There are some writers who are part of the American landscape with the sheer number of novels they have written—James Patterson, Clive Cussler, John Steinbeck or Danielle Steele, to name a prominent few. But one of the most prolific American authors over the last half-century, and perhaps the most iconic, has been Stephen King. It isn’t just the number of books he has written, but that virtually every single one of his books has been a best seller. Where would we be without Carrie or The Shining or The Shawshank Redemption? It isn’t just that these were all made into movies, it’s that his literary genius has dominated the American literary scene since Carrie and has not diminished ever since. He’s the only American writer to have thirty #1 best sellers. And what’s even more frightening is that he is still going strong.
I discovered King in fifth grade. My mother had read a book when we were on a summer vacation and thought I might like it. The book was The Shining. I was a very precocious reader, and I was hooked almost from the beginning. I finished the book well before the vacation was over—and it had me wanting more. And over the years, more is what I got. Most of his books have been made into movies, although few adaptations have been well received (Stand by Me and Shawshank Redemption and The Green Mile may be three notable exceptions.)
Most people characterize what he writes as the “horror” genre. I personally find that not terribly accurate. There can be many horrific elements in his writing—It, Pet Semetary, Salem’s Lot, The Stand and The Outsider. However, many of his books have also had fantastic elements as well, such as Fairy Tale, The Dead Zone, The Dark Tower: the Gunslinger, The Green Mile to name just a few. He once withdrew “Salem’s Lot” from a horror writing contest, claiming that it was fantasy rather than horror.
I’m not going to highlight all of his books, but I would like to highlight some of my own personal favorites. I know that there will be people who have their own preferences. But these are the books of his that have captured my imagination the strongest. I’m going to highlight just a few of what I think are his best works.
Stephen King Books
The Shining by Stephen King
The Shining: I personally feel that The Shining is King’s master work. Pitting the evil buried deep within the Overlook hotel against Jack Torrence in a battle for his son who is gifted with an amazing ability, King touches on the potential for evil within us all, and the power of redemption even when it no longer seems possible. The Shining is a remarkable book that has nuances to the characters and a subtle yet horrifically devious entity that threatens the family. One of the things that gripped me the most was how diabolically evil the Overlook Hotel is and the methods it uses to achieve its goals. Using one man’s weakness to seek the prize of his son’s ability, King sets up a classic battle between love and hate that left me spellbound by this book until the very last page. It is a book that I’ve returned to again and again.
The Dark Tower: the Gunslinger by Stephen King
The Dark Tower: the Gunslinger: “The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed…” These were the words that 19-year-old King wrote as he was first getting started with “the Craft” (as he describes it in On Writing). I enjoyed the episodic nature of the first book, as Roland Deschain, the last Gunslinger, persistently trails the Man in Black to seek his way to the Dark Tower. I was hooked from the very first sentence, wanting Roland to succeed in his quest and yet appalled at what he is willing to sacrifice to attain that goal. Roland is a man obsessed and is willing to do whatever it takes and at whatever cost to reach his destination. This is a trip away from the more familiar King with the Shining and It and Pet Semetary—the stories that make up this book have a much more fantastic element than his more familiar horror genre. I personally consider this the best of the seven-book series. This also gives some insight as to his early writing and the great novelist he would later become.
The Dark Tower: The Drawing of the Three by Stephen King
The Drawing of the Three is the sequel to “the Gunslinger”, and is perhaps the next best of the books in the series. Roland now seeks to gather his ka-tet, the group of comrades who will follow him on his quest to the Dark Tower, and how he gathers them from our world to help fulfill his destiny. What sets this book apart from the first one is the masterful development of the characters—Eddie, Odetta, and Roland himself come more to life than in the opening book of the series. It’s a roller-coaster ride from start to finish, but one of the best roller-coaster rides I’ve ever taken!
The Stand by Stephen King
The Stand: King is not known for being stingy with words, but this is one of his longest works on record (at least so far!) If the Shining pits good versus evil on a micro scale, King opens it up in the Stand on a global scale. A virus has wiped out most of humanity and the survivors fall into two camps: good versus evil. Now it is up to the remainder of humanity to take a stand for what is right, and to lift civilization to a better future. This was one of the most requested books during the Pandemic (King himself had to make a public statement saying that COVID was not the virus in the book), but some thirty years later he still reminds us how very vulnerable we are and how the world can profoundly change at any moment.
Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption by Stephen King
Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption: This short novella may be one of the most unique works in King’s repertoire—and one of the most highly critically acclaimed. Andy Dufresne is a banker who has been wrongfully convicted of murder, and sentenced to life in prison. Told from the point of view of a fellow prisoner and friend, Red, it is a story of the moral character of one man who refuses to let his circumstances dictate who he is. Andy Dufresne is a remarkable character fighting not just for his life but for his sense of self-worth. How he is able to transcend his circumstances is a masterful piece of writing. His jail-break is a gripping read that always makes me wish it was as long as the Stand when I’m done and wanting more. This is also one of the few Stephen King stories made into a movie that has also been critically acclaimed. The Shawshank Redemption is considered one of the top 100 most influential movies of all time, and Morgan Freeman and Tim Collins give outstanding performances in their roles.
The Dead Zone by Stephen King
The Dead Zone: What would you do if you could predict the future? King explores this in the Dead Zone, with startling results. This was the first of his books to make the top-10 list, and the first to feature the fictional town of Castle Rock, which appears in so many of his later novels. King made Johnny Smith’s clairvoyant abilities seem very real, and the character’s response to them understandable and all too human. He is faced with a very disturbing adversary: a man aiming to become President who Johnny sees would unleash a nuclear war. The dilemma facing Johnny is how to stop such a monster without abandoning his own morals. I loved the way that King wrapped this book up in such a satisfying manner.
On Writing by Stephen King
On Writing: Stephen King doesn’t write much non-fiction. His only two non-fiction books are Danse Macabre and On Writing. I didn’t agree with everything he says here. But there were two things I liked about it very much. The first was explaining what he called “the Craft” of writing. Understanding what he sees as his “craft” and his approach is nevertheless illuminating from a man who has been so prolific and whose writing has not diminished over so many years. The second is the frank assessment of his own life: his childhood, rocket to stardom, drug use and getting sober. This book is probably the closest to seeing inside the mind of the Master as we’re ever going to get.