2.04.2013

King's Highway part 72: The Best of Stephen King

We have reached the clearing at the end of the Highway! It's either the abandoned rest stop of "Mile 81" or the palace of Wizard and Glass, take your pick. Or maybe it's the Dixie Boy from Maximum Overdrive? Or the circle of stones from "N?" 

Whatever you imagine, picture me screeching to a halt at the edge of it. My journey complete, I stumble from the car, empty coffee cups spilling onto the road beneath the driver's side door, and raise my arms (I Duddits!) to shield my eyes from the glare of the awe and mystery of... El
That's "the King's Cup," for you non-La-Liga-philes out there. Thank you, Mike Zecchino at Epizootic for the image.
Hard to believe it's only been nine months since my buddy Mike (different Mike than above) innocently sent me the link that prompted me to start this madness. But it's been an instructive and inspirational madness, to be sure, so thanks for that, Mike: the link that launched a thousand ships. And Vulture, too: if I hadn't had such an immediate and powerful Wait, now, that doesn't look right... reaction to their ranking of the King books, I'd have been content to let the little King I read back in the 80s be my sum total of interaction with the man.

I'd very much like to thank those of you who have made all or any of this journey with me. I started this off sending these thoughts into cyberspace, SETI-style, and I'm ending with a collection of sites I'll be checking regularly and on an ongoing basis. I've linked to them numerous times along the way, so I'll content myself with one last collective (and sincere) tip of the cap: Chapeau, online Stephen King community, and thank you.

Thanks most of all to my wife Dawn, whose patient ear and steady support made this all so much easier and personally worthwhile.

I promise to talk about something else besides Stephen King, going forward.
WHAT YOU WILL NOT SEE: I filtered out all story collections (you can read my rankings of those here and here), most novellas (you can read my rankings of those here), all collaborations and all non-fiction. If this was a time capsule, well, On Writing would be one of two or three Kings included, most definitely; Full Dark, No Stars, as well. But I wanted to focus only on his novels for this; you just can't compare Danse Macabre to From a Buick 8 without muddying-the-evaluative-streams too much for my liking. You'll see a few non-novels in the following, like "Ur," Hearts in Atlantis, or Storm of the Century, but... well, Captain's Discretion. 

(Also, things like "Mile 81" or any of his uncollected short fiction of the last few years (Like "Little Green God of Agony.")

SO WHAT I DID WAS: Using 1974 (the year of King's first published novel, Carrie) as the starting point, I ranked his work by decade to see how the novel shake out, then we have the classic Overall Worst-to-Best aka EL COPA DEL REY incorporating not just them but the Dark Towers and the Bachman books, as well. (I toyed with the idea of a Round of 32, 16, 8, Final Four, then Championship, but it just got away from me. I'll happily show you the three dozen attempts at doing so, though, should you ever visit the King's Highway Museum.) 


I already ranked the Dark Towers and the Bachmans, but I need to amend my rankings of the latter. After much reconsideration (a process I always call "holding up under questioning") the official King's Highway Re-Ordering of the Bachman Bowl is: 
SEVEN: RAGE. SIX: BLAZE  FIVE: THINNER (I really enjoyed this one while reading it, but as the buzz faded, so alas did my esteem. It's still a lot of satirical fun, and I still wonder when I read it whether or not the character of Special Agent Stoner is a fictional representation of King's old coke contact. Because multi-millionaires sure-as-shaving-cream don't buy at the Circle K. That's my gut impression, which, let's face it, probably means I'm wrong. But as I like to say: regardless of the reality, I know what I believe!) FOUR: THE RUNNING MAN (Dated, sure, but a hell of a cynical masterpiece, and like many of the Bachmans, an understandable response to the lunacy of the seventies and eighties) THREE: THE REGULATORS (What the hell is wrong with people? What don't they see in this? It's so much better than the internet prepared me for! Read it again, verdammt.) TWO: ROADWORK (criminally underrated) And...

ONE:
It really is the most distinctive and memorable of Bachman's work.
As I have already spent many a long-winded moment on all of the following, I'll keep the supplementary remarks to a minimum, below.

