Pop culture can be as forbidding as it is inviting, particularly in areas that invite geeky obsession: The more devotion a genre or series or subculture inspires, the easier it is for the uninitiated to feel like they’re on the outside looking in. But geeks aren’t born; they’re made. And sometimes it only takes the right starting point to bring newbies into various intimidatingly vast obsessions. Gateways To Geekery is our regular attempt to help those who want to be enthralled, but aren’t sure where to start. Want advice? Suggest future Gateways To Geekery topics by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
Geek obsession: Stephen King
Why he’s daunting: King has been in the business for more than 40 years, and to date, he’s written more than 50 novels, non-fiction books, and short-story anthologies, most of them bestsellers. More than 30 movies have been adapted from his work. According to some estimates, he’s the most financially successful horror writer in history, with somewhere in the realm of 350 million books sold. He’s a literary phenomenon, and his collected works form an impressive mountain that newbies may be hesitant to climb. Even some of his individual books look like mountains; many of his best-known works are 600-page-plus doorstops, with The Stand and It in particular topping a thousand pages each. And many of his later books allude to or directly tie into his signature series, the Dark Tower books, in ways that are likely to confuse newbies.
Possible gateway: The 1985 short story “Survivor Type,” from the anthology Skeleton Crew
Why: In his heyday, King was known for his uncompromisingly brutal, creepy images and plots, and his talent for propulsive, can’t-put-it-down thriller writing. At his absolute best, though, he also captures a sense of time, place, and character that rivals any popular American writer. The short story “Survivor Type” has all the above in an uncharacteristically tight, lean little package. It starts with a fairly ridiculous premise—a surgeon winds up shipwrecked on a tiny rock of an island with nothing but a supply of fresh water and a load of pure heroin—and takes it to its brutal, logical end as he realizes there’s nothing on the island to eat except himself. The last line of the story is one of King’s most memorable.
There are a lot of terrific King novels and stories in a variety of genres, but this one stands out in particular because of its economy—unlike so much of King’s work, it’s pure psychological horror, without fantasy, science-fiction, Western, detective, or other genre elements. There are any number of directions to go in from here, for fans of those genres and others, but this is about as mainstream as his horror gets. It’s a sublimely pure example of what King does best: He creates a character, gives him a unique voice, fills in a detailed backstory, and generally makes him feel real. Then he picks him apart by horrifying inches. The story isn’t scary, per se—few people are going to read it and then lie awake at night, terrified that they, too, will wake up marooned on a rock with a kilo of heroin—but it’s gripping and memorable, and it’s written in a hard-hitting, direct style that’ll nicely prep newbies for more of King’s ’80s work.
Next steps: The rest of Skeleton Crew contains some memorable King gems, with enough diversity to give the new reader a sense of his broader style: “The Raft” and “The Monkey” are supernatural horror, “The Jaunt” and “Beachworld” are science fiction, and “Here There Be Tygers” is a strange little fantasy of sorts. There are even a couple of poems in the collection. And “The Mist,” a monster-packed horror novella, makes for a great bridge from King’s short work to his longer stuff.
Where to start with his novels depends somewhat on individual readers’ tastes. Fantasy fans shouldn’t miss The Eyes Of The Dragon—a pure fantasy novel that was an early stylistic departure for King—or The Talisman, his epic collaboration with Peter Straub. Both are smooth, quick reads, in spite of the latter’s length. Readers who preferred the supernatural, creature-feature horror in Skeleton Crew might want to jump straight to Pet Sematary, one of his scariest books, or It, a gigantic, bloated collection of rabbit trails and subplots that nonetheless amounts to a terrific sequence of horror images that meld into one big monster story.
Readers who preferred the psychological horror of “Survivor Type” have even more terrific options, starting with King’s greatest boogieman-free novel, The Long Walk. It’s simply the story of a hundred kids engaged in a reality-show-esque contest where whoever walks the longest gets anything he wants; those who falter or fail are shot to death. As with many King books, the premise may sound far-fetched, until King grounds it in detail and humanity, and lures readers into caring about several of the people caught up in the contest, even though it’s clear that most of them can’t possibly make it out alive. The Long Walk was originally published under King’s Richard Bachman pseudonym, and while it’s the strongest of the mostly supernatural-free “Bachman books,” the others are worth checking out too, particularly Thinner. And psychological-horror fans absolutely shouldn’t miss Misery, King’s answer to his creepiest, most obsessive fans. It’s probably his most compulsively re-readable, breathless book, as King channels everything he knows about writing into the story of a writer at the mercy of an insane, obsessive fan with the absolute power to dictate what he’ll write next.
By any route, though, new King fans should eventually arrive at The Stand, King’s standalone classic (to the degree that any of his books stand alone, given the threads and references that connect them) about the post-apocalyptic battle between good and evil. If not for its length, The Stand might itself be the best place for new King readers to start: The first half is firmly set in a real world of small towns, pathogens, and a speculative consideration of exactly how American society would fall apart if a bioengineered super-virus wiped out 99 percent of the Earth’s population. The supernatural elements that eventually turn the book into a cosmic battleground are introduced gradually, and the real-world grounding never entirely lets go. The Stand is a vast, leisurely book full of memorable characters, and it lacks the propulsion of his smaller novels, but it builds a world big enough to get lost in.
Where not to start: There are so many places not to start with King, but the most notable is his film and TV adaptations, which at their worst are awful (Dreamcatcher leaps to mind) and at their best, provide visceral scares or memorable images, but can’t come anywhere near capturing the level of human detail and the gift for idiosyncratic dialogue that makes King’s work stand out.
New readers should definitely stick to King’s earlier work at first, since his later work becomes significantly more complicated and insidery. Starting with Gerald’s Game, he entered a period where his novels collectively take place in a small, deterministic shared universe where coincidence and interconnection drives the action, and characters are often closely linked for no discernable reason. For instance, the otherwise unrelated characters in Gerald’s Game and Dolores Claiborne share a cross-book moment of psychic connection during an eclipse, to no particular purpose. His follow-up, Insomnia, ties significantly into the Dark Tower books, and in the follower to that, Rose Madder, the protagonist and antagonist are both advised by omniscient internal voices that guide their actions and turn them into uninteresting puppets. Rose Madder is one of his laziest books, and it marked a turning point; in most of his following books, the “inner voices that direct or explain the plot” motif comes up over and over, in frustratingly corner-cutting ways. His standalone novels from Rose Madder up through The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon often feel lightweight and tossed-off, as if they were only getting half of his attention while he concentrated on simultaneously writing the second half of the seven-book Dark Tower series.
Speaking of which: It’d be unwise to tackle King starting with the Dark Tower books. They contain some of the best writing of King’s entire career, but also some of the worst; written over the course of more than 20 years, they show his development as a writer, but also his personal trials and preoccupations, particularly late in the series, where King himself turns up as a character, and his near-fatal 1999 encounter with a minivan gets written into the story in detail. The first book is half prose poem, half dreamy, disconnected drug trip; the second is a propulsive thriller; the middle books are focused, epic fantasy; and the last two drift off into ridiculously self-indulgent prose therapy, in spite of their strengths. King fans certainly should find their way to the series eventually, given that it’s his magnum opus, and a Rosetta Stone for deciphering much of his last decade of work, and given that book four, Wizard And Glass, may be the most accomplished novel of his career to date. It’s just a daunting, confusing place to start. It remains an ambitious undertaking both for the author and for his readers, for its length as well as its huge stylistic diversity. Then again, that can be said about King’s work in general, but the rewards are well worth it.