October is upon us once again, and for that we are forever thankful. October is my favorite month of the year because I get to celebrate my horror obsession on the daily and it actually seem normal!
Since it's October, there's no better reading you can do than some good ole scary novels, and almost no author delivers on that particular front more consistently than my main man, Stephen King. Before I go any further, I will point out that horror is only a part of what King does. As well as horror, he's written sci-fi (The Tommyknockers, Dreamcatcher, Under the Dome [partially], Dark Tower), fantasy (The Eye of the Dragon, Dark Tower), literary fiction (Hearts In Atlantis), crime fiction (The Bill Hodges trilogy, Joyland), et cetera. The dude's written in a lot of genres, okay? And, usually, he does it quite well. It's a very rare instance when I find a King novel or story I don't love in some way. The dude is crazy prolific, and yet... he is known for being a horror author -- a fact I, as a dedicated fan of his, cannot help but lament a bit... but such is life. To pigeon-hole is human nature, and I can't even think of fighting an assumption that has been in place since the mid-'70s.
However, that's not to say King hasn't written his share of horrors. The guy can be very scary when he wants to be, and even when writing literary fiction or fantasy, he always throws in elements that make the stories a little unnerving at least. He did it way more early in his career -- writing horror, that is -- and while he is and will probably forever be known as "The Master of Horror", he hasn't really written about the monster under the bed or the boogeyman in the closet for at least twenty years. The scares he delivers these days tend to be of a more realistic nature -- loss of work, spouse, money, hope. Sure, those are things he's always touched on -- and he still writes about the supernatural today, albeit not as much -- but he writes about it in a different way. Time has passed and, like everyone else, King has changed... for better or worse.
Sorry, I sort of went off on a tangent there, didn't I? As I was saying, King is known for scary stories and while only a portion of his oeuvre can be really be categorized as "horror", those few novels are not to be missed this October. If you're looking for a nice, frightening tale to immerse yourself in for a day or three, you could do much worse than these twelve:
12. Duma Key (2008)
One of the newer entries on this list, Duma Key isn't immediate as far as its scares go but instead builds slowly, almost without the reader realizing what's coming. It's one of King's finest novels to date, combining beautiful, mature prose with dark subject matter a'la Pet Sematary or Needful Things. Its themes of redemption and paying for past mistakes are not new ones for Sai King, but nowhere else does he write about them so capably or vividly. I couldn't sleep for two days after my last reread of this one.
11. Desperation (1996)
Written after a string of novels concerned with social and political issues, Desperation was a bit of a return to form for King. Set in the Nevada desert, the small town of Desperation is one of the creepiest and loneliest places I've ever encountered in fiction. This novel is a brutal one, and probably not a good read for those who suffer from arachnophobia or ophidiophobia. Despite being marred slightly by heavy-handed religious themes in the latter half, this is a fine read that is woefully underrated in the Stephen King fandom.
10. The Dark Half (1989)
The Dark Half has never been one of my favorite King novels. Written just after kicking his coke habit, I've always thought the writing in this one seems clunky and amateurish. I wonder if that's just because I went into this book the first time knowing of the circumstances in King's personal life at the time. He's said he wasn't very confident in his writing abilities in the late '80s, and I think that shows. However, I will say this novel is quite horrific, thus earning itself a spot on this list. George Stark is a highly memorable villain, even though I've never been able to figure what exactly he is. Still, this novel is a gory, roaring good time, and the phrase "The sparrows are flying again" is just as chilling as "Redrum" or "We all float down here". And those straight razors... ugh...
9. Christine (1983)
This was the novel that made me a King fan, so I always feel I owe it some debt of gratitude. I'll be the first to admit it's not King's finest hour -- at times it's clunky (I've used that descriptor twice now... hmmm), the lead characters are pretty cardboard cut-out when it comes down to it, and the idea of a haunted car chasing down those who try to destroy it is amusing at best and laughable at worst. Somehow, though, King makes it work... and work well. This is a book filled with every King cliche -- rock and roll lyrics, pop culture references, angry teenagers. This one shouldn't be so good, but it is. Heck, this is one I often recommend to Stephen King newcomers. It's fast, it's brutal, and it's a whole lot of fun.
8. Night Shift (1978)
Some of Stephen King's best work is found in his short fiction, and nowhere is that more obvious than in his very first short story collection, Night Shift. Filled with 20+ stories as well as a must-read introduction by the man himself, this is a book I reread often. King's short fiction capabilities is pretty much unparalleled. Sewer rats, vampires, ghosts, cheating spouses, murderous cults, serial murders, technology gone awry -- this book has it all and then some. My personal favorite is "Strawberry Spring" which contains SK's most chilling closing line. So much good stuff to be found here.
