MH: Hey Craig! It’s been a while but we’re back with something we probably should have done at the outset – our top ten King books! Now, this is mainly in response to the wrongness of this list from Rolling Stone: http://www.rollingstone.com/culture/lists/readers-poll-the-10-best-stephen-king-books-20141105. I must also warn you that I did no prep, so my list will be in no particular order and be off the top of my head and will probably contain 27 books.
CHB: I have been trying to refine mine down. I started at the beginning of his bibliography and realised I’d maxed out before I got to 1983.
But, first thing’s first: some rules. Is this Best Books, or Favourite Books?
MH: Is there a difference? I consider my favourites to be his best because they’re my favourites. Nice bit of circular thinking there. But for me, they’re aligned.
CHB: Fair call. We’ll go with that. It allows for some good partisan thinking.
Secondly: is The Dark Tower series one big book? And are the collections judged collectively, or for individual stories?
MH: Collections are judged collectively, if we go for individual stories we’ll be here until next week. And I think the Dark Tower books can be judged individually.
CHB: Good, and arrrgh.
Okay. let’s begin.
MH: Cool, first up (and remember this is in no particular order), I’m going to go for …. The Shining. Obvious choice, of course, but oh man, what a novel. I’m re-reading it at the moment and it’s just brilliant. Chilling, fascinating, haunting, and the character of Jack is perfectly believable. Seeing the action through Danny’s eyes adds a dimension to the book that wouldn’t have been there if the story had unfolded through adult eyes. I’m assuming this is on your list, too?
CHB: I’m going to say yes it’s on my list, and know that nine books down the track I’m going to wish I’d saved this spot for something else. But yes, of course. Have to put The Shining there. Quintessentially perfect horror. I think the first time I read this it was the scariest of all his books for me. Leaner than others, in pages, characters and body count, but terribly terrifying. Wonderfully terrifying. And as much as I don’t necessarily agree with King’s distaste for Kubrick’s adaptation, I love his take on his own book, and how it had what the film didn’t, which is a hell of a lot of heart. It’s Jack Torrance’s soul at stake, his obliteration throughout the book, and his inability to fight back against the Overlook.
Good horror needs heart, needs that balance of good overwhelmed by bad.
MH: The destruction of Jack’s character is the brilliant thing here, at the beginning he’s already losing out to himself in a big way, and the sense of doom that builds up is tremendous. Anyone could see that the Overlook job would be a bad idea for someone of Jack’s disposition. But he just barrels towards his own destruction.
CHB: I listened to the audiobook recently, and had forgotten entirely that whole part of his backstory with the student and his teaching career. Perfect economy of character development that lays such a good foundation for everything that happens to him. I read a recent interview where King stated that the Overlook was his addiction written into the form of a hotel. He was very up front in saying that this was almost a confession for him.
MH: Yeah, reading it after knowing a bit more about King than I did when I was 15, you really can see so much of him and his fears in it. We could probably bang on about The Shining for ages. What’s your first pick?
CHB: IT. Hard pressed to not list this as my favourite of his. Towering, staggering, 1100 page treatise on the horror genre. This whole story means so much to me and my experience of stories as a child and as an adult, and how it literally and directly speaks to that idea for all of us about the things we face in childhood but forget when we’re older.
MH: YES! Great choice, and this would be my pick for #1 if I was going in any order. I love this book so freaking much. You’ve summed it up perfectly. Pennywise is an unforgettable character, and that opening scene with George is one of the most outstanding horror scenes ever put to paper.
CHB: IT IS. Whenever I feel like I’m losing tone in my own writing, I go back to that first chapter. That and Stan Uris taking a bath. I love all the characters, I love all the chapters, all the sequences of them individually before they join together, and then their eventual reconnection as adults. I love Ben Hanscomb’s instruction to his mother to only feed him salads, Eddie Kaspbrak’s hypochondria, and Mike Hanlon’s slaving away as the last remaining Derry resident of the club.
MH: When Pennywise talks to Bev through the drain… *shudders* It’s amazing it works at all when you think about how huge it is.
CHB: Oh man. Too big for words. Best horror novel hands down.
Okay, next for you?
MH: Under the Dome. When I first read this I was preparing to not like it, the concept sounded kind of dumb, but I was blown away by how tight it was. Despite being an 800 page book, there’s barely a word wasted in it. Big Jim Rennie is a great villain, and I liked the way King just took it as a thought experiment. If there was a dome over a town, what would happen to the air? How would the military react? What would the people do if they suddenly knew they couldn’t walk away?
CHB: I do love this book. Though I don’t know if I can fit it in my 10, I’m going to save a spot. But Rennie is magnificently awful. Has to be one of King’s best villains. I just finished a re-read of this, and you just hate Rennie so much, all the way through. He transcends pretty much every other character in the book. I found the ending much stronger on the re-read also.
