Apparently, it was Stephen King’s birthday over the weekend. Considering he’s one of my biggest writing influences (and considering I own approximately forty books by him), I figured I should write up a list of his works that have stood out to me for one reason or another over the years. (I could work on a ‘Best Of’ or even just a ‘My Favorite’ list, but let’s be honest: he’s kind of written ALL THE THINGS, and narrowing those into some kind of ordered countdown would be way too much work.)
And yes, I’m aware many people made similar lists over the weekend when it was actually time-appropriate. I, however, prefer to think of it less that I’m behind the times and more that I’m extending Mr. King’s birthday further, so that it’s now his Birthday Week or even Birthday Month. I’m sure he appreciates it.
Beware of SPOILERS, for ye may find them in your travels. And by ‘may’, I mean, yes, yes you will.
7 Stephen King Books That Are Special To Me (For Whatever Reason)
1. Needful Things
My introduction to King. I read this book when I was twelve and fell in love with it. If Hearts in Atlantis had been the first S.K. book I read, I doubt I’d own all these giant ass tomes now — I liked Low Men in Yellow Coats, and not much else — but thankfully, such was not the case.
It’s been some time since I’ve reread the novel, but I think one of the things I really liked about this story was the scope of it. I come from a small town and I’m drawn to small town stories — particularly horror stories, I guess, because I’ve got mixed feelings about The Tiny Place in Which I Hail From. And I found it fascinating to read about these people who’d known each other for their whole lives, only to completely turn on one another, to watch a town more or less rip itself apart. I also liked the brutality of the book — one of the main characters is an eleven year old boy who eventually commits suicide because of everything that happens. Which I know sounds like a pretty terrible thing to bring up as a positive, but I do like when books surprise me, and I was fully expecting the kid to make it simply because he’s a Kid. At twelve, especially, I liked when kids weren’t treated as Innocent Snowflakes With No Real Personalities Who Always, Always Made it Out. (And I was particularly pissed when he survived in the movie, but let’s be real here — Needful Things is one of the very worst film adaptations for many, many reasons more important than that.)
I’ll admit to being pretty sad about the dog, though. I also once had a dog named Raider, so I definitely had a “Jimmy, NOOOO!” moment when Book Raider bought it.
2. ‘Salems Lot
Here’s the thing: as big of a Stephen King fan as I am, I don’t actually find his writing particularly scary. Sometimes I’ll talk to people, and they’ll be like, “I can’t read those books. They’re too creepy.” And I’ll be like, Really? Because I am significantly more likely to be frightened by normal murder mystery whodunits than by Stephen King’s horror epics. (And that’s not me being snotty. I do get creeped out by whodunits. Perhaps this is just like when I was a kid, never afraid of the monster in the closet, only the serial killer under the bed. Unlike most serial killers, though, he always had a sword, which he improbably managed to stab upwards through the mattress, despite the total lack of room he’d have to maneuver said blade.)
However, I vividly remember reading one scene in ‘Salem’s Lot which completely freaked me out. It goes like this: a dude tries to walk down the stairs to the basement, only because the light switch isn’t working, he doesn’t see that the vampires have helpfully removed those stairs and left a bunch of knives on the ground instead. The knives, mind you, are all facing blade up.
Once again, I don’t fear the vampires themselves. I only fear their elaborate booby traps and, also, death by impalement.
3. The Dark Tower series
It feels kind of like a cheat, picking the whole series instead of a specific book, but I’ve decided I’m okay with that. The Dark Tower series was unlike anything I’d ever read before. The giant mechanical animals in a secondary fantasy world. The crossover characters from basically every single Stephen King book ever written. Stephen King writing himself as an actual character into the series. It was a bajillion words of what-the-flying-fuck, and I enjoyed the hell out of that crazy ass ride.
Interestingly, I never cared for the first book in the series. The Gunslinger has one of my favorite opening lines of all time, but I had a very hard time making it through the story itself, even though it isn’t particularly long. I would never have continued with the series if I hadn’t been desperate for something to read and found The Drawing of the Three in a used book store for something like fifty cents.
God love you, used bookstores. What would I do without you?
4. The Stand
One of my favorites, despite the fact they kill my favorite character (which is hardly surprising, considering almost ALL of the main characters die) and the rather literal deus ex machina ending (which bothers me less than you might think, although I still kind of wish I could change it). I said that Stephen King books didn’t scare me, and I meant it, but I’ll admit this one is a tiny bit unnerving if you pick up a cold while you’re reading it. Double bonus points if it’s during the summer.
