When it comes to Stephen King, you either start early in life or late. There are those who spend much of their teenage years devouring book after book and then there are those of us who finally decide later in life to give him a try. For that group, deciding where to start is an intimidating prospect. Some people may not even bother, considering they’re not horror readers. (This would be a mistake. There’s a lot more than horror.) The man has published dozens of books and you’ll get wildly differing opinions on what you should read. One person’s classic is another person’s disaster. In fact,one of the chief pleasures of reading King is arguing about the merit of King. (I will be sorely disappointed if the comments to this post aren’t full of debate.)
Knowing the different kinds of books King writes and his strengths and weaknesses is key to starting his catalog. Few writers are this prolific and have such a broad spectrum of books to draw from. If you start with the wrong book you may choose never to return. My first King novel was It, devoured in just a couple of days, in a fury of building suspense that led to an ending that made me want to throw the book across the room. This isn’t a totally unique experience. Many of King’s most brilliant books are also his most maddening.
This set of three books lets you start strong and begin to acquaint you with the little quirks and flaws that you’ll see more and more as you expand your reading.
One of King’s best genres is the big, fat, epic book. These are often less about the supernatural horrors that are possible in the imagination and more about the horrors that humans inflict upon each other. The chief reason you should start with Under the Dome and not The Stand is that you’ll either adore or despise The Stand and Under the Dome is a strong but safe bet with great characters and a constantly twisting and turning plot. If you feel like big, epic King is your thing, then The Stand will probably end up being one of your favorite books and you won’t mind the wait. An alternate choice for a safe King epic is 11/22/63, which is a great one to start with but I still pick Under the Dome for its small town microcosm.
If you haven’t read King before, you still probably feel like you know what kind of books he writes. But the thing about King is that he’s constantly throwing curveballs. He has fascinating books of short fiction. He has one of the seminal books on the craft of writing. There’s also The Dark Tower series, a fantasy/horror/Western mashup. Even though he’ll stick to a formula sometimes, he’ll throw it out the window a lot. These unusual books are some of the most fun to read. Dolores Claiborne is one long monologue, a daunting challenge for any novelist. The titular character and narrator is a small town housekeeper on a wealthy estate being questioned after the murder of her employer. It’s not what you’re expecting, but it’s a great ride. Alternate pick: Different Seasons, a book of short stories, 3 out of 4 of which were good enough to be made into movies, including Stand by Me and The Shawshank Redemption.
In many discussions of King’s best work this book pops up, and with good reason. Yes, you already know the story because you’ve already seen the movie. But the movie is one of those separate entities that became something very different from the source material. You’ll find this novel something all together different. It has classic King supernatural elements, heavily building suspense, and the kind of scary stuff that will make you want to restrict your reading to daylight hours. If you’re looking to King to bring you a serious horror novel, this is exactly where you should go.
All three of these books showcase what King does really well and will give you enough appreciation and respect that you’re ready to read through his catalog and make your own list of his best (my picks include Lisey’s Story, most people would throw in Misery and Pet Sematary) and suffer through the duds (Needful Things, The Tommyknockers) and find the ones that other people find terribly flawed that you love (for me, Cell and Christine) and the ones other people love that you find terribly flawed (for me, as mentioned The Stand and It) so you can join the age old debates on what his best books are.
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