful Things: Lots of terrific characters here, and while it’s comedic in a dark way, it’s also frequently horrifying. As with Under the Dome, the chills are mostly human-induced, too, rather than monster-induced. That might make for an interesting critical essay one of these days. Are there other King tales that also feature that element? I bet there are. Looking back on it, I'm not entirely sure I understand why King felt the need to "destroy" Castle Rock. It wasn't hurting anybody, Steve! Except maybe for itself...
- (41) Roadwork: A novel I disliked on first-reading (at approximately age fifteen), the more mature version of me found it to be quite compelling when I returned to it twenty years later. It’s maybe a little forced, but it’s also powerful, and seems like both a good reflection of its time and a still-relevant metaphor for despair. One of King's very few novels with no fantastic elements whatsoever, this character study is a grim tale of despair that I find to be immensely underrated. Needs to be rediscovered. Where you at, Frank Darabont…?
- (40) Bare Bones: Conversations on Terror with Stephen King: Awkwardly titled, true; unauthorized, true; relentlessly compelling...? Also true, very much so. Of the two Underwood/Miller volumes, this one -- which features, amongst other things, the classic Playboy interview -- is the stronger of the two, and is essential reading for hardcore Kingphiles.
- (39) Christine: The concept -- a haunted car -- is just inescapably silly, but King's writing is strong enough that the novel somehow manages to work regardless. And, perhaps because the goofier elements are more foregrounded, the novel manages to not feel unbalanced in the way that Thinner (what with its somewhat ridiculous Mafia hitman) does. The story is unquestionably a tragedy, and I wish it worked a little better in that way; the way Carrie does, for example. But it's a good novel, no doubt about it in my mind.
- (38) Firestarter: Very good; there are no major weaknesses, although Charlie's dialogue is a bit problematic: she rarely sounds like what it seems like an eight-year-old ought to sound like. King had the same problem in The Shining, but there, Danny's telepathy made for a terrific explanation; there's no such saving grace here. In any case, the narrative works well enough that it isn't a major problem. The novel gets compared to Carrie, but I find it has much more in common with The Dead Zone. It's not as good as that novel, but it's an entertaining sci-fi thriller with political undertones.
- (37) Full Dark, No Stars: One of these four tales – “1922” – is an out-and-out masterpiece, and while the others don’t measure up to that level, they’re each also pretty good. Taken as a whole, this is a collection that is entirely about the evil men do to women, and it’s satisfying that the final tale of the four features a woman who is capable of fighting back before becoming a victim. The paperback version includes a bonus short story, “Under the Weather,” which continues the theme, but alters it: here, a man does something terrible out of love for his wife. All in all, it’s a fine collection, and one that fits in nicely with King’s mid-‘90s feminist trio of Gerald’s Game, Dolores Claiborne, and Rose Madder.
- (36) Storm of the Century: I think the movie is a bit of a masterpiece, so maybe that's coloring my opinion a bit here, but this screenplay makes for a damn fine read in its own right. Linoge is a terrifying villain. Do you suppose he and Randall Flagg are actually the same creature? I'm not sure about that ... but if they aren't, I guarantee you they've carpooled at some point in time.
- (35) The Tommyknockers: A bit of a shaggy dog in some respects, this novel loses a bit of focus and introduces a few too many characters during a bloated middle section. However, some of those characters are interesting and compelling, which is also definitely true of the story’s two main characters. I’d also point out that the novel comes to a more satisfying conclusion than is sometimes the case with long King books. All in all, I’d say this one is underrated; it’s really quite good.
- (34) The Bachman Books: Okay, fine, I'll amit it: it’s a cheat to place this collection on this list, since it's an omnibus and all four included novels are present here individually. However ... truth is, taken as a whole, it’s a fascinating look at a sort-of alternate-universe version of early Stephen King; all of the tales feature characters who find themselves in very tight spots, and the four novels rub up against each other thematically in interesting enough ways that The Bachman Books really does have a sort of separate life from its individual components.
