Sunday Salon: the Kingdom

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.

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38 Responses to Sunday Salon: the Kingdom

  1. Eva says:

    Bookmarking this page for reference! I loved King in middle school/early high school: I’m curious to see what I’d make of him as an adult.

    • Jenny says:

      Eva, so am I! You and I have such similar taste in mysteries that I’d love to see what you’d think of some of his work.

  2. Good reference—and I’m honored to have suggested it. ;)

    The Eyes of the Dragon sounds wonderful, and I may try the first Gunslinger novel soon—zounds, what a prolific writer he is! There’s a lot to dig through…

  3. I plan to read a lot of Stephen King this year. I will keep those titles in mind…

    I have started a weekly feature on Sunday, Sharing Poetry With You, where I would be sharing any poem that has made an impact on my. It could be a classic one or a contemporary one, and anything in between. Today’s Sunday Salon is all about that. Do check out what poem I share today by clicking on Sunday Salon: Sharing Poetry With you. You are invited to give your thoughts on the poem posted. In one word or many words..your choice!

    • Jenny says:

      Thank you so much for the link! I have let my poetry-reading habit fall by the wayside in recent weeks, and I’d love it if this sparked it back into life.

  4. SFP says:

    I’ve not read a lot of fiction by Stephen King–a few short stories, including the amazing one in the NYer about the devil and the bee sting, Carrie (twice), Misery, his book on writing–but I’m fascinated by the man himself and usually read any interviews with or essays by him that I come across.

    Should my next King be Pet Sematary, which I read a few pages of years back and quite liked, or Under the Dome, which I happen to own? I really don’t like to be scared and all our late pets are buried right out back. . .

    • Jenny says:

      Pet Sematary is really interesting thematically and also well-written, but boy howdy is it scary, including the ending. Under the Dome is more… how do I put this? politically scary, and it’s classic middle-of-the-road King. Your choice!

  5. Jeane says:

    I so appreciate this list! I don’t like horror and so avoided King for a long time, but my husband told me he writes fantasy too and urged me to pick up The Dark Tower series. It didn’t work for me. I didn’t make it through book two. But some of these others on your list sound more up my ally; I might give some a go.

    • Jenny says:

      The first Gunslinger book is different from the others — I think book two picks up a bit, myself. But definitely try some others and see what you think. They are all so different!

  6. christina says:

    I adored The Stand when I read it waaaayyyy back in middle school. I’ve been saying FOREVER that I must re-read it. I hope that I adore it as much now as I did then.

    Plus, you are right. Pet Cemetery? Freakin’ scary! Gage? Achk!

    • Jenny says:

      I think The Stand bears re-reading pretty well, actually! Make sure you get the uncut version! Oh, and Achk indeed. [shudder]

  7. What a great overview of King’s works. I’m a huge fan of his “early” works, especially Pet Sematary and The Stand. Some of his later ones, not so much, but I still have to try some more of them too.

    • Jenny says:

      I agree that some of his later works are more forgettable, but there are some gems there, too (like The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon, Bag of Bones, Desperation, and several others.) See what you think!

  8. Jenny says:

    Wow, what a comprehensive list! :) I haven’t read anything by Stephen King so far, but between y’all and my sister’s boyfriend, I’m really beginning to think this is a mistake on my part.

    • Jenny says:

      It depends on what you like, of course, but as you can see, there’s a lot here to like almost no matter what you like. :)

  9. Steph says:

    This was such a great guide! Thank you so much for posting it. King is an author that my father loved when I was growing up yet I myself have never read him. I feel like I need to give him a chance. It certainly sounds like his books run the entire spectrum of topics, so it does seem like everyone should be able to find at least one book by him to enjoy. I think The Stand probably appeals to me the most, so I’ll have to give that a try!

    • Jenny says:

      It’s a great novel — so engaging and intense. Make sure you get the uncut version. (Some people would disagree with me, but they are all wrong!)

  10. Willa says:

    Some years ago I read a lot of Stephen King but after reading Misery, I was so spooked and scared that I haven’t been back since. Maybe I should give him a try sometime soon.

    • Jenny says:

      Misery was the first novel by King I ever read, and it scared the socks off me! (Partly because I was seventeen and had no experience with horror novels, but still.) It’s a very, very intense novel. There are lots of good options, though!

    • Teresa says:

      Misery scared me more than any of the other King novels I’ve read. I think because none of the horror was supernatural, but it was uber-scary just the same. (I should add that I’ve not read Pet Sematary.) Some of his other books didn’t scare me at all.

  11. diana mack says:

    to add to the “scare the bejeesus out of you” category
    bag of bones…i had goosebumps and slept with the light on after that one!

  12. Amanda says:

    I read a ton of King’s books when I was about 14/15 years old. My favorite – the only one I’ve kept and reread – is Insomnia.

    • Teresa says:

      Insomnia is a good one! The main character is really great, and it ties very nicely to my personal favorites–The Talisman and The Dark Tower series.

  13. Kathleen says:

    This is such a great post. There’s so much more to Stephen King than horror! Thanks for making great suggestions. I’ve embarked on a project to read all of his work in order (in many cases I will be rereading). I’m ashamed to say I haven’t gotten very far. I’ve only managed to read his first, Carrie so far.

    • Jenny says:

      That’s quite a project, since he’s written more than 40 novels, plus short stories and nonfiction, not to mention the nontraditionally published stuff like ebooks and audiobooks! I wish you luck!

  14. Dorothy W. says:

    This is great — thanks for the list! I now know where to go when I’m in the mood for some King again.

  15. Christy says:

    What a great idea for a post (thanks to Clare for that)! It’s a nice intro to Stephen King for those unsure about trying his works (like me.) I feel kind of bad that I haven’t read any of his books as I am originally from Maine. I’ve even gone past his house to see what it looks like (the gates have ironwork spiders!).

  16. Carin S. says:

    I’m surprised you didn’t mention Different Seasons. For non-horror readers it’s pretty perfect – only 1 of the 4 novells in the book has any horror elements to it (and that one just can be skipped) and the other 3 include The Shawshank Redemption, and The Body (made into the movie Stand By Me). Personally, I’m not a horror reader at all but I loved this book, and I also loved The Shining. I agree he’s a terrific writer who doesn’t get enough credit for his writing because he writes in genre and is prolific (many people think fast=sloppy, not true.) Love this post!

    • Jenny says:

      You’re right about Different Seasons — what a great collection — though it wasn’t possible to mention all of King’s books that I think people would enjoy. The Shawshank Redemption is so good, though!

  17. chasing bawa says:

    I think I’ve read a couple of King’s novels but don’t remember much of them. However I was impressed (and scared) by his son Joe Hill’s debut novel which has re-kindled my interest in King, so your list is very timely! I think I’ll give Pet Sematary a miss (the title is already scary) but I may give the others a try. Plus I also have a copy of Gunslinger on my shelf:)

    • Jenny says:

      I’ve read both Joe Hill’s books and liked them both (and as you say, found them both scary!) I think he’s doing mostly graphic novels now, but I hope he comes out with more books.

  18. Pingback: Library Loot – January 17th | A Good Stopping Point

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