Help me decide which Stephen King book to read first.
December 16, 2012 3:30 PM   Subscribe

I want to get to know Stephen King! Which book should I read first?

I love to read. I read books in many genres. But I've never read anything by Stephen King, and I'd like to give him a try--partly because, if I enjoy his books, there are so many from which to choose! There's my problem--where do I start?
If it's relevant, I've seen the movies Stand By Me, Misery, Carrie, and Christine (and I enjoyed them in that order--I didn't really care for Christine at all).
Please help me with an introductory recommendation . . . or two. Thanks!
posted by bookmammal to Writing & Language (42 answers total) 24 users marked this as a favorite
The Shining. The Shining, The Shining, and The Shining.
posted by Rock Steady at 3:34 PM on December 16, 2012 [13 favorites]

The Long Walk. His first book though not his first published book.

The Shining & It are two of my favorites.

You might be best served by reading one of his short story collections to start like Everything's Eventual.

Stephen King is great! Not just a schlocky horror writer at all. His son Joe Hill is quite talented too.
posted by OnTheLastCastle at 3:35 PM on December 16, 2012

I started with It (at way too young an age). I recommend doing the same. Go big or go home.
posted by eugenen at 3:36 PM on December 16, 2012 [4 favorites]

The Long Walk is phenomenal but not representative of the rest of his work.
posted by eugenen at 3:36 PM on December 16, 2012 [2 favorites]

Wow, well there are a few different styles for sure, by catagorizations:

Schlocky, sweet-toothy, pulp fictiony: Christine, Pet Semetary, Carrie, Cujo, Firestarter

Fantasy, weird, adult, out there: The Dark Tower Series, The Talisman, Eye of the Dragon

Epic: IT, The Stand

Literary: Misery, The Shining

The Bachman Books (which I love, they certainly have their own style too): Rage, The Long Walk, The Running Man, Roadwork

Bad: Regulators, The Dark Half, Tommyknockers

Underrated: Insomnia, Needful Things

I would suggest starting with The Shining, I think it would be a great jumping off point.
posted by Cosine at 3:39 PM on December 16, 2012 [9 favorites]

You may find this thread, both the main link and the discussion, useful.
posted by restless_nomad at 3:39 PM on December 16, 2012 [2 favorites]

Since you didn't list having seen The Shining, I'd recommend that first. Otherwise I'd start with The Stand.
posted by headnsouth at 3:42 PM on December 16, 2012 [2 favorites]

I'll say Pet Semetary. It has everything. Unexpected death, centuries old haunted places, gradual madness and zombies.
posted by Mblue at 3:43 PM on December 16, 2012 [2 favorites]

If you are in the mood to be moved, I'd recommend his novella "Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption" from the collection Different Seasons. (I also liked "The Body" in that collection--Stand By Me was adapted from it).

If you are in the mood to be scared: The Shining.
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 3:43 PM on December 16, 2012 [1 favorite]

I was also going to suggest Pet Sematary. I think it's his best book, and although recommending someone's best as a starting point can lead to future disappointment, there's so much great stuff to read out there that if you don't like it, it's probably not worth reading his others.
posted by ORthey at 3:46 PM on December 16, 2012 [1 favorite]

posted by oceanjesse at 3:47 PM on December 16, 2012

Some of his lesser-recommended but wildly awesome novels are The Talisman and sequel, Black House. The Talisman is an epic kid-adventure across an alternate-earth-like land; Black House follows the same boy after he's grown up. He teamed with Peter Straub on both. The writing style is intense and sometimes florid, but madly absorbing. I also recommend the audio books for both.

Among his later works, From a Buick 8 was really, really good.

One important thing to know about SK is that as he continued writing throughout his career, he eventually tied almost everything he's ever written back into an epic fantasy world that borders on, and sometimes impinges on, our own. This is done most explicitly in The Dark Tower series, but there are traces of it in almost all of his later works, and almost all of his later works reference his earlier works at one point or another. So there IS some value in starting with some of his really early stuff.

I started reading SK way too young, with Pet Sematary, then moved on to Firestarter, Carrie, Christine, The Shining, Dead Zone, and eventually The Stand. I consider The Stand to be where his epic-fantasy-world really got rolling and started to eventually metastasize into all his other work.

