All Things Serve the Beam
I’ve always considered myself a Stephen King nerd. My first introduction to his works, oddly enough, were through the somewhat metawork Dark Tower series. I immediately fell in love. Once I finished consuming those, I focused on his newer works at the time such as Under the Dome and 11/22/63. I loved those too. Since then, it seems I always read one or two Stephen King novels a year.
It wasn’t until recently I realized that most of my exposure to Stephen King’s “classics” were not through his novels, but other mediums like TV and film. I was very familiar with his stories, which are almost like myths at this point. The visceral image of Carrie covered in blood. Nicholson’s Jack Torrance shouting “Here’s Johnny!” The resurrected cat in Pet Sematary. The killer dog. The killer car. IT. But never had I actually taken the time to read the source material.
Last January, I decided I was going to work my way through Stephen King’s novels from the beginning through 1986. Why 1986? A couple reasons. First, I was born in 1986, so that seemed like a natural year to stop. Essentially, I would be reading every Stephen King novel from before I was born. The second reason is IT was published in 1986 and that sounded like the perfect climax to this endeavor.
My overall goal was to take away common themes from Stephen King’s novels. How does he evolve as a writer? When do those classic Stephen King tropes first appear? You know, stuff like that.
Of course, even with the 1974-1986 constraint, Stephen King’s catalog is massive. So a few more rules I set for myself:
- I only read works published under the name Stephen King (no Richard Bachman)
- I only read full length novels (no short story collections)
- I did not reread novels I had read previously
One last oddity is Eyes of the Dragon, which has some conflicting publishing information. Apparently it had a limited release in 1984 before a full release in 1987. I decided to include it in my reading.
Thus, I present the final list, with an asterisk next to novels I had previously read:
The Dead Zone*
The Eyes of the Dragon
With that long-winded preamble out of the way, let’s get started.
(And of course, if it isn’t obvious at this point, this post will contain spoilers for lots of Stephen King’s works.)
Foundations of Horror
Evil as a force of nature
Fundamental to Stephen King’s novels is that evil isn’t just people doing bad things. Evil is a force of nature. It infects people, places, and things. It spreads like a virus, often unknowingly. It isn’t about stopping evil, it is about holding it back from overwhelming the world.
Looking at King’s works chronologically, I think this theme begins in Salem’s Lot and becomes fully formed in The Shining. Both are perfect examples of evil places (Salem’s Lot and The Overlook Hotel) that influence and spread evil around them. Especially in The Shining, we see people become corrupted in the presence of evil, but this is apparent in other works as well, such as Pet Sematary and Christine.
Sometimes the evil force is fairly mundane, as I would argue it is in Cujo. But again, even though the story is essentially about a rabid dog, the specter of Frank Dodd hangs over the entire story. Cujo was a good dog before getting infected with rabies and turning evil. There is some implication Dodd’s haunting plays a role in this.
I think evil being omnipresent plays a huge role in the horror of Stephen King. You can’t just stop a “bad guy”. Evil is always there, underneath, hiding. You can delay it, but you can’t escape forever.
Evil gets its comeuppance
With that all being said, it’s incredibly common that the protagonists prevail over evil. That’s not to say we get happy endings, but typically the novel concludes with evil being defeated, even if temporarily.
Looking at the entire list above, I would argue only one novel (discussed below) did not end in the protagonists favor. It’s almost shocking, because when you think of King’s characters, you don’t think about happy endings. Death is common. But just look at at how the evil is vanquished (in escalating fashion) in some of these novels:
Carrie: Killed by Carrie.
Salem’s Lot: Killed by main characters.
The Shining: Hotel explodes.
The Stand: Nuclear bomb.
IT: Transdimensional battle.
Even in the smaller tales, the force of evil is destroyed (Cujo, Christine) or the “bad guys” get their comeuppance (The Dead Zone, The Eyes of the Dragon). You might not get your warm and fuzzy happy ending, but there is a sense of relief in that disaster has been averted and evil is defeated, for now.
Pet Sematary. This novel truly stands out among King’s early novels because the ending is so different from all the others. Simply put, evil wins.
Pet Sematary isn’t King’s scariest novel, but I would say it is the most disturbing. There are multiple levels of family trauma, both past and present. As a soon-to-be-father, getting through Gage’s funeral was rough. Yes, we have evil cats coming back to life, but experiencing the grief and suffering of a family was exponentially worse.
And to top it all off, Louis succumbs to all the pain and suffering and let’s the temptation of the Pet Sematary overtake him. It’s a rough ending, because we all want to believe there is light on the other side of trauma. But Pet Sematary doesn’t give it to you. Instead, you see the failure of Louis, crushed under the weight of his grief. At the end of the novel, all you can feel is “ugh”.
