Storyville: 10 Lesser-Known Stephen King Books Worth Reading
Over the years, I’ve read just about all of Stephen King’s books—novels, novellas, collections, comics—you name it. Here is my list of ten of his lesser-known titles that I think are worth reading. Enjoy!
1. 'The Long Walk'
Description: “In the near future, when America has become a police state, one hundred boys are selected to enter an annual contest where the winner will be awarded whatever he wants for the rest of his life. Among them is sixteen-year-old Ray Garraty, and he knows the rules—keep a steady walking pace of four miles per hour without stopping. Three warnings and you’re out—permanently.”—Amazon
Thoughts: Written as Richard Bachman in 1979 and collected in The Bachman Books, this is my favorite of King's novels written under this pseudonym. It’s a comparatively slim novel, for King, (only 384 pages) one that is about teens, but definitely not YA—although, it was listed by the American Library Association as one of the top 100 books for teenagers. You may not know that this is also, technically, his first novel, written eight years before Carrie. I think what’s compelling about this book is that there is a large cast of characters, something King does very well, and yet, you really do get to know all of them, and care about them—knowing that all but one of them will die. It’s a fantastic hook, right? This book is included in my Essential King article up at BuzzFeed, so definitely check it out.
2. 'The Dead Zone'
Description: “When Johnny Smith was six-years-old, head trauma caused by a bad ice-skating accident left him with a nasty bruise on his forehead and, from time to time, [he gets] hunches...infrequent but accurate snippets of things to come. But it isn't until Johnny's a grown man—now having survived a horrifying auto injury that plunged him into a coma lasting four-and-a-half years—that his special abilities really push to the fore. Johnny Smith comes back from the void with an extraordinary gift that becomes his life's curse...presenting visions of what was and what will be for the innocent and guilty alike. But when he encounters a ruthlessly ambitious and amoral [politician] who promises a terrifying fate for all humanity, Johnny must find a way to prevent a harrowing predestination from becoming reality.”—Amazon
Thoughts: This is another favorite of mine that makes the BuzzFeed list. When I think of popular King titles, I rarely see this title come up, but it’s definitely one that I love. (Also, it’s one of the best film adaptations, starring Christopher Walken, which is a BONUS). Every time an election comes around, I think about this book, and this year, more than ever. I love the idea of having these visions, of knowing these possible futures, and then trying to save people, to change things, quite often failing. It’s both a gift and a curse, and I enjoy sitting in that place, and observing his choices, rooting for him to do the “right thing” no matter what. Oddly enough, this book also came out in 1979.
Description: “Reeling from a painful break-up, English instructor and avid book lover Wesley Smith is haunted by his ex-girlfriend's parting shot: ‘Why can't you just read off the computer like everyone else?’ He buys an e-book reader out of spite, but soon finds he can use the device to glimpse realities he had never before imagined, discovering literary riches beyond his wildest dreams...and all-too-human tragedies that surpass his most terrible nightmares.”—Amazon
Thoughts: I remember when this novella came out, back in 2009, and thought it was pretty cool that King released this ONLY as an eBook. At the time, it was the ONLY way you could read the story. (A heavily revised version is now collected in The Bazaar of Bad Dreams, out in 2015.) I think it pushed me to buy a Kindle, if I’m 100% honest. (Even though Riding the Bullet had done the same thing years earlier, in 2000, the first mass market eBook.) What I really like about this book is how it embraces the technology, as well as the theme and atmosphere. As far as meta-fiction, it’s not as successful as some books, such as House of Leaves, and even The Raw Shark Texts, but there are moments where you really do feel like maybe you should put down your Kindle. And I love that.
Description: “[A] graphic novel adaptation…based on the 1982 horror anthology and cult classic film directed by George Romero (Night of the Living Dead, Dawn of the Dead)—and featuring stunning illustrations by the legendary Bernie Wrightson and cover art by the acclaimed Jack Kamen! A harrowing and darkly humorous tribute to the controversial and influential horror comics of the 1950s, Creepshow presents five sinister stories from the #1 New York Times bestselling author—“Father’s Day,” “The Lonesome Death of Jordy Verrill,” “Something to Tide You Over,” “The Crate,” and “They’re Creeping Up on You”…unforgettable tales of terror to haunt your days and nights!”—Amazon
Thoughts: I wanted to include this because I loved the way that this was published, back in 1982. Not only did the movie come out the same year, but the stories were right there in your hand—with graphic illustrations. Two were adapted from short stories that King had published earlier ("The Lonesome Death of Jordy Verrill" was originally published as “Weeds” in Cavalier, in 1976; and “The Crate” was originally published in Gallery, in 1979.) The rest were original—so you had to either go see the film, or get the graphic novel. These are some really fun stories, and for some of us, who didn’t have access to the movie or adult magazines, this was the only way to read them.
