Oct 18 2012 10:00am

The Great Stephen King Reread: House Rules

Stephen King is such a part of the American cultural consciousness that there’s no point in debating his importance anymore: take it as a given and only waste your time if you’re trolling for traffic. But the tired old argument of whether his books are actually any good or not still twitches a limb from time to time, and—since I’m a big fan of beating a dead horse—I figured I’d re-read the first 10 years of Stephen King’s books and ask the timeless question: National Treasure or Total Crap?

I loved Stephen King when I was a kid. My gateway drug was a TV broadcast of The Shining caught in bursts when I was way too young, and I remember being hypnotized by the screaming-skull-and-neon-chrome cover of Christine that a friend’s mom was reading. I can’t remember the first book I actually read, but I think it might have been a copy of Different Seasons that one of my sisters left behind when she moved out, or maybe it was Night Shift. The Stephen King bug bit me at just the right time (13) and while a lot of kids measure their childhoods by Harry Potter, mine moved in units of Pet Sematary, Thinner, Skeleton Crew, and It.

And then, for reasons I’m still not quite sure of, I grew out of him. Maybe it was the long string of mediocre books he cranked out in the 90’s? Maybe it was the fact that every time I turned around there seemed to be a new Stephen King book in stores and so I started taking him for granted? Or maybe Stephen King is a writer who’s best appreciated by adolescents? Dunno. But it’s weird that he basically slipped my mind, because—good or not—Stephen King is super-important.

King took horror fiction mainstream, he turned being an author into being a rock star, he helped launch the horror boom of the 80’s, and he put Maine on the literary map. More importantly, he was a tireless advocate for blurring the boundaries between literary and genre fiction (a torch he lit and then passed on to Michael Chabon), and his books have resulted in two major American films (Carrie and The Shining) and a whole host of solid flicks (Stand By Me, Misery, Creepshow, Pet Semetary, The Dead Zone, The Shawshank Redemption).

Between 1974 (Carrie) and 1984 (Thinner) he was responsible for 20 books and I’m going to read them all. Well, sort of. I’m ignoring the ones he wrote under the psuedonym, Richard Bachman (Rage, The Long Walk, Roadwork, The Running Man), except for Thinner since it was essentially released as a Stephen King book when his pen name was exposed right after publication. I’m also ignoring his illustrated books and comic books (Cycle of the Werewolf, Creepshow), the first of his seven-volume Dark Tower books (The Dark Tower: The Gunslinger), his book of essays about horror (Danse Macabre), and his collaboration with Peter Straub (The Talisman). But don’t worry, that still leaves me with the classic King canon:

Carrie (1974)
’Salem’s Lot (1975)
The Shining (1977)
Night Shift (short story collection) (1978)
The Stand (1978)
The Dead Zone (1979)
Firestarter (1980)
Cujo (1981)
Different Seasons (four novellas) (1982)
Christine (1983)
Pet Sematary (1983)
Thinner (1984)

12 books, read over 12 weeks every Thursday morning (barring Thanksgiving). Since each book is about a zillion pages long, this is truly: Man vs. King! The first throwdown starts now with the soon-to-be-rebooted... Carrie.

Grady Hendrix has written about pop culture for publications ranging from Playboy to World Literature Today. He also writes books! You can follow every little move he makes over at his blog.

Benji Cat
1. benjicat
his books have resulted in two major American films (Carrie and The Shining) and a whole host of solid flicks (Stand By Me, Misery, Creepshow, Pet Semetary, The Dead Zone, The Shawshank Redemption).

You don't consider The Shawshank Redemption to be one of the major American films? I think many would disagree.
Dave Thompson
2. DKT
God bless, ya, Grady Hendrix! Here's hoping that your reread goes on much longer than 12 books . I'd love to see it sprawl onward like the Alan Moore reread :)

You're gonna be doing the shorter version of The Stand, I take it?

(Still waiting for more White Street Society, BTW)

@benjicat: Don't take it as a knock. I'm sure quite a few people would say the same about Stand by Me and Misery.
Robert H. Bedford
3. RobB
The Stephen King bug bit me at just the right time (13) and while a lot of kids measure their childhoods by Harry Potter, mine moved in units ofPet Sematary, Thinner, Skeleton Crew, and It.

Same here! The first one for me was Cujo
Chris Long
4. radynski
Yeah, Stand By Me and The Shawshank Redemption are still classics that get air-time regularly, while Carrie and The Shining have faded into the background. "flick" indeed.
5. StrongDreams
You've definitely got the "Classic King" there, glad you're including short stories. Someone could probably do a re-read just on King's short stories, there are some real gems there even during his middle period when the novels kind of sucked. (Well, not sucked exactly, but half the books on that list have a bigger impression in my mind than Cell, for example, which I read 20 years more recently.)
6. JimD
I'm pretty excited to follow your journey. I actually started a similar blogging project about a year ago, though I am reading all of King's books (even the Bachman ones) and am watching the associated movies as well. I've been having a lot of fun with it so I'm interested to see someone else's take as well. I'm not sure the policy on linking to other blogs/sites in the comments, otherwise I'd post mine here. Good luck and have fun. I can't wait to see how things go for you.
7. XenaCatolica
I'm another one of the grew-out-of-it crowd. I read the classsics & remember some of them pretty well--'Salem's Lot was the first horror I read (after Poe & A. Conan Doyle). I quit reading the novels for 2 things: all the characters were the same from book to book, and he uses the same vocabulary in all of them. I mean most of the characters are from the same place, age, and socio-economic level. They all talk the same way. I got bored with the predictability of the characters. And he uses the same words in all his novels--'though to be fair, this may well be part of his commercial success. Rule of thumb is that most Americans only read at an 8th grade level and that's just about where his vocabulary & metaphors rest.