I'm a huge fan of his writing, and of the way it all links together, and also a huge fan of The Dark Tower series. But I would definitely not START OUT with The Dark Tower. Somewhere just past the middle he goes right off the rails and never quite makes it back during the series, which I blame largely on the near-fatal accident he suffered and barely survived around that time.
posted by kythuen at 3:48 PM on December 16, 2012 [1 favorite]

Don't skip his nonfiction, either. Danse Macabre is a bit dated, but a good look at horror from 1950-1980 (though obviously a lot of his pronouncements about movies are hilariously off the mark and you wonder what that Stephen King would make of all his movies as well as the rise of torture porn and Asian horror). On Writing is actually one of the best writing books (for genre, anyway) I've ever read if you have an interest there.
posted by Ghostride The Whip at 3:53 PM on December 16, 2012 [3 favorites]

My favorites of his are The Shining, Dolores Claiborne, and Gerald's Game. Gerald's Game is short, spooky, and pretty representative of his work (but you can read it in an afternoon).
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 3:54 PM on December 16, 2012

The Shining literally frightened me as I read it (Headline: 25 year old man frightened by book in his own bedroom. Sub-heading: He's a big dork in other ways, too). I'd stop reading, gaze around the room, shared scitless. And then step right back into the book, of course.

Reading that book is like living in a waking nightmare.

It's a really well written story about alcoholism, too, woven into the larger themes, and not just the drinking bit of alcoholism but the resentment which so many alcoholics seem eaten up by, drunk or sober, and the out of control, white-hot rage that often accompanies that resentment.

I read somewhere that King pulled up to that hotel in Colorado, looked around, and the whole story was there for him, it was as though all he had to do was transcribe it. I don't know if that's true or not but I hope that it is.
posted by dancestoblue at 3:58 PM on December 16, 2012 [8 favorites]

Great King:
The Stand
Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption (Different Seasons)

Bad King, avoid at all costs:
posted by pseudostrabismus at 4:16 PM on December 16, 2012 [1 favorite]

I think Misery would be a good introduction. I preferred the Stand, but it's long and King tends to get pretty in depth with his characters, so Misery's smaller cast is more approachable.
posted by backwards guitar at 4:19 PM on December 16, 2012 [1 favorite]

MISERY is really, really good. I love King -- no one writing today is better at the quotidian details of life interspersed with terror -- and I'd advise the following starter pack: The Shining, IT, Carrie, Misery.

I actually enjoy even the bad King, but those are a good start. I thought The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon and Bag of Bones were good, too, of his older stuff, but that is a classic 4-pack and I think you will enjoy them. I re-read Misery last year and it still freaked me out.
posted by Countess Sandwich at 4:26 PM on December 16, 2012 [2 favorites]

If you want to start with something you've already seen, The Body (Stand by Me) from Different Seasons or Misery would be good choices. Carrie is a quick read but written in a very different style from the rest of his books. If you didn't like the film Christine, you probably won't enjoy the book.

If you want to start with something you haven't read, I'd suggest Salem's Lot, a straightforward vampire novel set in New England, very King-y, or Night Shift, an early collection of his short stories.
posted by zanni at 4:29 PM on December 16, 2012

Hey, if anyone reading in this thread has read the updated and expanded version of The Stand, should I read it?

Or, maybe better, I have one credit on Audible, from a gift at signing up for them, and they have the new version of The Stand, described thus:
Now Stephen King's apocalyptic vision of a world blasted by plague and embroiled in an elemental struggle between good and evil has been restored to its entirety. The Stand: The Complete and Uncut Edition includes more than 500 pages of material previously deleted, along with new material that King added as he reworked the manuscript for a new generation. It gives us new characters and endows familiar ones with new depths. It has a new beginning and a new ending. What emerges is a gripping work with the scope and moral complexity of a true epic.

It clocks in on Audible at 47 hrs and 52 mins -- holy smokes!

Any views, yea or nay, on the new release and/or listening to it rather than reading it?
posted by dancestoblue at 4:35 PM on December 16, 2012

I loved The Shining, Cujo and the short story collection Skeleton Crew (which had more than one amazing story in it). The Mist was great, and I loved Mrs. Todd's Shortcut and The Jaunt.
posted by wwartorff at 4:47 PM on December 16, 2012

I think you'd be better off reading almost any one of his short story collections to start. And as much as I hate to say it, the general rule -- although there are exceptions -- is that (when you have a choice between reading two books by King) if it was written significantly earlier, it's probably significantly better. Don't hate me, fanboys/-girls! As I suggested in a previous post on the blue, it's my guess that King over time has acquired greater and greater power to say no to his editors, and the results aren't always pretty.
posted by Mr. Justice at 4:55 PM on December 16, 2012 [1 favorite]

I read The Stand recently for the first time, and opted for the expanded version. I'm not sure it was a good choice. Not because the story wasn't good or the pace was off or anything like that. For me, the jarring bit was that the "updated" reference were now also dated and I got hung-up on each one of them.