5. 'Cycle of the Werewolf'
Description: “When the full moon shines, a paralyzing fear descends on the isolated Maine town of Tarker Mills. No one knows who will be attacked next, but snarls that sound like human words can be heard and all around are the footprints of a monster whose hunger cannot be sated.”—Amazon
Thoughts: I mean, since King did such a great job with vampires in Salem’s Lot, he had to take on werewolves at some point, right? This is a slim volume, only 127 pages, published as a limited hardcover in 1983 and paperback in 1985. I don’t think it’s his best work, but if you’re a fan of King, and werewolves, it’s a must read book. There is tension, there is horror, and it hits all the right notes. It was later adapted into a film, as well, Silver Bullet, with Corey Haim. The movie got mixed reviews as well, when it came out, but has developed a bit of a cult following in the years since, after appearing on television regularly. Both are worth checking out.
6. 'The Dark Tower: The Wind Through the Keyhole'
Description; “This story within a story within a story finds Roland Deschain, Mid-World's last gunslinger, in his early days during the guilt-ridden year following his mother's death. Sent by his father to investigate evidence of a murderous shape-shifter, a ‘skin-man,’ Roland takes charge of Bill Streeter, a brave but terrified boy who is the sole surviving witness to the beast's most recent slaughter. Roland, himself only a teenager, calms the boy by reciting a story from the Book of Eld that his mother used to read to him at bedtime. ‘A person's never too old for stories,’ he says to Bill. ‘Man and boy, girl and woman, we live for them.’”—Amazon
Thoughts: So they bill this as The Dark Tower 4 /12, a bit of a side story, but don’t let that throw you. Personally, yes, I’ve read the entire Dark Tower series, and loved it. When this book came out in 2012, I had mixed feelings. I felt like the series was long done, and they should leave it alone, but I also loved the characters so much that I was eager to revisit this world. And it’s well worth it. They say it’s a stand-alone novel, and I pretty much agree, but if you’ve read the rest of The Dark Tower, then definitely take the time to check it out. I pay homage to an aspect of this novel (and the series in general) in my short story, “The Offering on the Hill,” published in Chiral Mad 3 earlier this year. I “borrowed” the idea of the fast winter that approaches, trees shattering and falling to the ground, my protagonist walking around a fire all night long in order to survive, to avoid freezing to death. I don’t think King will mind. Great book.
Rating: 8/10 (9/10 if you’ve read the entire series)
Description: “At 9:05 a.m. in Room 16 of Placerville High School, Mrs. Underwood realized that she had to go back to the basics in Algebra. The exam results had not been good. At 9:50 the change-of-class bell rang. But in Room 16 Algebra was already long over. For Mrs. Underwood, over for ever. She lay dead on the floor, shot through the head, her eyes still wide open, her blood already dark and congealed as a fly settled hungrily on her bare neck. Mr. Vance was dead as well. The bullet had caught him full in the throat as he came through the door. The kids were still there, not hurt but not going anywhere. The boy with the gun, sitting so casually on the edge of the teacher's desk, had decided that. He watched and waited as outside the police circled and conferred. School had been evacuated. Except for Room 16 where the kids still had a lot to learn. The end of the first lesson. Time for a second, a third. A whole timetable of terror stretching ahead of them...”—Amazon
Thoughts: So, due to the extensive controversy over this book, and the ways that this story has played out over the years in the real world, it’s a tough book to talk about. Another Richard Bachman book, this came out in 1977, but King has allowed it to fall out of print due to it being associated with actual high school shootings in the 1980s and 1990s. It’s still collected, and sold, as part of The Bachman Books. It’s another slim volume, only 211 pages, but man does it pack a punch. It’s hard to read, these days, and I only mention it on this list because I think it is eerily prescient, and is worth at least one viewing. Obviously, there are triggers.