You know how when you’re a teenager, all your stories are ridiculously derivative (if not outright rip-offs) of other people’s work? Yeah, this was totally one of those books for me. I remember starting a story once that was about a mysterious illness that killed off most of the world’s population, but mine was TOTALLY DIFFERENT from The Stand. Because, you know. There were a lot more adolescents.
(It’s a side note, but I wish YA had been as big of a thing when I was in middle school. I had this whole fantasy series planned out — and in fact, I finished writing the first novel/novella — but even then, I remember thinking to myself, Will adults even read books about fourteen year old girls with magic powers? Mind you, I was not some miraculous child writing prodigy, and nobody would’ve ever bought that book because I was thirteen and the writing was terrible. But I think I would have been encouraged just by knowing there was a market out there, looking for the kinds of things I was interested in writing.
5. Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption
Like most people, I saw The Shawshank Redemption long before I read the novella. And like most people who have a SOUL (Henry, I’m talking to you, buddy), I loved the movie. But the reason I specifically mention the novella (published in Different Seasons) is because I was surprised to discover that the film is one of the closest adaptations I think I’ve ever read. There are changes — they gloss over some of the more explicit prison brutality, which I’m totally okay with, and we don’t find out the horrible specifics of Red’s crime, which is probably the smart choice — but not only are the movie and novella plots identical, the script pulls a lot of its lines directly from the source material. Maybe I’m just jaded after having seen too many horrifying movie adaptations (seriously, Needful Things), but reading the book was a pleasant surprise, right up to the last lines: “I hope Andy is down there. I hope I can make it across the border. I hope to see my friend and shake his hand. I hope the Pacific is as blue as it has been in my dreams. I hope.”
It’s a surprisingly upbeat ending for Stephen King, and while I’m often a bittersweet ending kind of person, sometimes it’s nice to end on a happy message. Also, on a not-entirely related note, I think Zihuatanejo would be an awesome name for a cat. Zooey (like Zoo-ee, not Zoe) for short.
Mek? Can I have another kitten? Please?
6. On Writing
I am not a giant fan of the ‘I’ word — which, if you didn’t know, is inspirational — but in this case, it’s actually pretty appropriate: I felt nothing short of inspired after reading this book. For one thing, reading about Stephen King’s many rejection letters (which he nailed to a wall) was great because if it’s one thing every new writer has to learn, it’s that EVERYONE gets rejection letters. It doesn’t matter how talented you are. Rejection letters are just a fact of life when you’re a writer. Also, I was waging war — mostly silent, internal, furious war — against all my English teachers who wanted stories to be About Something Important, and I wanted stories to be fucking stories, and this book felt a little like validation on that philosophy.
On Writing gave me some useful advice about writing techniques, but more importantly, it gave me hope that someday, I was going to write stuff that would actually get published. I’ve been writing for such a long time that I can’t see myself ever having stopped, but I can totally envision a life where I gave up trying to publish shit and just wrote in my spare time for no one’s eyes but my own. I’m glad that’s not the way my life has turned out.
Finally, my very favorite Stephen King book of all time. Despite a scene in the sewers that’s just cringeworthy (and not in the good way), I love and will always love IT. There are a lot of reasons for that: I’m a sucker for friendship stories, for child magic stories, for stories about growing up and returning home and facing the monsters you left behind. I already mentioned my small hometown, and during my more “I-Hate-This-Town-Get-Me-Out-of-it-For-The-Love-of-God” years, I sometimes likened Middletown to Derry, which wasn’t a terribly flattering comparison, since the whole town of Derry basically was IT.
The ending does one of those things I usually can’t stand, where the heroes basically forget the entire story, but Stephen King does it so perfectly that I just couldn’t bring myself to hate it. IT has an excellent beginning and a hugely bittersweet end (which I’d quote, if my copy of the novel hadn’t mysteriously gone missing) and is always on my Desert Island Book shortlist. Stephen King’s written a ridiculous amount of stuff and I like a lot of it, but I have a hard time believing anything is ever going to replace this as the top prize.
Cause, come on. It’s got an evil clown. And, at the end of the day, wouldn’t most books be better off if they had an evil clown in them?
If only Pennywise had been in Rebecca . If only.