This was originally going to be a topic for Top 6 Thursday, but I find it’s so hard to contain my favorite Stephen King novels to such a small number — so ten it is. I am currently up to Insomnia in my massive King reread project, so my tastes could easily change by the time I’m done with that. It happens. My opinions on King’s work changes as often as the wind blows. I will probably post a revised version of this list when I’m finished with said reread project, whenever that is.
For now, though, here is my top 10…
10. The Dark Half
I didn’t like this novel for a long, long time. It took three rereads for me to finally appreciate what King was going for here. Before, I could never quite wrap my head around what George Stark is; now, I realize it’s up to interpretation and have my own. Not only is this one of King’s scariest and goriest works, it’s also his most fun read.
9. Hearts in Atlantis
I love it when King goes literary; he did that a lot when he first signed on with Scribner. Technically, this isn’t a novel . . . but it kind of is? It’s a collection of five interconnected stories that, in the end, come together to create something very close to a novel. I’m a student of the Vietnam era; the politics of the age endlessly fascinates me. Hearts in Atlantis deals with those years in a real and memorable way. King’s prose in this 1999 release is especially powerful and poignant. By the time I finish “Heavenly Shades of Night are Falling,” I’m always in tears.
8. Duma Key
King’s commentary on the creative process is always fascinating, and no where is it more captivating than in this 2008 novel. Perhaps what is most remarkable about this particular story is the setting: it takes place in Florida, not Maine. The descriptions King gives of the Keys are vivid and colorful; every reread makes me want to buy a house in Key Largo (oh, I wish!). Duma Key sees the marriage of Literary King and Horror King, and the results are awe-inspiring.
I almost didn’t include Cujo on the list, simply because it’s such a nasty, brutal story. But honestly, I couldn’t count it out. It’s such a marvel from a writing standpoint: King grabs the reader from page one and doesn’t let go until the epilogue. I always finish this one in a day, two days tops. The scenes in the Pinto are among the tense and spirit-breaking in all of horror fiction, and King’s exploration of the social classes and infidelity are subtle and, yet, rather riveting. Those scenes are perhaps his most Dickensian. But, in the end, this is Cujo: a scary-as-hell story told by a ruthless author.
The most recent release on this list, Revival was very much a return to form for King. Though I’m still not completely sure how I feel about the ending, the fact that I still think about it almost three years after is certainly a point in the book’s favor. This 2014 novel is, in my opinion, King’s bleakest; it is also one of his finest character studies yet. I’ve only read Revival once and cannot wait to give it another go.
5. Dolores Claiborne
One continuous chapter, told in Maine dialect over the span of 300 pages. This could and should have been a disaster, but it’s not; quite the opposite, in fact. Dolores Claiborne is King’s finest female character. Tough and real and stubborn, she isn’t afraid to fight for her children, and she is an absolute joy to read about. Like Cujo, this is a book that cannot be put down once begun.
This was the first King novel that released after I became a bonafide Constant Reader, so it’s special to me in that regard. As I said when discussing Hearts in Atlantis, I am fascinated by the ’60s and ’70s, and tend to agree with King in his estimation that the JFK assassination is the dividing line in modern American history. If Kennedy hadn’t been assassinated, would action in Vietnam have progressed? Would Nixon had been elected in 1968, thus causing major distrust in the American government to bloom after Watergate? King explores these questions and many, many more in this epic novel. I love time travel, so naturally this 2011 novel had to make it into my top 5! This book also features one of my favorite King romances; I just love Jake and Sadie.
3. The Shining
A King classic by every standard, this is a claustrophobic, frightening novel that retains all its power after multiple reads. I should know; I’ve reread this 1977 horror classic more times than any other book in my collection. Jack’s plight is a tragedy in the truest sense. And one cannot ever forget the Overlook Hotel: King’s scariest and most memorable setting.
2. Needful Things
For a long, long time, this this was my favorite King novel . . . it’s basically tied with the number one spot, okay? This is certainly SK’s most complex work: the way the characters interact is truly fascinating. This is, in my opinion, King’s most successful small town novel. On full display is the dark comedy: long stretches of this story are devilishly funny while stills exploring the darkest parts of the human psyche.
1. The Dead Zone
A quiet wonder. A gentle, haunting, and tragic journey through the life of the character who is, arguably, King’s most likable and relatable creation: Johnny Smith, everyman. And it is the novel in which King introduces his readers to Castle Rock! From end to end, this 1979 novel is simply sublime; from the prologue set at the skating rink to the heartbreaking final chapter, this is King at his very best, his most melancholy. Despite being very much a long look at the 1970s as a whole, this novel does not become dated. In the era of Trump, it has only gained relevance and powerful. Johnny and Sarah’s doomed relationship is King at his most Shakespearean. And through Johnny’s psychic powers, King brings the story of Cassandra into the modern day; it is with that engine SK drives, full speed, filled up with confidence and grace.
That’s my top ten! What are your favorite Stephen King books?