Let us begin.
1974 to 1983

10. Cycle of the Werewolf
9. Cujo
8. Christine
7. Carrie
6. Pet Sematary
5. The Dead Zone
 4. Firestarter
3. Salem's Lot
2. The Shining
1. The Stand 

NOTES: It's difficult not to go with The Stand, here, but for the record, the effortless-storytelling-logic that characterizes most of it definitely is compromised just a bit in the last hundred-and-fifty-pages. (Not all of his works are, despite that popular-rumor.) But it's a bit like taking issue with a few lighting-issues in The Godfather 2 or something; how could I toss out the whole thing because of a few little things that rub me the wrong way? The Stand is classic, and for good reason.  But really, it could be a toss-up between books 3 through 1, here. At the other end, Cujo and Cycle of the Werewolf are fun reads, just not particularly the most emblematic of King's talents.

1984 to 1993

8. Gerald's Game
7. Eyes of the Dragon
6. The Dark Half
5. Misery
4. Dolores Claiborne
3. Needful Things
2. The Tommyknockers
1. It

NOTES:  What went for The Stand goes for It, as well. The preteen sewer gang-bang (as has become the nomenclature in all AV Club discussion of it) in the back-end is just such a baffling decision on The Big Man's part. But, what, am I supposed to let one preteen sewer gang-bang ruin my assessment of this brilliantly-constructed work? I think not. And #s 2 and 3 and maybe even #4 are grand-slams.

1994 to 2003

11. Rose Madder
10. Rose Red
9. Desperation
8. Bag of Bones
7. The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon
6. Dreamcatcher
5. Storm of the Century
4. Insomnia
3. From a Buick 8
2. The Green Mile
1. Hearts in Atlantis

NOTES: King's most interesting decade, for many reasons. Not his best (arguably) but every work has a unique "something;" even Rose Madder, last in line, here, and many's nomination for worst-overall-King-novel, is a truly interesting book. Few authors revisit / tweak the misogyny of  Greek myths as accessibly as King did, here. But the real delights, here, are from #8 on upwards. If any of these were swapped in for the top spot, I wouldn't argue. But, for my money, Hearts in Atlantis belongs in the same discussion as In Pharoah's Army by Tobias Wolff and other 60s/Vietnam memoirs. 

2004 to 2014

11. Lisey's Story
10. Mr. Mercedes
9. The Colorado Kid
8. Doctor Sleep 
7. Revival
6. Under the Dome
5. Joyland 
4. Ur
3. Cell
2. 11/22/63
1. Duma Key

NOTES: Why Duma Key is not universally recognized as one of the great King works is beyond me. Of all the King-stand-in I-guy-narrator voices/ characters / themes, this one works the best. Its heart, its theme, its construction, its lyricism - all hit on its author's best levels. Hand's down. Call the engraver. So does Cell, for that matter. It reminds me of "Kickstart my Heart" by Motley Crue. No one would rank it alongside "It's All Right Ma (I'm Only Bleeding)" by Dylan, but is that really the right evaluative context? I think not. As an EC graphic novel without pictures, and as an example of that part of King's bibliography that is EC graphic novels without pictures, it's great. 

Whether it's short story, novella, or novel, King's work in the twenty-first century rivals and arguably surpasses all that came before.

11/14/14 EDIT: Okay, I just finished Revival, and I may be over-ranking it. I'll revisit this once it settles in a little. But it left a deep enough impression where I wanted to honestly assess where I'd put it, hours after finishing it for the first time. I was surprised by where it ended up, but I can't argue with myself. Yet, anyway.

8/11/15 EDIT: So far, Finders Keepers is definitely the best novel of the 2015 - Future cycle.

Worth enlarging. Image from here.
So, while it would be good enough for me to end this sojourn by stating The Stand, It, Hearts in Atlantis, and Duma Key are King's best works (with, of course, On Writing and Full Dark, No Stars, and Wizard and Glass) it ain't good enough for government work as a feller says. So! 

57 books enter, 1 book leaves!
(Evaluative criteria: 1 part personal enjoyment, 
1 part literary construction, 
1 part Je ne sais quoi.)

57. Lisey's Story
56. Cycle of the Werewolf
55. Cujo
54. The Dark Tower: Song of Susannah 
53. Gerald's Game
52. Christine
51. Rage
50. Blaze
49. Mr. Mercedes
48. Rose Madder
47. Rose Red
Even Rose Red isn't all that bad. Cut out a half-hour and re-cast Nancy Travis and I bet people would be more forgiving.
46. Desperation
45. The Dark Tower: Dark Tower
44.The Eyes of the Dragon 
43. The Colorado Kid (Although I rather like this one. There's just not much to it.)
42. Carrie
41. Thinner
40. The Dark Tower: The Little Sisters of Eluria (okay, it's not a novel. Objection Sustained.)
39. Doctor Sleep
38. The Dark Tower: Drawing of the Three (Frankly, this should be higher, but there are stretches of it that drag for yours truly)
37. The Dark Half
36. Pet Sematary


