Truly the king (pun definitely intended) of horror fiction, Stephen King has been terrifying readers for more than half a century. With more than 60 novels and 200 short stories to his name, the author of It and The Shining is something of a literary machine, and he’s not showing signs of stopping any time soon: his next novel, Fairy Tale comes out on 6 September. With an author as prolific as King, it can be tricky to know which title to pick up first. Here, writer and King fan Neil McRobert suggests some good ones to try.
The entry point
The quintessential King-ian ingredients – an author-protagonist, a Maine setting, small-town reality ruptured by the otherworldly – can all be found in ’Salem’s Lot, his second novel. It is the most representative of the author’s early work, and where he first showcases his gift for crashing muscular American realism into Gothic pulp. For those who may be alarmed by the sheer weirdness of King’s later monsters, there is something comforting in the familiar features of the vampire, Barlow (even if he does wreak havoc upon the many, many characters that populate the Lot).
The Stand was already a big book on publication in 1978. But in 1990 King restored more than 400 pages that had been cut from the original manuscript, and changed the setting from 1980 to 1990. The result was The Complete and Uncut Edition of The Stand, a 1,200-page behemoth that turns the continental United States into a chessboard for the forces of good and evil. The story of plague and post-apocalyptic tribalism is one that many – somewhat masochistically – turned to during the Covid-19 pandemic. But the book’s lethal disease, Captain Trips, is only half the story, a way to make space for the titanic struggle to come. It’s a truly immersive journey, populated with some of King’s most enduring characters, especially Randall Flagg, the “Dark Man”, who returns as an agent of chaos across many of King’s fictional worlds.
The one that will transport you
Speaking of King’s “many worlds”, the eight-volume Dark Tower series is the axis upon which so many of them turn. Though the series is focused on Roland Deschain – last of the fabled “Gunslingers” – in his lifelong pilgrimage to the titular tower, it draws in elements and characters from all corners of King’s back catalogue. It all begins with The Gunslinger: part western, part fantasy and all weird. This first slim volume is an oddity, and not to everyone’s tastes, but it’s worth persevering, as it’s the first step on a uniquely wondrous quest.
If you’re in a rush
Though people tend to think of King as the writer of very long books, he’s published more than a dozen collections of short stories and novellas. It’s hard to pick the best, but Skeleton Crew just about edges it, showcasing an unexpected range. From the uniquely disturbing The Jaunt, to the blackly comic grand-guignol of Survivor Type, and the elegiac tenor of The Reach, the collection is a bite-size introduction to a magnificently macabre imagination.
The must-read for aspiring writers
King begins On Writing in typically pugnacious style, explaining that “this is a short book because most books about writing are filled with bullshit”. His writing guide-cum-memoir is remarkably free of said effluence. A laid-back account of King’s early life pulls back the curtain on the man, before morphing into a toolkit for those who wish to do what he does. It’s a blending of memory and counsel that offers no technical wizardry or easy path to success, only the irresistible affirmation that “you can, you should, and if you’re brave enough to start, you will”.
The one that deserves more attention
When I interview horror authors, they frequently mention From a Buick 8 as one of their very favourite King novels, yet it seems to have been almost forgotten by general readers. It’s a small story about a rural police force and a car that is more than a car; in fact, it may be a gateway to somewhere else. It’s a hokey premise, but delivered with such winning earnestness that you are unable to resist the charms of the station, its staff, and the substitute family they create.
If horror’s not for you
Not everything King writes is horror. He is capable of capturing the beauty as well as the brutality of the human condition. Nowhere is that more evident than in 11/22/63. What sounds like a jaded idea – a man goes back in time to avert the death of JFK – is in fact a paean to a lost American innocence. It is science-fiction and a thriller, and it has moments of extreme violence, but at its heart 11/22/63 is a love story between a man out of time and a woman searching for her place. It also contains the greatest ending King ever wrote. If you want to try reading King, but don’t want to tussle with ghosts, world-ending plagues, or demonic clowns, this one will warm (and break) your heart.
King poured everything he had learned about his craft into IT, his 1986 treatise on the nature of fear itself. At more than 1,100 pages it’s another whopper, but don’t be put off; this story of kids battling evil in their small town (and returning to fight it again decades later) is King at the top of his game and at his most frightening. Pennywise the Clown, devourer of children through the ages, is King’s greatest contribution to horror’s pantheon of monsters. The novel’s size, strangeness and severity pose a challenge, yet despite its many cruelties, IT is as much an ode to friendship and childhood imagination as it is a horror novel.
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