In a recent article related to the upcoming release of Stephen King’s new novel, Revival, a poll asked viewers to rank the top ten best King novels. I was not at all surprised to see that the top three choices were exactly as I predicted – The Shining, It, and The Stand.
I’m not suggesting that those books don’t deserve to be on a list depicting the best of King’s work because they do. They are some of his most well-known and loved books that even people who are not fans of his work would recognize. But King has written over fifty novels. And none of the above mentioned choices would even be in my top five – where is the love for the rest of the amazing stories that King has created? So, to remedy that, we have put together a list of the top five unsung Stephen King classics.
Needful Things (Viking, 1991)
Needful Things holds a special place in this fan’s heart because it was the first King novel that I ever read. It is not usually listed as either one of King’s best or worst novels, and seems to forever remain smack in the middle. But this last Castle Rock story is a fascinating, gruesome, and sometimes hilarious story of small town rivalries coming to a head with the arrival of a strange new store and its equally strange proprietor. It may have a large cast of characters to keep track of, but King paces the novel in a way that is easy to follow so the reader can focus on the issues at hand with these people – greed, jealousy, obsession, and hatred. Needful Things is a classic King novel in every sense of the word.
The Dark Half (Viking, 1989)
This is a novel that I think is especially important to the King canon. King published five novels under the pseudonym Richard Bachman before being found out, and years later, he wrote The Dark Half as a response to the whole experience. The novel deals with an author whose pseudonym comes to life, and King brilliantly uses the literal and metaphorical symbolism of twins and sparrows to make this a compelling tale that is both personal to the author, and entertaining and meaningful to the reader. Indeed after reading this novel, you may never be able to look at or hear the word sparrow without thinking “The sparrows are flying again.”
The Long Walk (Signet, 1979)
Speaking of Bachman Books, here’s one of them! The Long Walk was written when King was still in college, but to me it remains one of the best things he has ever written. It is one of his rare novels that has no supernatural element whatsoever and is instead a story about a harrowing contest where 100 teenage boys must out-walk each other until only one is left standing at the end. Every time I read this book, I am once again fascinated by the idea of human endurance, both mentally and physically; by the motivations of the boys who enter The Long Walk; and by the motivations of the people who would come up with and put on this kind of contest. The Long Walk is a quick read, but one that will likely stay with you long after you’ve read the last page.
Bag of Bones (Scribner, 1998)
This is by far my favorite Stephen King novel. I have read it half a dozen times now, and always tell people that it is a wonderful book to pick up when you just want to read a really, really good story. Bag of Bones deals with an author who returns to his lake to mourn the death of his wife and is confronted by a supernatural presence. It is both a beautiful love story and a beautiful ghost story wrapped up in a mystery that finally concludes with the revelation of a horrifying secret that has plagued the town for a hundred years. By all means, do not judge the quality of the book by the recent television adaptation. Bag of Bones is a mature, heart-breaking, and horrifying novel that will no doubt touch all those who read it.
The Dead Zone (Viking, 1979)
Though it spawned a classic film and television series, I still don’t see The Dead Zone get that much recognition as a novel. It is quite possibly King’s most successful novel to date, in that it is extremely successful at achieving what King wanted to do with it. The story’s main character, Johnny Smith, who develops the ability to see into the future after a car accident, is not only the novel’s most important element, but also the best character that King ever created. Smith represents the Everyman, the guy you relate to and can’t help but like from the moment you meet him. The Dead Zone is a fine example of a modern day tragedy, and one that should be on everybody’s reading list, whether you are a King fan or not.