35. Bag of Bones
34. Finders Keepers
33. The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon (Deserves special mention - quite an achievement. Probably the most compellingly King has portrayed the concept of God outside of #18, which is certainly more pessimistic, but equally effective.)
32. The Dead Zone
31. Revival
30. Misery
29. The Running Man (There really needs to be a proper adaptation of this.)
28. Firestarter (Jack Bauer in real life is probably a lot more like Rainbird than Keifer Sutherland.)
27. The Dark Tower: The Waste Lands
26. The Dark Tower: The Wind Through the Keyhole
25 The Regulators ("There was no one here but her and her dead friends on the tv.")
24. Ur


23. The Dark Tower: The Gunslinger (Dark Hippie Mythology.)
22. Dreamcatcher (Read this as if it was King's only work and tell me you wouldn't think it was fantastic.)
21. Dolores Claiborne
20. Joyland  
19. Cell
18. Insomnia (Only #6 provoked the same amount of tears when I got to the end.)
17. Wolves of the Calla
16. Roadwork
15. Under the Dome (Satirical masterwork.)
14. The Long Walk
13. Storm of the Century


THE TOP TWELVE 
(Quotations from my original reviews, unless otherwise noted.)  
12. 

"It was so refreshing to read an old-fashioned vampire story. Crosses and holy water. no sexual metaphors wagging the dog. No labored layers of artifice. (...) A few dashes of satanic or psychological ritual and some old-fashioned murder, but mainly it's about having to outwit and then stake a bunch of bloodsuckers." And I couldn't be happier about that.

11.

"One of the best time-travel stories since H.G. Wells. King has captured something wonderful. Could it be the bottomlessness of reality? The closer you get to history, the more mysterious it becomes. He has written a deeply romantic and pessimistic book. It's romantic about the possibility of love, and pessimistic about everything else. (...Here,) the quotidian contains the horror, something real and familiar. It's indifferent to human lives, and it is inescapable. It is time." - Errol Morris, the New York Times
 
10.

"King succeeds where Sandy (initially) fails; he shows you the mundane heroism of the troopers' lives and makes you care about that, not the spook show in Shed B." - Laura Miller, New York Times
"King seems far more interested in the nature of mystery than closure, and how questions without answers affect his characters." - Kev, CharnelHouse

9.

"Mental illness, class and gender inequality, pedophilia, and suicide have served to underscore the overarching supernatural horrors in King's novels before and after. That all surface in this novel makes (it) not only a terminal point for one of King's favorite fictional places but also a hub for his favorite dark fascinations." - Kev, again. One of King's most underrated works, for me.

8.

"In addition to being perhaps the 80s' best metaphor for cocaine-addiction, it's a) fantastic sci-fi, though not (as) emblematic of the 1940s-style sci-fi King says it is; it struck me more asn 80s-specific take on the radioactive-panic movies of the 1950s, more than anything, and b) an ideographic history of late 20th-century background gadgetry."

7.

"A story about hidden evil emerging when the snow sets in; when a family is isolated and broken, and when a man with buried darkness finally collapses and becomes what he was always, inevitably, going to be." - James Smythe, The Guardian

6.

"A wealth of plot, a mix between the real and the mystical, excellent characters." - Steve Kimes, Interesting But Pointless Stuff
(short and sweet, that)


5.
"This is about survivors' guilt... Surviving the 60s, surviving childhood, surviving Vietnam: even, ultimately, surviving the survivors' guilt. It belongs to a grand tradition of literature, that of an author/ culture reconciling present with past."

4.

"This book examines fear, faith, belief and magic, creating King's most memorable characters and his most horrifying vision. It is, plainly put, an experience you will never forget (even if the Losers' Club does.) - Kev, again

3.

"...the language serves to create a dreamlike mood which reinforces this tale of past love. The illustrations by Dave McKean increase this effect. Adding to the poignancy of the story is the reader's knowledge that, out of all these characters from the past, Roland is the only one who survives into the present. The cloud of doom that overshadows the book effectively gives the sense of a world in which everything is rushing to oblivion." - Tzu-Mainn Chen, The Tech (MIT)

2.

"In short (well, not-so-short) this is the book that has everything - adventure, romance, prophecy, allegory, satire, fantasy, realism, apocalypse (...) This is a book for the 90s, when America (sees itself) less and less in the tall image of Lincoln or even the robust one of Johnny Appleseed and more and more as a dazed behemoth with padded shoulders." - Robert Kiely, New York Times

1.
  