That said, The Stand would be on my recommended list, along with Salem's Lot, Different Seasons, On Writing and his latest, 11/22/63
posted by Lexicographer at 4:56 PM on December 16, 2012 [1 favorite]

And (continuing my previous post), I think he needs editors on his novels, maybe not so much on his shorter work. His two latest collections of short stories/novellas range from pretty darn good to superb.
posted by Mr. Justice at 5:01 PM on December 16, 2012

Really, anything before 1986 would be my tip.

Any short story collection, personally.
I'd go with Night Shift, Skeleton Crew or Different Seasons.
A mix of stuff you might have heard of, and short enough you can find his voice.

Full Dark, No Stars was four novellas, and is fairly recent.

I started with It and The Stand, before moving into Carrie and The Shining.

You could also read The Gunslinger. It's the start of a series, but it's also moderately self-contained and you needn't go further.

It really depends which King you like, and where you draw the line at things like gore, sex and violence, or if you want folksy (Hearts In Atlantis).
posted by Mezentian at 5:35 PM on December 16, 2012

I second starting with a collection of short stories to get a general 'feel' for his style - well, his earlier style. Skeleton Crew is great, and I think there was another book but I can't recall it's title right now.

Then The Shining, IT and The Stand.
posted by Diag at 5:40 PM on December 16, 2012 [1 favorite]

I've always considered "The Stand" to be his best book (abridged, i.e. edited is the best way to go). But "11/22/63" blows it away. Time travel is rarely handled well, but this book is amazing and nails all those pesky little paradoxes. The Good Old Days, and unexpected consequences, and JFK, and true love, lost and found. It's really a great read. And reread. Otherwise, his work is pretty spotty -- and everybody has their own version of the good/bad list.
posted by kestralwing at 6:23 PM on December 16, 2012

I'd start with one or two of the books whose movie versions you've seen. Then I'd go with The Shining and see the movie (probably read the book first). Wherever you go from there, I'd end with The Stand. I don't recommend starting with The Stand because it's huge book and a lot to take in.
posted by fuse theorem at 6:29 PM on December 16, 2012

I've pretty much read everything Stephen King has ever written. He won an O.Henry for good reason--his short stories, thanks to the implied constraints on word count, tend to be some of his tightest, most literary works. He's almost the only author whose short story collections I buy. They're just that good, with a few exceptions. My favorite collection was Skeleton Crew, which featured some of his best: "The Mist," "The Jaunt," "Beachworld," "Survivor Type," and "The Raft." Admittedly, Frank Darabont's ending for "The Mist" was superior to Stephen King's own ending. He tends to be weakest at tying things up.

Stephen King's earliest works tend to be much tighter, not just in terms of writing style but also in characterization. He was pretty much writing about his contemporaries and had a good handle on the voice of his generation. Most consider The Stand to be his magnum opus. Despite its length, it still has the more literary flavor of his earlier works.

His Bachman books, particularly The Long Walk, shouldn't be missed. You will have difficulty finding Rage, though. King let it go out of print because of its subject matter (school shootings) and the fact that some shooters had copies of the book among their possessions. Thinner is another favorite.

Most of the work he produced immediately after his near-fatal accident were consumed by his experience of death, pain, hospital treatments, etc. I'm not overly fond of those, with the exception of Duma Key. I think he got back into the swing of things with Cell and the books he's published since.

I don't have many complaints about King, but I do feel that his characterization has suffered as he's aged. If he's writing about someone born before 1970 or so he has a good grasp on voice, male or female. His younguns', at least the contemporary ones, feel unnatural.

His son, Joe Hill, has written some pretty stellar stuff, too. In some ways I think he's even better than Dad.
posted by xyzzy at 6:40 PM on December 16, 2012 [2 favorites]

I've read most of the books listed in this thread, except the Shining. I don't even remember now, if I had seen the movie before I started reading it. But I did not get very far. (The next scariest book I've encountered, which I DID read, is Helter Skelter by Vincent Bugliosi. And that stuff actually happened.) YMMV.
posted by Glinn at 7:54 PM on December 16, 2012

I'd go with It. It's pretty great. Aside from the Dark Tower series, I'd actually consider it Stephen King's other Magnum Opus. Yeah it's long, but it's fantastic, so you won't care.

Reading his short story collections is another great way to get into his work. My two favorite short stories by King are "Suffer The Little Children" (Nightmares & Dreamscapes) and "The Man In The Black Suit" (Everything's Eventual)

The Shining is also a great introduction.