Through the eyes of children
One thing I think King does exceptionally well is tell tales from the perspective of kids. Many of his novels have some family element and in many we are seeing the world through the child’s eyes.
From the above list, I’m thinking maybe only The Dead Zone and The Gunslinger don’t have elements told from a child’s perspective? And I’m even questioning how true that is, especially for The Gunslinger…
Why tell stories using a child’s point-of-view? For one thing, I think it helps enhance the horror. We all remember being children and how the world was so very different. The fantastical and the horrific was so much more real than in the cold and logical worldview of adulthood.
Never is this more true than IT, King’s nostalgic celebration of childhood. IT feeds on children because they fear IT. And why wouldn’t they? IT is the perfect personification of all those strange things we saw as kids that no one could explain: Creepy stories we heard from friends, shadows we saw in the woods, run-ins with scary people. What if all these things were one maleficent force?
This theme runs through many of King’s novels. Shit is scary when you’re a kid and adults don’t believe you. You are forced to figure out a solution on your own or with other kids that believe you. By the time the adults figure out what’s going on, it’s too late.
One of my favorite Stephen King tropes is when a character is trapped in what appears to be an inescapable situation. It appears frequently in his works and he includes every excruciating detail. What the character is thinking, what they are planning, the close-calls, and more often than not the pain involved in escape. I love it.
This trope appears prominently in both The Eyes of the Dragon and Cujo (and in lesser forms in a few others, such as Firestarter and Salem’s Lot). In The Eyes of the Dragon, Peter is imprisoned in a tower. He requests napkins with his meals and overtime creates a rope to escape. It’s the definition of a long-form plan taking years to pay off. Only the reader is left to discover he could have done it much quicker had he been riskier about his napkin usage. The revelation serves no purpose to the story other than a gut punch for the reader.
Cujo is the epitome of the trapped trope. Donna and her son Tad are trapped in their car with a rabid dog outside. Most of the book is watching them struggle to escape while the rest of the cast try to figure out where the hell they are. King strings you along the whole journey and it is masterful. Cujo is so much better than it has any right to be and it’s because of this trapped situation.
There are other worlds than these
One of my favorite reoccurring themes in King’s works is how they crossover with each other in unexpected ways. Obviously, The Dark Tower series is the culmination of this theme, but it shows itself in many other places.
The towns of Castle Rock and Derry show up many times. I don’t know why anyone lives there. Both Dick Hallorann (The Shining) and Christine (Christine, obviously) show up in IT. Flagg is a common antagonist in King’s works. (from the above novels: The Stand and Eyes of the Dragon).
These little touches help flesh out a greater universe and reward the reader. When Dick Hallorann appears in IT and saves Will Hanlon from a burning building, Hallorann can do this because he has the shining. IT doesn’t tell us this fact and if you haven’t read The Shining you wouldn’t know either. But for those crazy people like me who read a bunch of Stephen King, it’s pretty awesome.
A touch of fantasy
When folks think of Stephen King, they think horror. That is a reasonable observation. He is the master of horror, after all. But King touches on many different genres and it’s interesting how often that genre is fantasy.
The most noteworthy, of course, is The Eyes of the Dragon. It’s a true fantasy novel through the lens of Stephen King. But fantasy also plays a big role in The Talisman and The Gunslinger (really all of the Dark Tower works). Underneath his natural inclination to horror, there is a love of fantasy works in the vein of Tolkien. Although I would argue that King’s strengths are the opposites of Tolkien. Where Tolkien was a master of world building with thin characters, King brings characters to life in a somewhat haphazard world.
That’s not a knock on King, only that his take on fantasy is very much his own. That alone with worth reading.
I feel like any discussion of King’s works such as this would be incomplete without my personal ranking. That’s what you are all here for, right? So I will conclude with such a ranking. Obviously, this is purely subjective.
- The Shining
- Pet Sematary
- The Stand
- The Gunslinger
- Salem’s Lot
- The Dead Zone
- The Eyes of the Dragon
- The Talisman
Some of these rankings are probably controversial. I know The Talisman is especially loved, but I found it only okay. Firestarter is the only novel I truly didn’t enjoy. And even though it is at number six on the list, Cujo was the happiest surprise in terms of how riveting it was.
There are a few novels that could be swapped around in the rankings. Many of the novels are not apples to apples comparisons. There is a big difference between an intimate novel, such as The Shining versus an epic like The Stand. But alas, I did the best I could.