A Stephen King Guide for Beginners

If you're a frequent reader of my blog or you've followed this link from Facebook, you're probably quite aware that I am a big Stephen King fan. Like a lot of people, I discovered him in my early teenage years and his stories and way with words spoke to me, filling a hole. I always loved to read growing up, but when I discovered King I was in a weird in-between place -- I was too old for books I had loved in elementary school, and I felt I wouldn't like "adult novels" or anything over 200 pages or so. 


I found myself in a used bookstore in summer of 2010, and it was on a whim that I bought a few old King paperbacks -- Dreamcatcher, IT, Different Seasons, The Running Man, Misery. I had no clue which of his books were good and which weren't -- all I knew was he was popular and I was desperate for something to read. I guess the covers of those particular books caught my eye, so to the cash register I went. 


I went on vacation to the beach soon after that bookstore trip, and I took along the two slimmest volumes -- Misery and The Running Man. If I remember correctly, I started TRM first but gave up only a few chapters in (fun fact: I still haven't read that book!), so I picked up Misery and was a bit more interested. It wasn't great, but it was serviceable and I finished. 


A little over a year later, I got Christine. That's when my reading affair with Stephen King truly began. 


It is for that former self that I am writing this post. It is for the young book lover (or maybe you're a grown adult coming late to the party) in Books-A-Million or shopping on Amazon, unsure of which Stephen King novel to choose. Let's face it, the dude's written almost seventy novels. And while 95% of them are good, there are a couple of clunkers and if one happened to pick up one of said novels.... well, that'd be one less person who would have a chance at fully experiencing the depth and magic that is the Stephen King universe. I'm writing this for you, gentle book lover, with ten bucks in your pocket and a burning desire to finally experience Maine's Favorite Son. You're tired of hearing me fanboy over him, and you want to see what the fuss is all about. You've seen the movies and want to see what King is like in the written form. You want to be thrilled and chilled and touched. I'm writing this for you. 


The Starters

1. Christine

2. The Shining 

3. The Dead Zone 

4. Misery 

5. Dolores Claiborne 


The most important part of becoming a Stephen King fan is starting out with the right book. King tends to be verbose and self-referential in his later work (a habit I absolutely love, but some aren't so crazy about), so starting out with his earlier books that have little to no connections to other King novels is key. The five I have listed are all pretty well-known, even among folks who aren't Constant Readers. They've all been made into movies -- who could forget Jack Nicholson swinging that ax or Christine the haunted car chasing punks down empty back-roads? The great news is the books are even better


I realize Christine is sort of a weird choice to put as THE book to start out reading King with, so if you feel like that particular book might not be your speed, feel free to go with any of the other four listed above. I only picked it because that's the book that made me a fan. It pulled me into the Kingverse completely. I'll admit, it's a little hollow and lacks SK's penchant for deep characterization. In spite of that, it combines horror, rock and roll, and campy fun into a chilly novel that's just a pure thrill ride. I would definitely recommend this to young teens or lovers of anything '50s. 


The Shining  is arguably, King at the height of his story-telling powers -- there's a nary a word out of place, and he dishes out horror and genuine literary moments in equal doses. The Dead Zone, the fifth novel published under King's name, showed him branching out into other genres besides classic horror tropes, i.e. vampires, haunted houses, etc. Set against the backdrop of the 1970's, Dead Zone is a tragedy that, perhaps more than any other King novel, becomes more and more rewarding with each subsequent reading. It showed that SK is more than just a scary writer -- he's a writer, period. 


Misery and Dolores Claiborne tend to get lumped together in my mind, if only because both of their movie counterparts star Kathy Bates, and they're both relatively enclosed and claustrophobic tales -- especially Misery. Of the two, Misery is most the more obviously "scary" book, and fits in pretty nicely with public assumption of what King should and should not do. Who could forget Annie Wilkes? Dolores Claiborne is a first-person narrative of life of the title character. Written entirely in dialect, DC is one of King's most memorable stories and hardest to put down. 


The Cementers 

1. Different Seasons 

2. 'Salem's Lot

3. Night Shift 

4. Pet Sematary 

5. Carrie 


So you've become a Stephen King fan, and you want to read further. This second group of books -- The Cementers -- are just that. They will probably do well to "cement" your King fan status. You've started out with five of King's strongest novels, and now it's time to, perhaps, read some of his shorter fiction. Different Seasons is a collection of four novellas, all around 125 pages in length. Two of the stories found here are "Rita Hayworth & The Shawshank Redemption" and "The Body" (made into the film Stand By Me). Need I say more? 


'Salem's Lot is a classic horror novel by any measure. It showed King's true mastery of characterization and plotting, and it was only his second published novel! I was tempted to put this one in the starters group, but decided against it -- while it is well-known, it moves rather slowly for the first half and newcomers to the King Universe might not have patience for it. Regardless, this is one that's bound to make your hair stand on end and checking to see if your doors are locked at night. What's that scratching at the window? Hmmm....


