More Great Books by Stephen King
By Ethan McIntyre
This Monday is Halloween, one of my absolute favorite holidays. This blog has been celebrating the season since the beginning of October by looking at classic scary movies, but this week, I’m going to change it up a bit.
While film has become a popular medium for horror, one can never overlook literature’s vast contributions to the genre. Names like Stoker, Shelley, Poe, Lovecraft, and Ligotti are legendary even outside the horror community. However, in terms of modern horror fiction, there is one name so prolific as to eclipse all others:
Love him or hate him, King is one of the most famous and popular horror writers of today. Last year I wrote about some of my favorite works of his; this year, I’ve chosen three more of his novels to discuss.
One of King’s earliest stories, ‘Salem’s Lot tells the tale of a small town in Maine (big surprise) as it is slowly infested by vampires.
Some of you might be rolling your eyes at that, but trust me - this seventies classic is much more Dracula than Twilight. Chock full of disturbing moments and pervaded by an atmosphere of unease, ‘Salem’s Lot helped cement King as a great horror novelist after the success of Carrie catapulted him into the public consciousness.
The book is not without issues, of course; the love story (such as it is) between protagonist Ben Mears and Susan Norton feels rushed and a bit forced, and several characters die rather unceremoniously towards the novel’s end. However, these small setbacks are more than made up for with sheer creepiness; undead children looming outside of windows, a haunted house on a hill overlooking town, and even the vignettes focusing on the secret vices of the townsfolk - all of these serve to make ‘Salem’s Lot an unforgettably spooky read.
Quite possibly King’s most terrifying work, Pet Sematary grounds its supernatural horror in a fear that is all too real: the death of a child.
Due to the popularity of the book and its film adaptation, most people are familiar with the story’s central conceit: when Louis Creed’s son, Gage, is tragically killed, the grieving father uses the magic of an ancient burial ground to revive the boy. Unfortunately, the child comes back... wrong, and begins killing everyone close to Louis.
What people might not realize before picking up the book, however, is just how long it takes for the story to reach this point. Despite informing the reader early on that Gage’s days are numbered, it is some time before he meets his fate, which affords the book time to gradually build to the kid’s inevitable (and terrible) resurrection. Far from a detriment, the book’s slow pace allows the reader to marinate in the foreboding atmosphere.
The story’s relatively small cast of characters also works to the narrative’s favor. With few people to focus on, there’s room to deeply explore character relationships - which intensifies the tragedy when everything starts going wrong. It also gives a strong character study of Louis himself, and his descent into grief and madness.
On top of everything else, it has what is perhaps the most gut-wrenching ending of any Stephen King story I’ve yet read.
Joyland is a bit different than the typical Stephen King story. It reads more like a crime thriller than a horror novel, although there are some elements of the supernatural that are important to the plot.
The story is told in the form of a memoir of sorts, as a man named Devin Jones reminisces about a summer job he had in the seventies, working at a carnival called Joyland.
Like most of King’s best works (IT, Hearts in Atlantis, etc.), Joyland mixes drama with nostalgia - there is a sense of longing that suffuses the book, not just for the simpler times of the seventies, but more importantly, for youth. Jones talks about his college friends; the good times they had together, the paths they took after school, and in some cases, how they died. There is a wistfulness in these pages that is nearly impossible not to empathize with, even having read it when I was just a college kid myself.
These beautiful yet tragic overtones help elevate a story centered around mysterious deaths at a carnival from a simple mystery/thriller into something altogether more powerful, more human. That’s not to say that the thriller elements are lacking, though; the narrative weaves a competent story about a serial killer and the ghosts he leaves behind.
If you’re looking for a ghost story that minimizes horror and maximizes emotional impact, Joyland is the book for you.