- (33) Under the Dome: A little sloppy in terms of execution, but overall, a damn fine novel. Never gets boring in nearly 1100 pages, and certain scenes have stuck with me ever since. There is some political and religious material that is maybe a bit too one-sidedly left-leaning, but I personally can live with that; those who can’t probably take substantial points off for it, and they’d not be wrong to do so. The novel has its demerits – a poorly-nicknamed central character not being the least of them – but is mostly very successful nonetheless. The ultimate revelations are controversial, but if you'd like to know how I feel about them, please refer back to my comments about Cell; they are applicable here as well.
- (32) Danse Macabre: As captivating as most of his fiction, this book-length essay is an enduring work of criticism peppered with intriguing bits of autobiography. Intensely readable, and as compelling as a great novel ... assuming you have any yen toward reading critical/autobiographical work. If you don't, you'll probably want to drop this down about twenty or thirty places on the list. Not me, though.
- (31) Insomnia: It's a long, somewhat unfocused novel, not dissimilar to Desperation in that regard, but it's got two elements which make it a bit better: a seriously serious amount of emotional emotion; and a compellingly compelling connection to the Dark Tower series. (Why am I writing like that all of a sudden? Cause it gives me the chucks.) Unlike in Black House, it is clear here that the main characters' involvement in that story is restricted to this particular novel; that's another advantage. Truth be told, I'm not sure how anybody can enjoy Book VII without having read Insomnia. On its own merits, though, it's a satisfying and engaging work of fantasy which maybe drags in a few places, but is nevertheless well worth reading.
- (30) Gerald's Game: A semi-Hitchcockian cousin to Misery, this one maybe isn’t quite that good, but it’s a better novel than 99.9% of other writers would have made from the same concept. Points off for the crossover with Dolores Claiborne, which -- unless the two meet at some point in a future novel or story -- is forced and rather pointless. Also, the appearance of a certain character toward the end may also color your opinion. Me, I found it to be terrifying. This, in my opinion, is a pretty excellent piece of work.
- (29) From a Buick 8: A fine tale of memory, with an intriguing structure, this novel finds King working at just the right length for the story at hand, and with just the right cast of characters. Good stuff, and surprisingly -- methinks -- underrated within the King community.
- (28) The Dark Tower: The Wind Through the Keyhole: If I'm being honest, I suppose I have to admit -- reluctantly -- that this is the worst of the eight Dark Tower novels. However, saying that is hardly an insult: this is a terrific novel, one which employs an effective nesting-doll structure to tell three stories (the ka-tet seeking shelter from a vicious storm; young Roland investigating murders committed by a shapeshifting skin-man; and a young boy in Mid-World embarking upon a dangerous quest to save his mother from an abusive stepfather). In writing this novel, King has written a strong tale about the power of storytelling, and he's also made his magnus-opus universe feel like even more expansive a place than it felt before. That's quite an achievement.
- (27) 'Salem's Lot: Not as highly prized by myself as by most King fans; I nevertheless find this to be a very fine novel for the most part. Numerous good characters and great scenes, marred somewhat by at least one act of such dunderheaded stupidity – Susan going to confront Barlow in the Marsten house – that it threatens to wreck all believability. Other than that, its status as a classic is fairly well-deserved.
- (26) The Dark Tower VI: Song of Susannah: The big development here – King writing himself into the story – is surreal and postmodern and divisive. It makes for interesting fictional autobiography, and though it disconcerted me at first, I came to accept it, and then to love it. That’s only part of the novel, of course, but it’s a major part; the rest is tense and exciting, and sets up the series finale pretty well. Susannah's struggles with Mia are compelling, and Mia ends up being an interesting character in her own right. It's the weakest book in the overall series ... I guess ... to whatever extent that distinction matters.
