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The sound of fear: A brief tour through the audiobooks of Stephen King

Illustration: Natalie Peeples

I haven’t read every Stephen King novel. There are a few obscurities I’ve never made the effort to track down, and at least one of his more recent works (Dr. Sleep, coming to a theater near you) that I started, got bored with, and never finished. But I have read most of Stephen King’s novels and short fiction, and I’ve read much of it more than once; the books I really love, I’ve been reading and rereading since I was 11 years old. I find it comforting to revisit some of these places where absolutely horrible things happen, but there is a certain inevitably of diminishing returns. It is a massive work, but I’ve read it so many times at this point that the story no longer holds any surprises for me. I look at the pages but I barely see the words—it’s more like recognizing shapes.

Fortunately there’s a way to get past this, and it’s something that could also be of interest for people looking to get into King who don’t have a ton of time to read: audiobooks. Much of King’s body of work is available on audio format, and all of the really essential novels are easy to find online, provided you’re willing to throw Audible.com a few bucks. (You’ve heard of Audible, it’s the site they advertise on that podcast you like.) (UPDATE: a friend has just informed me that the public library audiobook app Overdrive has a lot of King on there as well.) The following list is in no way intended to be comprehensive, but if you’re new to Stephen King, or just new to audiobooks in general, here are some recommendations (and warnings) to help get you on your way.

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Where to start

Let’s be honest—part of the charm of Stephen King is that he is now and has always been an accessible writer. You don’t need to do much research to know what to read; if a premise appeals to you and it’s well-regarded, it’s worth a try. Still, there are some books that serve as better introductions than others, and that’s doubly true of King’s audiobook output. The following suggestions are well-paced, well-read, and comparatively short.

Firestarter, read by Dennis Boutsikaris

What’s it about: A father and his daughter, both with extraordinary powers, try to escape the government agency obsessed with tracking them down.

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Why it’s good: Okay, so Firestarter is arguably mid-tier King, but I’ll always have a soft spot in my heart for it, as it’s the first audiobook I bought. But it also works great in the format. The writing moves at a good clip, offering one of King’s rare in media res openings before gradually filling in the tragic backstory of Andy and Charlie McGee. Boutsikaris, an actor you might remember seeing pop up on Better Call Saul recently, is a strong narrator, keeping things flowing and adding just enough variation in his delivery to make the characters authentic without falling into melodrama. (He sometimes leans too hard into wryness, but it’s a minor sin, and one that I came to find endearing over time.) One of King’s relatively rare dips into pure science fiction, this is a good place to get a sense of his work if you aren’t up for the scarier stuff.

Salem’s Lot, read by Ron McLarty

What’s it about: A vampire takes over a small Maine town. Wackiness ensues.

Why it’s good: This is, for my money, the platonic ideal of a Stephen King novel. His second published book, it has all the elements that would come to define his writing in the public eye: the gossiping locals, the noble, rational heroes facing terrible evil, the E.C. Comics-meets-Richard-Matheson setpieces. All it’s lacking is a murderous clown. I’d read Salem’s Lot a few times before listening to the audio version (I read all of these before listening to them) and always enjoyed it, but McLarty’s measured, steady performance has made it an autumn staple for me. His voice sounds like someone you’d expect to hear narrating movie trailers in the ’70s, authoritative and direct without becoming overbearing. More often than not, when the weather starts getting cooler and the leaves change, this is the audiobook I think of.

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Skeleton Crew, read by various

What it’s about: A short story collection that includes “The Mist,” “The Raft,” “The Jaunt,” and “The Ballad Of The Flexible Bullet,” among many others.

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Why it’s good: I’ll admit to being more partial to King’s novels, because part of the appeal for me has always been getting lost in them; his short fiction is more like getting shoved off a roller coaster at peak height. But the drop can be remarkable, and King has never pulled together a finer anthology of his work than this one. (Skeleton Crew and Night Shift are the highwater mark for his short story collections. SC wins by default because Night Shift’s audio versions have been cut into smaller, pricier chunks; as of this writing, there’s no easy way to get the complete collection online.) Lots of terrific stuff in here, much of it short, brutal, and terrifying, with only a couple of duds to skip over on the re-listen. There are multiple narrators as well: Will Patton, Paul Giamatti, Matthew Broderick, Michael C. Hall, Frances Sternhagen, Dylan Baker, Kyle Beltran, and so on. All do good to great work, and the stories are varied enough that it feels almost like anthology radio show, curated for your enjoyment.

On Writing, read by the author

What it’s about: Stephen King, in his own words

Why it’s good: Stephen King didn’t become one of the most popular writers in the world solely because he could scare the bejeezus out of people. He’s also a born raconteur, and On Writing is a rare and valuable opportunity to just listen to him talk for a while: about his life, about what he values in the work, and about what he thinks that work means in the grand scheme of things. His advice on fiction and prose is common sense and straight-forward, and his brief autobiography is charmingly personal and well-realized. It works well on the page, but this is a rare case where the audio version feels even more definitive than the printed one; listening to it is like hearing a long, but not long-winded, lecture delivered by a passionate and supportive creative writing teacher—one who encourages you to stretch your wings but not before learning the basics of gravity.

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The Big Ones

The Stand, read by Grover Gardner

What it’s about: a man-made virus brings about the end of human civilization. In its wake, the survivors come together in two camps, one led by the virtuous, god-fearing Mother Abigail, and the other by Randall Flagg, a.k.a. the Dark Man, a.k.a. The Walking Dude.