8. 'Different Seasons'
Description: “A ‘hypnotic’ (The New York Times Book Review) collection of four novellas from Stephen King bound together by the changing of seasons, each taking on the theme of a journey with strikingly different tones and characters. This gripping collection begins with ‘Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption,’ in which an unjustly imprisoned convict seeks a strange and startling revenge—the basis for the Best Picture Academy Award-nominee The Shawshank Redemption. Next is ‘Apt Pupil,’ the inspiration for the film of the same name about top high school student Todd Bowden and his obsession with the dark and deadly past of an older man in town. In ‘The Body,’ four rambunctious young boys plunge through the façade of a small town and come face-to-face with life, death, and intimations of their own mortality. This novella became the movie Stand By Me. Finally, a disgraced woman is determined to triumph over death in ‘The Breathing Method.’”—Amazon
Thoughts: I mention this collection for a number of reasons. First, it’s four novellas! That was a new concept to me, when this came out back in 1982. Novellas were not that popular, and hard to find in magazines, and too short to publish as stand-alone titles. So, this was a novel way (pun intended) to showcase work of this length. Also, I love the idea of uniting the work around four seasons. It was in some ways the inspiration for The Soul Standard (originally titled Four Corners) four linked novellas written by myself, Nik Korpon, Axel Taiari, and Caleb Ross. And finally, the fact that so many of these have been adapted into films, with Shawshank being a top film on most any critic’s lists, and Stand By Me also garnering a lot of recognition. Not to mention that this was, in many ways, King trying to be a little more serious, and dramatic with his work, more literary. I mean, he’s published in The New Yorker quite often, but people still seem to think he’s simply a horror author. In fact, when I run into people who say they hate King, I often ask them about the movies Shawshank, The Green Mile, and Stand By Me. Typically they love those films. This is a great collection, and gives you a deeper understanding of these stories. It's also on my BuzzFeed list.
9. 'The Running Man'
Description: “It was the ultimate death game in a nightmare future America. The year is 2025 and reality TV has grown to the point where people are willing to wager their lives for a chance at a billion-dollar jackpot. Ben Richards is desperate—he needs money to treat his daughter’s illness. His last chance is entering a game show called The Running Man where the goal is to avoid capture by Hunters who are employed to kill him. Surviving this month-long chase is another issue when everyone else on the planet is watching—and willing to turn him in for the reward.”—Amazon
Thoughts: I know, another Bachman book! (You’ll notice though, that I don’t mention Roadwork, because to be honest, it’s not a good book.) What I like about this book is that it’s King doing science fiction, a bit of dystopian future, and I loved it, the first time I read it. (It’s also not a bad movie with Arnold Schwarzenegger as the protagonist, and Richard Dawson [Family Fued] as the game show host.) It incorporates an interesting format, as well, with the chapters counting down. I love futuristic game shows, and dystopian stories, so this slim novel, of about 317 pages, was a book that I devoured in one sitting. Not his best work, but definitely worth reading, and included with Rage and The Long Walk, as some of the better Richard Bachman writing.
10. 'The Plant'
Description: “The Plant is an unfinished serial novel published by Stephen King in 1982–85 privately and in 2000 as a commercial e-book. The story, told in epistolary format consisting entirely of letters, memos and correspondence, is about an editor in a paperback publishing house who gets a manuscript from what appears to be a crackpot. The manuscript is about magic, but it also contains photographs that seem very real. The editor writes the author a rejection slip, but because of the photographs, he also informs the police where the author lives. This enrages the author, who sends a mysterious plant to the editor's office.”
Thoughts: This is such a weird project. I remember when it first came out in the 1980s, rumors about it, how it existed, it didn’t exist, how certain people got copies of it, how it was circulating via email, etc. In 2000 it was released as an eBook, and everyone got their hands on it. From, Wiki: “King wrote a few parts of a story by the same name and sent them out as chapbooks to his friends, instead of Christmas cards, in 1982, 1983, and 1985…and the original editions have been hotly sought-after collector's items.” King would later experiment with other eBooks, such as Riding the Bullet, and Ur, but I think what I liked about this project is that it’s still not finished. The idea that King could, as some point, keep going, that’s kind of exciting to me. Worth checking out, even if it’s not entirely fulfilling.
HONORABLE MENTIONS: The Green Mile, The Eyes of the Dragon, Needful Things, Desperation (and The Regulators), Blaze, Four Past Midnight, Nightmares & Dreamscapes, and Hearts in Atlantis.
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