Just a note that you should just never judge a King book by any movie/tv adaptation of it. For a myriad of reasons, King writes excellent horror novels, but movies made from his books tend to suck. The TV movie version of It is pretty awful and loses pretty much all that's great about the book (the subtle psychological terror, the nostalgia and weirdness of the 1950's, the masterful recall of childhood, etc.). Kubrick's The Shining is certainly scary, but he cut out all the subtle characterization that made the novel brilliant.
posted by katyggls at 7:58 PM on December 16, 2012 [1 favorite]

The Tommyknockers

Creeping horror that shrouds you with increasing dread. Not a quick read, but masterful writing.
posted by Kruger5 at 8:11 PM on December 16, 2012

Among his later works, From a Buick 8 was really, really good.

I'd second this -- it's incredibly readable and creepy on multiple levels.

But read The Shining first for sure; there is a lot going on in that book, and I think it reveals a lot more of King himself than he realized at the time.

It is good, but you may find the narration from the kids' perspective somewhat wearing across that length. "The Body" from Different Seasons is a shorter introduction to that style -- and the other 3 novellas in the collection are all good too. (Also: It veers off into some weird territory towards the end.)

(Metafilter sure loves it some King.)
posted by We had a deal, Kyle at 3:04 AM on December 17, 2012

It is good, but you may find the narration from the kids' perspective somewhat wearing across that length. "The Body" from Different Seasons is a shorter introduction to that style

The Body, Rita Shawshank.... and Hearts In Atlantis are essential King, I reckon, because (and you can decode it with Danse Macabre and On Writing) they are really, deeply personal (Mary Sue done right if you want). If you're not into the horror, those ones give you his flavour, his voice....

I haven't read it, but Insomnia seems to get a lot of hate, so maybe not that one.
posted by Mezentian at 3:35 AM on December 17, 2012

Maybe I missed them, but I'm surprised no one has mentioned The Dead Zone or Thinner (published under the pseudonym "Richard Bachman." After reading Thinner especially, I had a better appreciation for what came after.
posted by Dolley at 6:16 AM on December 17, 2012

The Regulators under Stephen King's pen name "Richard Bachman." A very highly intense book!
posted by sybarite09 at 6:43 AM on December 17, 2012

So I've had some more time to think about it and I'd say you should really give him a shot through three books (two novels and a story collection:

The Shining
Night Shift

That drops you pretty well into what King is all about, and if you don't really like It, you might as well cross King off your list. If you do like it, next I'd move on to:

Skeleton Crew
The Talisman
Different Seasons

That's a pretty diverse selection of Kingiana, and if you dig those you'll be hooked and off to the races. At this point you will be ready for the rest of King's Big Three (It is the other one):

The Stand
The Gunslinger
(and the rest of the Dark Tower series)

Probably best to read the most recent revision of The Gunslinger, as it will mesh better with the rest of the series that way, but it's not essential.
posted by Rock Steady at 7:30 AM on December 17, 2012 [1 favorite]

I think The Stand was the first King I read, and it is still my favorite (I read the extended version, haven't read the original and can't compare the two). I am also a big fan of his short stories.
posted by naoko at 12:11 PM on December 17, 2012

I honestly believe that Stephen King has great ideas and a great writing style, but he *cannot* end a story to save his life.

Seriously, most of his endings are terrible (in my opinion). So let me forewarn you of that.

For example, "The Stand" is a great book until the last big scene, when the biggest Deus Ex Manochina I've ever seen suddenly ruins things.
posted by tacodave at 4:18 PM on December 17, 2012 [2 favorites]

3 of the 4 novellas in Different Seasons are stellar. The Body, Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption, and the underrated Apt Pupil are all top notch. I didn't care at all for the 4th: Breathing Lessons.

Just a note that you should just never judge a King book by any movie/tv adaptation of it. For a myriad of reasons, King writes excellent horror novels, but movies made from his books tend to suck.

Notable exceptions:

The Shining
Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption
The Body (Stand by Me)
Green Mile
posted by QuakerMel at 5:05 PM on December 17, 2012

I would definitely start with Different Seasons. The Body is a great read, and a few of the other novellas are good too. The Long Walk is also a fairly quick read and quite compelling, so either would probably give you a sense of whether you like the style without being a huge time investment like The Stand. Carrie and The Talisman are two I read early on that really brought me around to King as a writer; just don't start with something like Gerald's Game, which is kind of queasily offputting IMO.
posted by Lina Lamont at 1:36 PM on December 18, 2012

And also, if you're also interested in the nonfiction side of his writing I remember finding Danse Macabre an engaging read back when I read it, years ago. I got quite a lot out of it.
posted by Lina Lamont at 1:44 PM on December 18, 2012 [1 favorite]

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