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Why it’s good: At 47 hours and 47 minutes, The Stand (complete and uncut; this is the revised version published 1990) is a major time commitment. Thankfully, it’s one of King’s best paced novels—a few road-bumps aside, the sucker moves in print and in performance, even in its “uncut” form. Grover Gardner does an absolutely fantastic job, keeping things simple throughout and never getting lost in the book’s thousand-plus pages. At just shy of two full days of narration, it’s a wonder that Gardner’s voice never stops being a pleasure to listen to. Were it not for the length, this could serve as an excellent introduction to King, because large swaths of it (the first half especially) represent some of his best writing; his description of the accelerating breakdown of the United States is remarkable for its scope and efficiency. Not every section holds up to scrutiny, and there’s some unfortunate (and seemingly inadvertent) racism and sexism in places. But, at least for me, the good outweighs the bad, and the simple fact that this audiobook exists, let alone works as well as it does, is an achievement.

It, read by Steven Weber

What it’s about: In 1958, the Loser’s Club takes on the monster that’s killing children in Derry, Maine. Twenty-seven years later, they come back to finish the job.

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Why it’s (sort of) good: With the second part of the film adaptation hitting theaters soon, audiences may want to take a deeper dive into Derry, the evil clown who haunts her streets, and the kids (who become grown-ups) who try and stop it. Given the novel’s length, the audio version is appealing; depending on your commute and job, it’s probably easier to find time to listen to something than it would be to read it. But Weber’s take on the material isn’t my favorite, and I’ve avoided revisiting the audiobook after finishing it a few years ago. He’s effectively scary in the bits that are supposed to be scary—and It is one of King’s scariest novels—but he has the unfortunate actor tendency to lean into the book’s more dramatic dialogue in a way that I found distracting and irritating. And while It is one of my favorite novels, it has some rough spots, most notoriously a pre-teen group sex scene in the final third that stands as one of the most bizarre (and off-putting and misguided) sequences in all of King’s work. It’s bad enough on the page; hearing it out loud just makes it worse.

The Dark Tower series, read by George Guidall, Frank Muller, and Stephen King

What it’s about: “The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed.”

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Why it’s… a lot of things: The Dark Tower series casts a long shadow over the rest of King’s writing. It’s too uneven and wildly inconsistent to be easy to recommend, and some of the latter entries, especially Song Of Susannah, are borderline unreadable, as massive chunks of unnecessary and overly complicated mythology bog down what started as an eerie chase through a dying world. The series was always as much about potential as it was about the actual narrative, featuring some of King’s best characters caught up in time-jumping, universe-hopping adventures that perpetually promised greater revelations to come. It’s not surprising that those revelations mostly landed with a thud, then, but for the curious, the audio versions of each book are well done, even if the best reading in the world can’t make all of them go down easy. (Frank Muller died before completing the series, but George Guidal, who also reads the revised version of The Gunslinger, finishes the job well; King himself reads The Wind Through The Keyhole.)


Other notable works

If any of this appeals to you, you might also like:

The Shining, read by Campbell Scott

A haunted house tale that also features one of King’s most upsetting (and best) portrayals of alcoholism and abuse, The Shining is an essential read; Scott (an actor I mostly associate with The Spanish Prisoner) has a dry, measured tone that really brings out the best in the material.

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Different Seasons, read by Frank Muller

A collection of four novellas, three of which have been already been adapted into film, Different Seasons is an unusual book for King—only one of the novellas has an overtly supernatural element, and only two of them could be considered anything approaching horror. But the book serves as evidence that when he gets hold of a good story, King makes the most of it regardless of the genre. Muller does a great job making each segment feel like it has a distinct sound, from the old-timer yarn of “Rita Hayworth And Shawshank Redemption” to the skin-crawling psychodrama of “Apt Pupil,” to the melancholy nostalgia of “The Body,” to the elegiac horror of “The Breathing Method.”

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The Long Walk, read by Kirby Heyborne

This may be the King audiobook I’ve listened to the most often. It’s stark as hell: A group of 18-year-old boys sets off on a walk across Maine. If they stop or fall below four miles an hour more than three times, they’re shot and killed. The premise makes for a powerful allegory, but King keeps his focus on the reality of the situation throughout, creating one of the most purely direct thrillers in his entire bibliography. Kirby Heyborne does some great performance work with the book’s large amount of dialogue, and his tone throughout—young, yearning, and increasingly tired—is a good fit for the main character. Be warned, though: King originally published this under his Richard Bachman pen name, and like all the Bachman books, it’s very, very dark.

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Bag Of Bones, Desperation, Needful Things, read by Stephen King

I have a soft spot for authors reading their own work. King doesn’t have the most polished delivery and he’s not much of an actor, but there’s an honesty and authenticity to his performances that enhances the production for me. It doesn’t hurt that I like all three of these novels quite a bit.

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What to avoid

The Tommyknockers, read by Edward Herrmann
Insomnia, read by Eli Wallach

Herrmann and Wallach both have excellent narrator voices. It’s a pity they didn’t get better books to read. The Tommyknockers and Insomnia showcase the downside of King audiobooks; bad writing on the page is easy to skim, but bad writing being read aloud forces you to dwell on every unnecessary sentence, every meandering paragraph, and every clunky piece of dialogue. I wouldn’t recommend either of these books in print (though Tommyknockers has its defenders), but in audio form they become downright unbearable. I could see using them in a creative writing class as abject lessons in what not to do, but for the casual listener, there are much better ways to spend your time. (Note: I haven’t listened to the audiobook of Dreamcatcher. I read the novel. That was enough.)

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