MH: The ending was always going to be tough with this one, the pay-off just couldn’t match what had come before, no matter what. I haven’t re-read it so maybe it would be different the second time around as you say. I really liked the concept of the ending, but it felt a little more appropriate for the ending to a novella, rather than a tome like this.
CHB: Yeah it’s a tricky one, and I’m not sure how much was made easier by knowing it second time round. Apparently Rennie was based on Dick Cheney, which is kind of terrifying to consider.
And by god the TV series is yet another terrible missed opportunity.
MH: I didn’t stick with it, so I have no idea where it goes in the second season, and I don’t care to know! So what’s next on your list?
CHB: ‘Salem’s Lot. I love it so much, probably more than Stoker’s Dracula. Really great to see King’s writing in this open up after the lean Carrie. Just a great vampire story, really well told. I love the portrait of the town, and its destruction.
MH: Hahaha, I am terrified of how much we’re agreeing tonight. Absolutely on my list. The horror novel about a writer in a small town that King does so well was really established with this title, and it’s one of the best vampire novels ever written. I haven’t revisited it for some time, but it’s one of those books that sticks with you.
CHB: It is. Very much an instructive manual for me, as you can see King playing with the style and form of the horror novel (which he got perfect with IT). The whole sequence that montages the whole town through different times up to the disappearance of Ralphie Glick is so fun and terrifying. And the Marsten House. And the scene where Matt Burke has the soon-to-be vampire sleeping upstairs in his house is so great. Barlow is amazing as the villain, particularly his taunting and manoeuvres against the heroes. And it’s the introduction of one of my favourite King character, Father Callahan.
Also, can someone please make this properly into a film? It’s a straight adaptation. It’s so simple. Just do it. Make some money. Scare some people. Stop messing with a perfect story.
MH: I haven’t seen the Rob Lowe version but I’ve heard it’s pretty bad. What I love about this is that he totally plays within the restraints of classic vampire mythology and still makes it scary, proving that vampires don’t need to be constantly re-invented to be compelling.
CHB: Totally. Gets into the reality of what would actually happen, without falling prey to Gothic silliness.
So that’s 3 for me and 4 for you.
MH: Next: Pet Sematary! This book is horribly fucked up and terrifying. I love it and hate it. The places he goes to with this one, taking any parent’s deepest fear and then twisting the knife in the way he does. This is pure horror.
CHB: Aargh. This is the hard one. I’m going to leave it off, as much as I’m loathe to. It is so messed up, so dark, but in such a way that you don’t seem to realise it until you’re there.
MH: This is another story about addiction, once the main character starts bringing the dead back to life, he can’t stop, no matter how bad it gets, no matter how much damage he does, he just keeps on doing it in bigger ways. It is very disturbing, very violent, and very upsetting. I almost think of this as The Shining‘s evil twin.
CHB: More terrifying still is that he apparently wrote it in no time at all, can’t remember the exact time, but it was something ridiculous like a week.
MH: And I think he was high the whole time. What’s next for you?
CHB: I know this one isn’t on your list, but 11/22/63. It really caught me by surprise this one. I loved the concept when it was announced, and early chapters were great, but I got so bogged down in the history that I wasn’t sure about the book at all. But the ending was magnificent, and completely made me see the rest of the novel in a whole new light. Which is surprising, given how King is famous for sloppy endings. But this began and ended perfectly for me, in a wonderfully uplifting and heartbreaking way. Just about seeing the value in life, in small moments, and in the company we keep.
MH: I like this book, a lot, but it’s nowhere near my top ten (ahhh, sweet, sweet disagreement, how I’ve missed you). I did find the ending sloppy, and I thought it just sagged in the middle. Also got a bit caught up in that late-career King trend of being too nice to his protagonists. What makes it standout for me is the trip he makes to Derry and the nod to IT. I also did find the Lee Harvey Oswald sequences great.
But would have worked better as a novella.
CHB: I kind of feel a lot for the character. As a reader I went with him, wanting to see Oswald, see the history come alive, and try to change it. You want him to do it, just as he compels himself forward (even though time is trying to stop him), and then his realisation that he’s the Jimla. The bad guy. You can’t change it, because you’re missing all the better things along the way. I love the love story in this. It’s also some of his best writing about teaching, so I’m a likely target.
MH: Time for a Dark Tower title, and for me the best book in the series is Wizard and Glass. Getting the chance to see some of Roland’s backstory, and a little bit more of how mid-world operated before it really moved on was hugely satisfying. I love the mixture of sci-fi, fantasy and westerns in the whole series but it’s most vivid in this one.