His short stories are often good & he wrote a book on writing that's solid.
8. Jon Abrams
Good luck! (Especially with reading The Stand in just a week.) He's definitely super-important. In my humble opinion, he's way more significant than even his massive success would indicate. At the same time, I do get a kick out of some of the sillier hallmarks of his work. (What is it with him and big guys in overalls?)
Colleen Palmer
9. arianrose
Oh, huh. You know, I discovered Stephen King as a freshman in high school, and read voraciously until I was a senior, then ... just dropped it. Not out of any real intent, just happenstance. Of course, I read and discarded Dean Koontz in roughly the same time period.

Is there something about adolescence that inspires horror reading? Not to insult any adult horror fans at all. (And that's not one of those "I don't mean to insult you, BUT statements.) I truly believe that people can like and enjoy books at any age, I just wonder if there's a certain trend of enjoying certain books and/or genres at a particular age.
Shelly wb
10. shellywb
I'm looking forward to this. I read them all as a teen through my college years, but the only one I ever went back to was The Stand. In all fairness though, Salem's Lot and The Shining scared the **** out of me and I'll never pick them up again for that reason alone.
Kristoff Bergenholm
11. Magentawolf
I think the first 'King book I read was It when I was in elementary school. And it wasn't some wimpy paperback version, oh no.. it was hardbound and glorious in its size, barely fitting into my backpack.
12. Pnkrokhockeymom
Wheeeeee! I am so in.
Michael M Jones
13. MichaelMJones
I was a faithful King reader right up until the early '90s (or so), but for some reason, Tommyknockers was the last one I really read. So in my opinion, Classic King would also have to include Skeleton Crew (1985), Bachman Books (1985), It (1986) and Eyes of the Dragon (1987). I don't think I've been able to get into a King book since, save for the odd one here and there, like Blood and Smoke, or The Colorado Kid.

I hope you consider expanding your project to cover some of the above. It, at the very least, is certainly one of the quintessential King books.
14. driceman
I vote you do all of the Stephen King books! :) I'm reading them for the first time myself and I'd like to hear what a rereader thinks of them.

Also, I've always thought Shawshank Redemption and Green Mile were the biggest classic movies that have come out of Stephen King books... Just one guy's opinion.
Gerd K
15. Kah-thurak
Shawshank Redemption still heads the IMDB Top 250... so it is at least one of the most popular movies of all time.
Philip Wardlow
16. PhilipWardlow
Hello Grady Hendrix....I think you do major disservice to yourself and Stephen King if you do not read The Bachman Books....for his four Novellas/Novelletes or whatever their called:
Rage, The Long Walk, Roadwork, The Running Man as you said....especially the first cannot NOT read these stories...they are Stephen King...

just saying..
Chuk Goodin
17. Chuk
Happy to see this -- I started reading King probably in junior high, I think. I went through a brief (a few years, probably maybe a hundred books?) horror kick but King is one of the few authors from that time that I've kept up with, haven't missed one yet.
Jack Flynn
18. JackofMidworld
There was a time when Shawshank was on EVERY single weekend, on on channel or another. Looking forward to the reread!
Grady Hendrix
19. GradyHendrix
Thanks for jumping on board, everyone! I think this is going to be fun. I was a big King fan, and it's REALLY strange to re-read his books as an adult. Some of my favorites turn out not to hold up very well, some of my least favorites (I'm looking at you The Shining) turn out to be downright amazing.

I wanted to respond to two things people are saying:

I want to do the Bachman books, too, and I want to do It and Skeleton Crew, but this is daunting enough with 5100 pages to read! I have to draw the line somewhere. But maybe if I get a second wind...?

My comment about Carrie and The Shining being the two classics comes from my years as a film critic. I think there's a huge difference between things I like, and things that are good, and I think there is such a thing as an objective measure of quality (whether I'm the best person to apply that measure is another matter!). The Shawshank Redemption and The Green Mile and also Stand By Me are enormously popular movies, and great entertainment. But so were Eddie Cantor's Whooppee! and Janet Gaynor's Sunny Side Up and no one remembers them 80 years later.

The Shining on the other hand, seems to grow in strength, it's technically innovative, it's given pop culture lots of tropes and catch phrases, and it's slowly becoming more and more acknowledged as one of the great horror movies of the 20th Century. Carrie, while not enjoying the same kind of priveleged position, is a major director's first mainstream film, is extremely innovative for its cinematography (use of split screen in particular), gave De Palma and Spacek celebrity clout, invented the final image jump scare for American horror movies, and has inspired numerous sequels, remakes, and musicals.

These two movies are original in a way that The Green Mile, The Shawshank Redemption, and Stand By Me (as much as I love two out of three of those movies) are not.
20. Trattman
You probably don't want to turn this into a film debate, given its about books but put me down with the shawshank crowd.
It is a classic film critic quote to say "there is a difference between what people like and what is good". Not only does it make you sound kind of snobby, it misses the point of movies as entertainment.
Plus shawshank is just a great movie, with super acting and great characters.
I realise that there is another blog for the gunslinger but I would be interested to hear the view of someone reading it at the same time as kings other work.

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