Over the past several months, Teresa and I have reviewed several Stephen King books between us. Each time we review one, we seem to get a similar response from some of our commenters: lots of people don’t like “horror novels,” by which they often mean torture, gore, violence, and sparkly vampires, but they’re interested by our positive reviews of Stephen King. And this interest is justified! Stephen King writes so well (most of the time) — no one does dialogue better, and he has characterization dead to rights. Even when his books include gore and violence, that’s rarely what they are really about.
So thanks to the suggestion from Clare, Teresa and I decided to have some fun creating a brief and non-exhaustive guide to King’s work for people who don’t really read horror novels. Peruse the list below, and see if there’s anything there that appeals to you (or that you absolutely want to avoid!)
If you enjoy fantasy… try The Talisman. This story of Jack, who travels via magic to The Territories in order to save his mother’s life, is full of adventure, joy, sorrow, danger, triumph, and friendship.
If you remember the good old days, when vampires were disgusting, rotten creatures of the night, not seductive sparkly heroes… try ‘Salem’s Lot. This early novel of King’s is the first of his to have a writer as a hero (but far from the last), and it has vampires that are vampires, not Christmas ornaments.
If you like young adult novels… try The Eyes of the Dragon. This story of dragons, magic, and a young prince who must rally his forces and his courage to claim the succession that is rightfully his is exciting and suspenseful, but not frightening: King wrote it for his young daughter.
If your tastes in teen fiction lean more toward the dark side… try Carrie. King’s first novel tells of an awkward teen girl whose first period brings humiliation and pain—and a surprising power. It’s hard to separate Carrie from the iconic image of a blood-covered Sissy Spacek, but that image is only a small part of this story in which the real horror has nothing to do with the supernatural.
If you always drift toward dystopian novels… try The Stand. This huge doorstop of a novel is based on the premise that most of the world has been wiped out by a superflu. The characters who are left are unbelievably engaging, and their struggle to survive is epic. Two words of advice: read the uncut version, even though it’s quite a bit longer, and don’t read this during flu season.
If you like a good survival story… try The Girl who Loved Tom Gordon. This story of an 11-year-old girl lost and alone on the Appalachian Trail features a winning heroine whose love of baseball keeps her going, even when the odds of her survival grow dim. This novel is especially notable for the way King weaves in the supernatural without making the novel feel like a paranormal tale.
If you appreciate books that pose interesting moral dilemmas… try The Dead Zone. This early King novel about a man who can see the future hinges on the question of whether murder is ever justified. Ask yourself, If you could have killed Hitler in 1932, would it have been the right thing to do?
If you’re looking for a novel with a strong female lead… King has several to choose from, but Rose Madder is one of my favorites. Rose begins the novel as the victim of horrific domestic abuse, but she taps into her own strength to escape it and end it. This novel does have a fair bit of violence in it. Similar themes, and similarly strong women, can be found in Gerald’s Game (but it’s not such a strong novel) and in Dolores Claiborne.
If you’re looking for something to scare the absolute bejeesus out of you… I can’t do better than suggest Pet Sematary. I am fond of good horror novels and of ghost stories, I’m hard to scare, and I literally could not finish this one. I just couldn’t turn the last page. [shudder]
Several novels of King’s to stay completely away from, in my opinion — just not worth the time you’d invest: Cujo, Christine, Dreamcatcher. Others are mediocre, but not complete penny-dreadfuls like these.
And this list doesn’t include any of my all-time favorites, mostly because my favorites are either genuine horror novels, complete with gore, ghosts, and sometimes even killer clowns, or they’re almost unclassifiable. I have probably read It five times. Yes, it’s frightening, yes, it’s bloody, yes, it will make you stay away from sewer drains and balloons, possibly forever. But it’s also a story of a friendship so close, so sweet and lifesaving, so perfect, that it makes me cry every time I read it. Or The Shining, which has terrifying ghosts, true, but is mostly about the way alcoholism destroys families. Or… somebody stop me!
And then there’s the Gunslinger series. This post is already too long to discuss it: part fantasy, part suspense, part Western, part horror, part Wizard of Oz, this series has a cult following for a very good reason. Teresa and I are considering a readalong of this series later this year (after the TBR Dare is over!), and if you think you might want to dip your toe into King, you could start here. Enjoy… but keep the lights on.