CHB: YES. On it. This is probably my second favourite after IT. Such a good story. So well told. Every inch of this book is beautiful. It resolves the Blaine the Mono stuff from The Waste Lands (which was not my most favourite part of the series, to be honest), goes into this enormous flashback, and then winds you back up with Randall Flagg in the Emerald City. And Roland’s youth is so well written, it’s amazing that King hasn’t done more of this kind of story, but then again it’d be hard to top this.
The best of the Dark Tower series.
MH: I really want to read an entire series about the adventures of Roland, Cuthbert and Alain! That series would be awesome! But it’s probably good that we just get this glimpse of it, it is quite perfect. This is another one that I thought I wasn’t going to like when I picked it up, because it completely derails the momentum of the main story, but after a few chapters you just don’t care anymore.
CHB: King apparently still wants to write the Battle of Jericho Hill. He says it’s the one part of the Dark Tower stories he’s yet to do, he just hasn’t worked out how to do it yet. So there’s hope. But we did get a bit in The Wind Through the Keyhole. On Wizard and Glass though, it has one of my favourite passages in anything ever, which is this wonderful description of the changing season in Mejis, talking about how things all pass, and he finishes with the line: ‘time is a face on the water.’ Just love it.
MH: It’s almost a shame that it’s hidden in the middle of the Dark Tower series, so most people will never actually get to it.
Next for you?
CHB: This is where it gets hard.
I was hoping to sneak this one in unsuspectingly, but I’ll go for it now.
MH: Ha! Good choice, actually! It’s not on my list, but mainly that would be because I consider it separate to the rest of his work. But I do love it. The insights into the way he approaches the craft are almost as good as the insights into his life.
CHB: Definitely. It’s really a book in two parts: the first autobiographical, about his take on writing, his childhood, and the origin of some of his stories (particularly Carrie). and the second part is one of the most practical, clear-headed and effective instruction manuals for writing that’s out there. It’s so generous. His whole chapter where he shows his edits on 1408 is great. And the epilogue describing his journey back to writing after the accident when he almost died is just a rocket for anyone hesitant about committing to writing.
MH: Yeah, that epilogue is amazing. I think it’s fascinating even if you’re not interested in writing stories.
CHB: Definitely. And only about 200 pages. Practically a sprint for King.
That’s 6 each now. Four to go.
MH: Well, I’m going to go for a collection now. But it’s hard to choose one. I’m a big fan of Everything’s Eventual and Different Seasons, but I love Full Dark, No Stars.
CHB: Oh controversial.
That’s an interesting, out-of-the-box selection.
MH: A Good Marriage is a wonderful story about long-term relationships, and how well you can really know a person, even if you live with them intimately. Big Driver, about a mystery writer who finds herself using the cliches of her genre to turn the tables on a tormentor is a great little story, too. 1922 is just a good, scary read. I like it because it’s King at his most self-assured, and the collection is very even. And while there are other great collections, I think this one just speaks to me in some way that makes it a winner for me.
CHB: I’m going to have to disagree, in that while I find them all very capable, interesting stories, and even as you say, I just don’t respond to them in the way that I do with the stories in Different Seasons – which is my next choice by the way.
MH: Yeah, Different Seasons is a great collection, but I think that the films made from those stories were stronger than the stories themselves.
CHB: Big call. I find it a remarkable collection, and quite astounding that King could turn out so many great novels in a short space of time, and still fit this in.
MH: The film of The Shawshank Redemption is much better than the story, and while I’ve never been the biggest fan of Stand by Me, I think the film is better than The Body.
CHB: Oh on that, the Rolling Stone link at the top of our conversation was a follow up to an interview with King where he listed Stand By Me as his favourite adaptation of any of his works.
Because, you know, me and Stephen King think the same thoughts.
MH: Ah, interesting. At least he didn’t name his own adaptation of The Shining.
CHB: Haha. Negative.
MH: So is that 7 each?
CHB: Yep. And so many still to fit in.
MH: Ok, business end. Have to get The Stand in now. I love this book so much. Another epic, good vs evil story, but it’s amazing. The descriptions of the abandoned cities, the way the illness spreads at the beginning, just brilliant. I love the sequence where he describes how all the idiots who survived the plague would up accidentally killing themselves in the weeks that followed.
CHB: I think I’m going to go a bit crazy and not include this in my list.
And this is based largely on my latest, quite recent, re-read of it.
MH: I am shocked and disgusted with you.
MH: Hahaha, but what’s your reasoning?