- (25) Hearts In Atlantis: Is it a novel? A collection? Does it matter? Not at all. The structure is interesting for that reason, and the mix of the supernatural with the completely mundane is perhaps even more interesting, but either way, this is strong stuff. It's also required reading for Dark Tower fans, who ought to treat this -- along with Insomnia and Black House -- as unofficial entries in the series. By the way, the book is supposedly incomplete: according to King, one tale -- "The House on Value Street" -- remains to be written. Well, that's tantalizing as hell...
- (24) Bag of Bones: Along with The Green Mile, this is one of the novels which truly got critics to begin reappraising King and his merits as a writer. It's a corker of a tale, with everything one could possibly want from an old-school Gothic ghost story/romance/tragedy. Max Devore is possibly THE most evil character in all of King's fiction ... which is saying something.
- (23) The Dark Tower V: Wolves of the Calla: I wasn't terribly impressed by this novel the first time I read it; after the gap between books IV and V, I was -- irrationally -- expecting something a bit more ... what? Even I don't quite know. In any case, time has improved my opinion of this one quite a bi, what with its crazy blend of westerns and sci-fi and fantasy and surrealism and horror and myth. This is great stuff; it doesn't get you much closer to the Tower ... but slow down, pard, you'll get there soon enough.
- (22) Misery: Claustrophobic and nightmarish, this meditation on the power – good and evil – of artistic inclination features on of King’s best villains, one of his most sympathetic heroes, and one of his tightest scenarios. So why doesn’t it rate higher? A bit too over-the-top in some aspects, it veers into grand guignol at a few moments when it ought to have stayed a bit more grounded. But this is quibbling; it’s a great novel.
- (21) Cujo: Oppressive, depressing, and very memorable. The best sections may be the ones in which King writes from the dog’s point of view; he does so quite well, and also invents several great characters of the two-legged variety. Within King's canon, only Pet Sematary (and possibly "1922") is grimmer. But grim can be compelling, and it's certainly compelling here.
- (20) Dolores Claiborne: A chapterless first-person narrative written in dialect ought to be a chore to read; that this one isn’t says a great deal about King’s essential strength as a storyteller. The crossover with Gerald’s Game either weakens it or strengthens it, depending on your point of view; it definitely does one or the other, though, and for me it weakens it ever so slightly. Dolores is unquestionably one of King's best characters.
- (19) The Stand: The longer version of the novel adds enough richness of detail that it almost makes up for what is still, to my thinking, a weak finale. Would many King fans disagree with me on the subject of that finale? I'm sure they would. Would most King fans be horrified to see this novel ranked so lowly on this list? I expect so ... but hey, that's my story and I'm sticking to it. Another problem I have is that it feels like too little time is spent with the survivors in Vegas; we get a far greater understanding of what makes the good guys tick. I feel weird even suggesting that this novel could have benefited from another couple hundred pages, but, yes, that's exactly what I'm saying: I wish I knew the Las Vegans better. By the way, placing this novel at a mere #19 is not so much a poor reflection on its qualities as it is a sign of how greatly I prize the novels I've placed ahead of it. In any case, this epic mishmash of horror, fantasy, politics, and religion has a large cast of very memorable characters, and is certainly a classic ... but a slightly imperfect one, in my opinion.
- (18) Pet Sematary: Yep, we're starting to get down to the nitty-gritty good shit here, now. This is definitely one of King’s most horrifying tales; it's liable to make anyone feel a little sick in their soul. However, the book also feels very calculated, in a way that isn't fully comfortable alongside most of King's other works; you can practically hear the chess pieces being shoved about the board at some points. Despite that slight flaw, this is a highly memorable novel, and prime nightmare fuel.
- (17) The Long Walk: Great writing here from Richard Bachman, and it comes to a satisfyingly unsatisfying ending. It doesn't make a lot of sense, in terms of specific reality, but this is a deeply felt, riveting work that is certainly one of King's angriest novels. It's amazing to me that something this good was written by a college freshman.