I know some may find it blasphemy to pick anything but The Stand or It for the top spot, but I respectfully disagree; this is simply a better constructed novel. It's no less epic in its own way and definitely as atmospheric and surprising and fulfilling. This was one of the first I read for this project, and I asked How does it compare to Duma Key? of everything I read after it. And while some came close - I wouldn't argue with anyone who swapped in any of my top twelve with the top spot, actually - none felt as whole as this.

"Mostly I listened to the sigh of the waves, so like the breath of some large sleeping creature, and I looked out through the glass walls that fronted on the water."

"I realized the shells were talking in a voice I recognized. I should have; it was my own. Had I always known that? I suppose I had. On some level, unless we're mad, I think most of us know the various voices of our own imaginations. And of our memories, of course. They have voices, too. Ask anyone who has ever lost a limb or a child or a long-cherished dream. Ask anyone who blames himself for a bad decision, usually made in a raw instant (an instant that is most commonly red.) Our memories have voices, too. Often sad ones that clamor like raised arms in the dark."

"Art is the concrete artifact of faith and expectation, the realization of a world that would otherwise be little more than a veil of pointless consciousness stretched over a gulf of mystery."


It is characterized by some of the repetitive phrasing and plot-shortcuts in its back pages as you'll find throughout King's work (represented here by Wireman's many "muchacho"s and Jack's developing some kind of ventriloquist-clairvoyance / the general being-helped-by-God-against-Perse business), but if I had to point some alien civilization to King's work or pick only one for a time capsule, this would be my pick. It's got it all, and he's never done it better.



While Dog Star Omnibus will continue as a definitive source for my various preoccupations, the King's Highway is now closed. It will reopen with Joyland and Doctor Sleep or as events warrant. Thanks for traveling with me.

Last Edited: 8/11/2015

9 comments:

  1. This has been a hella-fine series of posts. Chapeau to YOU, sir; it's an excellent achievement.

    By the way, when I compiled my own ranking of the novels, I put "Duma Key" at a mere #16, but I agonized over it, and my gut kept telling me to put it higher. I kept it where it was, but reluctantly; I've still only read the novel once, and I suspect that when I finally get around to a second read, its position is going to shift upward. It's a great novel, and, like you, I think it deserves more praise than it receives. Glad to see you giving it that praise!

    It's also nice to see some love for "The Tommyknockers." That one left me cold when I first read it, but when I gave it a shot again a couple of decades later it seemed much, much richer than I'd expected.

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    1. Thanks, Bryant. Sad to see it end! But I'll still be around, just fewer and further between. (And far Star-Trek-kier.) Thanks again for your views and reviews - very much appreciated.

      (Folks, check out Bryant's own worst-to-best list: http://thetruthinsidethelie.blogspot.com/2012/03/worst-to-best-stephen-king-books_399.html - well worth your time. Print his out and mine and make them do battle via Masters of the Universe figures! (If you do this, please video it, and send it to me.) All kidding aside, tho, check it out)

      As you can imagine, I agonized over some of these rankings. (In the end, I downgraded a couple in my best-of-decade rankings, like Under the Dome, but elevated them in my best-all-around rankings. That's a contradiction in reasoning I can live with.)

      I tend to rank both Duma Key and The Tommyknockers higher than most lists I've seen, but I also sincerely esteem them as serious works. The TKs is a bit "looser," and I can see that being a problem for some people. But it's also just a seriously kick-ass piece of work. Duma Key is a mature, fully-realized work. In the end, I had my top 12 and really went over what worked, what didn't, what was personally appealing, what wasn't, and went with my gut.

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    2. I might have to bump Storm of the Century all the way up to spot #13.

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    3. That far, huh? I wouldn't argue with that.

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    4. Maybe I'm going overboard. But it's definitely jumping a FEW spots and leapfrogging over Insomnia and Wolves of the Calla. (Nothing against either of those, of course.)

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  2. Congratulations on completing it and doing it in just nine months. I've been at it for nearly three years!

    I agree that Duma Key is a much underrated novel and said as much in my review of it. But I couldn't place it above The Stand or IT.

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    1. I really do need to edit this post and insert Doctor Sleep and Mister Mercedes (and I guess Revival next month too) into their proper slots. I'd put Mercedes between Gerald's Game and Christine, I think, and Doctor Sleep between The Dark Half and Pet Sematary.

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