7. Full Dark No Stars (2010)
Again, some of King's best stuff can be found in his story collections. Full Dark No Stars is comprised of four novellas, all comparable -- when it comes to the frights and chilling insights into the human condition -- to his best work of the '70s and '80s. Books like this one are a bit of a relief to Constant Reader -- it's nice to know the horror master can still draw blood when he really wants to. I think my favorite story here is "Fair Extension", the shortest in the collection. It's about a deal with the devil, but it's definitely not like any deal with the devil story you've read before.
6. Misery (1987)
I want to place this one higher in the list, but, alas, it cannot be done. Let that show you how great all of these novels are; I've honestly had a hard time ranking all of these because they're almost all equal. Misery is one of King's most iconic works, and by now you probably know the gist of it at least. Famous author of Victorian-era romance novels is held captive by his number one fan after he's involved in a tragic car accident. He is trapped by Annie Wilkes on her farm in Colorado, and from there one of King's most harrowing and intense tales unfurl, dragging the reader along even when he or she doesn't want to read anymore. Annie Wilkes is in many ways King's most memorable villain -- she is equal parts frightening and hilarious, and often at the same time. Her complete fixation on her favorite author makes a way for King to write about the writing process itself -- something he does quite a lot in his fiction, but perhaps never as well as he does here.
5. IT (1986)
Okay, please don't throw rotten fruit at me. Right now you're probably asking "How is IT, King's most epic work of horror, at number FIVE on this list?! How can that be?!" I get it. IT is King's masterwork in the horror field. He uses the backdrop of two eras -- 1958 and 1985 -- to show how the city of Derry, Maine, evolves and devolves all while under the power of the greatest monster King has ever created -- Bob Gray, Pennywise the Dancing Clown, et cetera -- a being that takes on the form of whatever you fear most (and, no, that doesn't just mean a clown! get it together, movie adaptation!)... and yeah. Really scary stuff. As well, I love the characters here; they are some of King's finest. The only reason I didn't put this at number one is the ending -- that's all. The ending makes sense, but it's a little bit of a letdown after the 1,000+ pages of purely awesome storytelling that comes before it. However, this one is definitely not to be missed. Seriously. It's wicked awesome.
4. Pet Sematary (1983)
This is the novel in which King confronts death and the way humans grieve head-on. It's a brutal affair, only bested by Cujo and the early Richard Bachman books as far as bleakness goes. It's a chilly, Autumnal book that winds the reader so tightly until he or she finally breaks... and then King keeps going. It's a painful read -- especially for cat lovers or parents of small children -- that actually transcends the trappings of horror altogether and becomes a story like none you've read before. If you've seen the movie, don't miss the book. There's a lot of subtext here that, unfortunately, gets axed in its big screen counterpart.
3. Revival (2014)
(I am using the American paperback cover to represent Revival because the first edition artwork is pitiful.) This book was touted as one of King's darkest books in promotional ads last fall, and -- fortunately -- the ads were right. King is at his best when confronting controversial issues, and he delivers here by tackling religious fanaticism and addiction and, like Pet Sematary, the mystery of death. I finished it in one day when it released. My knuckles were white from gripping the hardcover so long. I was transfixed. This is a book for those who claim King lost his ability to scare years ago, back before he got sober. The ending is easily the darkest King has ever gone, and it's for the final chapters alone this book made the list.
2. 'Salem's Lot (1975)
Easily the best vampire tale I've ever read (sorry, Bram Stoker), this book is all about blood-sucking creatures of the night invading a small, sleepy town in New England. Written against the backdrop of Watergate, the Oil Embargo, and the end of Vietnam, this book is a pretty depressing one fit for the time in which it was written. The small town of 'Salem's Lot, like North America, is having its life sucked out by a monster who thrives on pain and death (just photoshop Richard Nixon's face on head vampire Kurt Barlow) and what works so well about this novel is how easily the town falls prey. There are several classics scenes here -- young Danny Glick at the window arguably the most famous -- and it's a snappy, chilly read just right for Halloween.
1. The Shining (1977)
What more can be said about this novel that hasn't already been said in numerous online reviews and discussions? It's easily King's best work. Every scene here is important, every character memorable. When the novel isn't brutally assaulting the fears of the reader, it's assaulting the emotions via Jack Torrance's plight and young Danny's struggle to understand a psychic gift he doesn't understand -- a gift that only harms him. The Overlook Hotel is the best "bad place" King has ever created. The book itself is tightly-plotted, never too wordy or brief. Everything just...works. If you only read one novel on this list, make it this one. You're welcome.