- (16) Duma Key: Reminiscent of Pet Sematary in terms of its uncompromising bleakness, and, for my money, even better. Edgar is a great King character, and there were a couple of times when I felt genuinely nervous for what was about to happen. This haunting, horrifying character piece is long but not overlong, with an entirely successful setting, and a great ghost-story premise; a great novel, and a great refutation of any claims that latter-career King has lost his touch.
- (15) 11/22/63: When this novel was released, King was in his 37th year as a professional novelist. In a way, it would be perfectly acceptable for him to have long since succumbed to the lure of laziness and decided to simply toss out variations on the "psychic kid is terrorized by haunted __________" theme. He wouldn't be the first bestselling author to eventually take the past of least resistance. King has never done that, though, and in his 37th year as a pro, what did we get from him? An ambitious, sprawling, epic: a time-traveling thriller that takes one of our culture's seminal events, turns it on its head, and uses it as the unlikely backdrop to what ends up being a thoroughly effective romance. This is strong, strong stuff, and proof positive -- as if any such proof were needed (hint: it isn't) -- that King's talent as a storyteller is evidently nowhere near its expiration date.
- (14) Carrie: Not short on missteps in the prose department, there are also moments of sheer inspiration, and the overall effect is tremendous. Carrie remains one of King’s most sympathetic characters, despite the fact that she burned up a whole bunch of people. This is conveyed extremely well in the novel, but it's all interior drama, and the movie adaptations have been utterly incapable of replicating it; for that reason, they are failures. Yes, even the DePalma film. But why are we talking about that? Back to the book! King's first published novel is also -- still -- one of his best, a dark fairy tale that crackles with tragic pathos but also keeps the reader at just enough of a remove that it can all be exciting.
- (13) The Dark Tower VII: The Dark Tower: King’s magnum opus comes to an emotionally taxing conclusion, with several tear-inducing passages and a coda that is awe-inspiring in how it resolves the story. Balancing that somewhat toward the negative is an anticlimactic confrontation with the Crimson King, who is perhaps not all he has been made out to be. Did I want some sort of more apocalyptic battle with that villain and his armies? Well, sure I did. Doesn't matter; this is a moving epic with a goosebump-inducing resolution, and for this Tower-junkie’s money, it’s a grand finale.
- (12) Night Shift: Of the nineteen (19!) stories in this collection, I'd argue that a minimum of fourteen of them are classics, as is King's Foreword. 'Nuff said.
- (11) The Dark Tower II: The Drawing of the Three: Almost entirely focused on character, but to good effect. Each reader’s reactions to Detta – a purposefully gross and offensive collection of stereotypes – will perhaps determine their interest in the remainder of the series. Me, I get a little annoyed with her, but I also think that King mostly wants me to react in precisely that way. Also deepening – and fundamentally altering – Roland himself, this novel is a well-told tale in which not a great deal actually happens ... but you may not notice until the third or fourth time you read it, and even then you're unlikely to care.
- (10) Skeleton Crew: The ratio of great stories to merely good stories here is about the same as in Night Shift, but what gives this collection a leg up is "The Mist," a short novel which on its own merits is easily good enough to crack the top ten on this list. Top five...? Probably not; but maybe. In addition to that, you get "The Jaunt," which is utterly horrifying; "Survivor Type," which is similarly horrifying; and a dozen or so other super-fine stories such as "Nona," "Mrs. Todd's Shortcut," and "The Reach." I'm also a big fan of the poem "For Owen," and while that doesn't have too big of a bearing on this book's placement on the list, it certainly doesn't hurt any.
- (09) The Dark Tower III: The Waste Lands: Part of me thinks this is the best novel in the series: the story advances more here than in any of the other books; there are several stupendous action setpieces; the requisite excellent characterizations are plentiful; and King’s command of writing an epic-fantasy-style landscape is dead on the money. Add to that a cliffhanger that had fans tearing their hair out from ’91-’97, and you’ve got a book that may well be too low on this list. I'm torn!