Night Shift is King's first short story collection and is chock full of classics -- I'd say at least 15 of the 20 stories here are must-read material. I only put this one after Lot because of the two stories that book-end that earlier work. 


Pet Sematary is another classic King novel, one we're all familiar with -- a man and his family move to a new home in rural Maine. Man discovers a path behind his house leading to the woods. Things....happen. This is King at his bleakest, unafraid and unashamed to peer fully at death and grief while dragging his reader along with him. I wouldn't recommend this to one starting out reading King, unless you've got a strong grip on your emotions and have plenty of tissues ready. 


And, of course, Carrie -- the book where it all began. The writing here is amateurish and downright strange in places, and I feel like the epistolary form doesn't entirely work in the author's favor all of the time, but it's a good -- heck, great -- novel from a beginning storyteller that is necessary when getting into the works of Stephen King.


The World-Builders 

1. The Stand 

2. IT 

3. 11/22/63

4. Under the Dome 

5. Dark Tower Series 


So you've now read most of the classics in the King canon, as well as a few that aren't quite so well-known to the general reading public. This is the section of books that bring on the jokes lobbed at King from time to time -- that he can whip out 1,000-pagers in no time, which...seems to be true. These are King's "epic" works, and while they don't have to all be read back-to-back (methinks that would be exhausting), they should all be read. While King is a master at claustrophobic fear -- Paul Sheldon's predicament in Misery; Mom and Son being trapped in a Ford Pinto in Cujo -- he's also just as good at building worlds to believe in. 


The Stand and It are often declared King's best work, and it's hard to disagree -- I'm currently on my seventh (or is it the eighth?) reading of The Stand, and I've read IT probably three or more times. In these novels, King pulls out all stops, creating three dimensional characters -- and there are a lot of them -- that the reader can fully believe in. These are worlds we can believe in -- whether it's a flu-ravaged New York City or the sewers beneath Derry, Maine. 


11/22/63 and Under the Dome are recent entries in the King back-list, and show him at his expansive universe, world-building best. Under the Dome is proof King is still a master at exploring small town life, and 11/22/63 is any history nerd's wet dream.


And, of course, there is the Dark Tower series -- the eight books that connect and encompass every other short story, novella, and novel King has penned. (No, that isn't hyperbole!) It's truly King's masterwork and reading it is prudent for those who want to explore all of SK's strengths as a writer -- reading his popular horror novels only is doing yourself a great disservice, potential new Stephen King Constant Reader. However, one must be careful when approaching the DT series. A read of The Stand, 'Salem's Lot, and IT  is very necessary. One would argue reading Insomnia  and Hearts In Atlantis before approaching the Dark Tower series is necessary as well, and that's totally valid -- both books introduce characters that are vital to the journey to the Tower in book 7. However, those books rely a great deal on the reader already being familiar with Roland Deschain's journey -- there are references in both Insomnia and HIA that will go over a newcomer's head without reading -- at least -- the first three books in the Dark Tower series. 'Salem's Lot and The Stand work on their own with nary a Mid-World reference, so reading those before the Dark Tower series is fine and, honestly, the only way to go.


Of course, it's not necessary to read all five of the works listed in this section back to back -- in fact, I would advise against it. Reading such long, intricate books right after one another could be exhausting. I will say, however, The Stand and IT need to be read before Dark Tower -- but I've already covered that. IT needs to be read before 11/22/63, and Under the Dome can be read pretty much whenever. These works are King's longest as well as some of his most rewarding. Enjoy! 


The Later-Taters 

1. The Tommyknockers 

2. Insomnia 

3. The Regulators 

4. From a Buick 8 

5. Cell 


These are books that need to be put off until you're sure King is the author for you. These aren't bad novels (although I will say I'm a fan of only numbers one, two, and four)... they just aren't good for the new-comer. The Tommyknockers -- a personal favorite of mine -- is a cocaine-fueled, paranoid hot mess. I love it, but it isn't a friendly book and most folks don't take too kindly to it. 


See the Dark Tower section a couple of paragraphs up for my reasoning behind putting off Insomnia.


From a Buick 8 is a quiet novel that doesn't give away all of its power at once. If I were to rank all of King's work, it would probably be in the upper half somewhere. Not his best, but not his worst either. It doesn't thrill or chill -- it's merely a contemplation of life and unsolvable problems. It has no conclusion or truly memorable elements. The narrative structure is weird and a little off-putting. For all of that, I like it.... but, again, most folks don't. 


As for The Regulators and Cell.... ugh. If you feel like punishing yourself, feel free to check out these bad boys.


And from there.... the King universe is yours. Perhaps you could explore the Castle Rock world set up in The Dead Zone with Cujo, The Dark Half, and Needful Things. Perhaps you want some literary novels. If so, you could do much worse than Bag of Bones. Maybe you'd like to try a newer work! The Bill Hodges trilogy or Revival would suffice. The beauty of King's catalog is there are so many books to choose from, for every mood and taste. So get to reading!