CHB: This was the first book of his I ever read. And I do love it. But I think I love others more. I think you can see the writer’s block in this too much. The first half is almost perfect, but then it gets strange. Characters do weird things like go off on a journey and then turn around and come back without there being any consequence. There’s too many contrivances in the end, and I can see him saving characters and killings characters for reasons that don’t serve the plot as well. And the resolution in Vegas is a bit of a mess. Also I’m probably still bitter that he killed off Nick Andros, who had the best introduction, and was the most fascinating of all the Boulder Free Zone characters. Sorry, spoiler spoiler spoiler but come on the book is thirty odd years old.
And these are small quibbles in an enormous book, that does so many things so well. There’s a bit of hairsplitting so that I can get other titles in.
MH: I agree about Nick’s death, I am still bitter about that. A terrible waste of a great character, back when he wasn’t too sentimental to do it! What’s next on your list?
CHB: The Dead Zone. It has this wonderful opening with Johnny that’s straight out of Ray Bradbury, then it evolves into this much weirder, stranger story that really explores some very interesting and ambiguous areas for King.
It’s a very sad story, very well told. And he ends this one well too.
MH: Yeah, I do like it but it’s not on my list. Agree with your points, though, it does have a good ending.
CHB: Yeah I think at this end of the list it’s really about unconscious personal attachment. I find it hard to articulate why I like this one so much, but I do.
MH: Misery! And I think we’re up to 9, aren’t we? This one is insanely good. Annie Wilkes, what a character. And what a situation for Paul Sheldon to find himself in. This is obviously what scares King, and he conveys that fear so well. Also, the hobbling scene is awfully vivd.
CHB: Oh man, I forgot about that one. It’s going to miss out for me. Can’t fault it though.
MH: I have a feeling that after this post we’re both going to be kicking ourselves for the things we missed out! What’s next on yours?
CHB: The Long Walk. Had to get a Bachman in there. Such an unusual story, unlike any other read I’ve ever had. It’s essentially monotonous – the characters just walk. So in reading it you feel the grind, the bleak drudgery of marching to your death, emotionally exhausting, but hits its theme so viscerally.
MH: Interesting choice! Did not see that one coming. As you say, it is a great story and it’s very unusual. I didn’t even consider the Bachman stories for this.
CHB: Well Misery is technically a Bachman, so I’ll give you that one.
MH: For me it’s a tie between Christine and Rose Madder.
CHB: At least you didn’t mention Dreamcatcher.
(Token Dreamcatcher criticism)
MH: I think I’m going to go with another Dark Tower book, and I’m leaning towards The Gunslinger. Cracking little story that sets up so much, and has the best opening line of any of his stories.
CHB: Oh good, I’m glad you put this in, because I was split between this and another one.
Such an enigmatic beast this one. So unusual, and unlike so many other things in the genre.
So many good lines.
MH: Excellent! It’s almost easy to forget it once you’ve gone through so much with the characters, but when you revisit it you’re just reminded of how well it works, it’s a bold attempt to mash multiple genres together in a Lord of the Rings style quest, and it clocks in fairly short having covered a lot of ground. Robots, mutants, cowboys. It’s basically perfect.
CHB: And kind of humble, in its strange way. Given where the series goes, amazing how fascinatingly mundane it begins.
MH: So what was the other book you were split on?
CHB: Okay, my last works kind of well with this, as it’s the final in the series, The Dark Tower itself.
MH: Ha! I was having the same dilemma!
CHB: And this is for pure emotional pull. It has Callahan’s death, which was the first of the many tears for me. I love his story, and how King brings him in here decades after ‘Salem’s. And even though his backstory (which is wonderful) is in Wolves of the Calla, I love his saving of the ka-tet and his refusal to give in. And Jake’s death, saving King himself. So upsetting. To see how King feels about his characters and their pull on his life.
MH: It is so epic and such a fitting finale to the series. Although the ultimate resolution was divisive. I actually thought it was great.
CHB: I love it. The stories go on. Anybody who doesn’t like it can go jump in a lake for being wrong.
I wanted Wind Through the Keyhole too, and Wolves, and Drawing of the Three. And parts of The Waste Lands. It’s really hard to separate this series, really is an enormous book.
MH: Yeah, I considered Wind Through the Keyhole. The others are also great, but I think the series needs to be divided in lists like this, mainly to highlight how good Wizard and Glass is.
CHB: True. It is the standout, mainly because it has the one plot that can be isolated. The rest bleed into each other.
Okay, well shall we wrap it up? Ten each, some controversy, some crossover. Corrected the pedestrian list from the Rolling Stone readers.
MH: I think we did a great job! Thanks for the chat, and I guess we’ll reconvene here once we’ve both read Revival?
CHB: Definitely. Comes out next week, and King’s talking it up as being big on the scares.
The Long Walk
The Dead Zone
Wizard and Glass
The Dark Tower
Wizard and Glass
Under the Dome
Full Dark, No Stars