- (08) The Shining: Some of King’s best scenes of terror, yes, but also extremely engrossing in its backstory for Jack’s plight. Another superb character study, this one also finds King working in the tragic mode to great result, which is a common refrain throughout his career: when the happy ending is nowhere in sight, King is often at his finest. Let's hope the same is true of the 2013 sequel, Dr. Sleep.
- (07) The Dark Tower IV: Wizard and Glass: Largely consisting of a lengthy extended flashback to a point in Roland's tragic youth, this one is a corker of a love story with several good action scenes, excellent new characters, and a wide-eyed youthfulness that is surprising when carried off by a wide-eyed youth; for a middle-aged fellow to have accomplished it is a miracle. Possibly the best-loved novel in the series, this is a Western-romance-tragedy-fantasy fusion that probably ought to have been an utter failure. It isn't.
- (06) The Green Mile: Works great either as a serial or as a novel. Grim in the extreme and with a gut-punch of an ending, it tells a crackerjack of a story, and manages to be both chilling and uplifting. I wish my top five could have six books in it. (And, in a way, it does ... see #4.)
- (05) On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft: Not only will this exceptional book give you some of the best writing advice you will ever encounter, it's also a tremendous pseudo-autobiography. I think it illustrates that, ultimately, the writer and his craft are one and the same, and that seems a valuable lesson. This is a GREAT book.
- (04) The Dark Tower: The Gunslinger: You will perhaps note which title I have gone with. Alternatively, I could have used The Dark Tower I: The Gunslinger. That's the proper title of the revised version (which King released in 2003 to bring the first novel of the series a bit more in line with its successive volumes), and that's fine by me: I love the revised version, too, especially the added scenes involving the trap-word "nineteen." But for me, the original holds a special place. I know that some King fans, and even some Tower fans, dislike the novel for its slowness, its coldness, its distance, its mystery. Well, to each his own, and my own is that I love the novel for all of those reasons. Not in spite of; for. Rarely has a work of fantasy immediately invested me in a fictional universe quite so fully. In fact, I don't know that it's ever happened; the only other competition is The Lord of the Rings, and I prefer this novel to that one. For me, this was the high-point of the series. Don't misunderstand me, either, because I love the rest of the series, each one of the novels; and yet, to me, they all pale just a wee bit in comparison to this stark, lean work of haunted beauty.
- (03) The Dead Zone: One of King’s best characters in one of his best situations, with some of his best writing. Feels, with its emphasis on politics and society, very much like a Bachman novel, and if it were, it'd be the best of them, hands down. Even as a King novel, it's one of the best, a bit of a masterpiece; and, again, a tragedy.
- (02) It: This lengthy, captivating novel effectively summons a remarkable feeling of time’s passage. The structure is exceptional, as is the sheer amount of imagination on hand: this novel has more finely-sketched characters between its covers than many writers will create in an entire career. Characters show up for only a couple of paragraphs and feel more fully-realized than some novels' main characters. The big sex scene near the end is a sticking point for many people, and probably ought to be, but even if you despise it – and I don’t, although I do come close to despising the “humor” of one R. Tozier – it can’t blunt the sharpness of this epic. A truly fine piece of work. Oh, and did I mention that it's scary as hell?
- (01) Different Seasons: All four of these novellas, if they had been individually published, would possibly be in my top ten. Taken as a whole, though...? They're even better. This book is a masterwork about the power of storytelling, and if only one King book survives the bombs, or the tidal waves, or the plague, or the aliens, or whatever it is that finally gets us, my vote is that this ought to be the one.
Well, there's the 2012 revision. I look forward to making this a yearly event just so I can keep track of how my opinions shift over time. The next time, Dr. Sleep will be on the list somewhere, as will the book version of Ghost Brothers of Darkland County; I look forward to seeing where they rank.