Reading the Master: Where to Start With Stephen King - Tor Nightfire

Reading the Master: Where to Start With Stephen King

Photo courtesy of the author

In these quarantimes, I thought it would be a good time to revisit some old favorites. I’ve been a Constant Reader since I began dipping my toes into horror as a teenager. Before I started working in publishing, I thought King was the be-all and end-all of horror, but as with so many things, I’ve come to realize I’ve only scratched the surface.

That being said, I’ve read everything Stephen King has published in novel, short story and novella form. (The only works I’m missing from my oeuvre are the Bachman books.) If you haven’t started reading King’s body of work, it can be a bit overwhelming due to sheer volume. Where does one start when the guy has been publishing for nearly 45 years? 

From my high perch on ye olde (dark) tower, I bid ye come, childe, as I break down exactly where I’d recommend you start. I’ve broken it down by length so you can choose for yourself how to divvy up your time.

Editor’s note: we usually use the most recent edition’s cover in our posts, but these vintage covers were simply too good to pass up.

Short Story

“The Little Sisters of Eluria,” published in Everything’s Eventual

I chose “The Little Sisters of Eluria” as the seminal short story to begin with because in so many ways it is illustrative of the tangled web King has created to surround all his work. We constant readers call it the “Stephen King Universe” and with good reason–this short story is not only related to multiple novels in The Dark Tower septology, there’s also a direct line to another novel, The Talisman (more on that below). 

Roland Deschain, the (ahem) hero of The Dark Tower series, also guest-stars in “The Little Sisters of Eluria” at some unspecified point early in his quest to climb the Dark Tower.

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Short Story Collection

Night Shift

Night Shift has been and continues to be a quintessential Stephen King work for me, likely because I read it at a relatively young age and it was one of the first works by King I read. This collection contains such concoctions as “Strawberry Spring,” which introduced me to the unreliable narrator and a new weather event I was not previously aware of; “Grey Matter,” where a father’s love of beer turns him into something not quite human and not quite of this world; the infamous “Children of the Corn,” and most importantly, “Jerusalem’s Lot” and “Night Surf.” These two stories are, of course, tangentially related to ‘Salem’s Lot and The Stand and serve as something of a sequel and a precursor to each. The most magnificent thing about being a constant reader is that you feel like you’re in on a secret, like the black rock has been lifted and you can see the secrets happening beneath what everyone else sees, like you’re making the connections previously unknown to anyone else. “I Am The Doorway” is the story that graces early editions of the cover, where alien eyeballs pop up on a man’s body after an experiment gone wrong. Classic!

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Novella Collection

Different Seasons

Though you may not have heard of Different Seasons as a collection, I feel certain you are familiar with the movies made from the novellas, namely “The Body” and “Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption, later made into the movies Stand by Me and The Shawshank Redemption. The other two novellas included here are called “The Breathing Method” and “Apt Pupil,” the latter of  which was also made into a film, albeit a less successful one. This collection is broken up so that each story corresponds with each season with a little line for each: “hope springs eternal” for “Shawshank,” “summer of corruption” for “Apt Pupil,” “fall from innocence” for “The Body,” and “a winter’s tale” for “The Breathing Method.” Just, *chef’s kiss* the icing on the top of the cake.

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If you haven’t read King’s novels yet, you might as well start at the beginning. Carrie was King’s first novel, and if you’re a completionist like me, starting here just makes sense. You likely already know how this one goes: a lonely teenage girl with an overbearing mom comes into puberty and simultaneously develops telekinetic powers and takes out the town of Chamberlain, Maine, starting with the bullies in her school. This is an epistolary novel, which King doesn’t often do, so we get to see the breadth of his writing ability here. 

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The Talisman

This is one of those novels that brings me back to a very specific time and place in my life when I first read it. I’ve got such fond and specific memories tied to reading this novel, probably because I was around the same age as Jack when I first cracked open this doorstopper. 

Jack is a precocious teen who travels across the US and back, flitting in and out of “The Territories,” an alternate fantasy country populated by the “twinners” of everyone in the world we know. Jack is special because his twinner has died, and so he’s able to switch back and forth at will. It sounds a bit far-fetched, but in the hands of King and Peter Straub, it’s well done and a page turner.

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