The New York Times ranking of King's catalogue.
[quoteToday, Stephen King releases his latest novel, The Wind Through the Keyhole, the eighth entry in his Dark Tower epic. It is his 62nd book, if you count novels, nonfiction, and short-story collections, and we are using its publication as an excuse to look back over nearly 40 years' worth of his work and make the tough, ruthless calls to rank them all — no cop-out ties allowed. Read on to see our choices, and then weigh in with your own rankings below.
62. Rose Madder: In the early nineties, King wrote a set of novels focused on abused women and the horrible men who beat and haunt and entrap them. This one was the last and least of the bunch. The combination of the real (the title character, the battered women's shelter she ends up with, her monster of a husband) with the supernatural (a magical painting that offers a gateway to a Greek myth-tinged world) feels less convincing here than it does in any other of King's books.
61. The Tommyknockers: This tale of a Maine writer (you'll be seeing a lot of these) who accidentally comes across a piece of alien metal in her backyard and finds herself compelled to dig up the flying saucer that it's attached to was written at the height of King's addiction troubles. Writing with "his heart running at a hundred and thirty beats a minute and cotton swabs stuck up my nose to stem the coke-induced bleeding" (as he would later describe it), King filled his book with addicts and thinly veiled metaphors for what he was going through. Full of anger at himself and the eighties, The Tommyknockers is a white-hot mess. Anyone who remembers the deadly levitating Coke machine would agree.
60. Dreamcatcher: King's first novel released after the 1999 car accident that nearly killed him, Dreamcatcher is so body-obsessed as to be off-putting. Though the descriptions of the pain and suffering felt by the main character (who suffers a similarly crippling accident) are convincing for obvious reasons, the book's "shit weasels" — which literally make their way out of human bodies by getting crapped out — are the lowest type of gross-out horror. The only thing worse is the clichéd Down syndrome–afflicted character with the telepathic powers.
59. Insomnia: Unless you are familiar with King's epic Dark Tower series, entire swaths of this gargantuan novel are unreadable. Though the sections dealing with the elderly protagonist and his lady love have a poignance to them, they are undercut by heavy-handed subplots about spousal abuse and the pro-choice/pro-life debate.
58. The Regulators: In 1996, King released two books simultaneously — one under his own name and one under his retired pseudonym, Richard Bachman. Meant to be carnival mirror reflections of each other, the two books feature many of the same characters, though with different motivations and circumstances in each. This one, the Bachman book, tells the story of a small-town street that is beset by two vans full of gun-wielding murderers. That description makes the book sound more coherent than it actually is — as the bad guys have been summoned by the mind of a TV-obsessed autistic boy possessed by an alien being. It's like that Twilight Zone episode where the little boy turns one guy into a jack-in-the-box, but more with people getting their heads blown off.
57. Rage: Originally published as a Bachman book, this was actually the first full-length novel that King ever finished. Concerned with a high-school student who kills two teachers and takes over a classroom, the story is very much the work of an angry young man — overheated and full of big talk. Wisely or not, King allowed the book to go out of print, partly because of a fear of having future school shootings linked to it.
56. The Dark Tower VI: Song of Susannah: Taking place over the span of a single day, the sixth entry in King's Dark Tower opus is its most minor. Blame its place in the series (the relatively slim book serves mainly as a transition volume between two thick volumes) or its mind-boggling metafictional flourish. Either way, it it an odd fit with everything that preceded it.
55. Blaze: Originally written right before Carrie, but kept in King's trunk until 2007, when he published it under the Bachman name, Blaze is a wisp of a tale. A noir-light about a brain-damaged crook who steals a rich man's child in order to ransom it off before he finds himself getting too attached, it thankfully stops two steps short of over-sentimentality. Yet there's almost nothing memorable about the story other than the ways in which it reminded us of Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men.
54. Gerald's Game: The first in King's early nineties feminist cycle, Gerald's Game takes place almost entirely in one room, with one character. Handcuffed to her cabin bed after her husband dies in the middle of a naughty sex game, Jessie must somehow find a way to escape. The one-room, one-woman setting allows King to overindulge in one of his most recognizable (and sometimes frustrating) tics: the character who speaks out loud to themselves for no good reason. Though the supernatural is absent from this novel (as it is in many of his books, despite King's reputation), there remains in this novel one of the author's scariest reveals.
53. Cell: After a pulse of some sort turns everyone who is talking on their cell phones into murderous zombies, the survivors (all of whom turn out to be sarcastic smart-asses) walk around and speak in ways that no one in a zombie apocalypse ever would. Though it delivers some great setpieces, it also contains the worst dialogue King's ever written.
52. Blockade Billy: "The game was played hard in those days ... with plenty of fuck-you." Apparently, baseball used to be a rough sport. This novella is a trifle, but King writes lovingly about his favorite game.
51. Cycle of the Werewolf: Originally intended to be twelve vignette-length segments, each of which would run alongside an illustration in a calendar, Werewolf sees King regress to cheesy, gory prose reminiscent of the beloved EC Comics of his youth.
50. The Colorado Kid: A slim addition to the fun Hard Case Crime series of books, this tale of a young newspaper reporter, her two crochety editors, and the mysterious story they unspool has angered many readers with its deliberate lack of closure. But, as King writes, "Wanting might be better than knowing."
49. Black House: Released the week of September 11, this sequel to 1984's King/Peter Straub co-written novel The Talisman picks up the story of Jack Sawyer who, when younger, traveled to a parallel world called the Territories. As with Insomnia, there are chunks of Black House undecipherable to the Dark Tower uninitiated. Yet there is both an authorly tension and bond between King and Straub that results in more lovely passages than the typical lesser King book has any right to offer.
48. Needful Things: King's "Last Castle Rock Story" (the fictional locale was the setting for The Dead Zone, Cujo, and The Dark Half) sees a man named Leland Gaunt roll into town to open the titular curiosity shop. It's the type of place you can get anything you want — for a price. Partially a satirical look at Reagan-era American materalism, the book plays broader than it should, but less funny than King (who considers the book a black comedy) would have liked.
47. The Long Walk: This Bachman book imagines a dystopian United States where 100 young men are forced to participate in a death march through Maine. The winner is lavished with anything he wants. The whole thing is televised, and the nation watches with sick glee. Each chapter opens with a quote from a game show, but the most germane is one from The Gong Show's Chuck Barris: "The ultimate game show would be one where the losing contestant was killed." The Hunger Games before The Hunger Games, but with a world-weary, Vietnam-draft metaphor to boot.
46. Christine: "Kids are a downtrodden class." In the early part of his career, King wrote thousands of pages on this very point. But when it comes to kids and outcasts and the dangers of adolescence, Christine — about a killer car that entrances the mind of a high-school loser — just skims the surface of those most transformative years. Future kid-centered books would be both scarier and deeper.
45. Duma Key: Another attempt at hashing out the lingering effects of his car accident on the page, Duma Key finds King writing about a non-writer artist for the first time. Edgar loses his arm in a construction accident but gains the ability to make things happen when he paints them. Set in Florida, where King now lives for much of the year, Duma Key locates the (non-political) horrors of that fecund, overgrown state. But the novel, like many of King's later works, could have used judicious pruning.
44. Four Past Midnight: A collection of four novellas that contains both one of King's most ingenious situations (in The Langoliers, a group of plane passengers slip through a crack in time to a few minutes before, where the monsters reponsible for eating the past exist) and one of his most unreadable stories (The Library Policeman, which mixes childhood trauma and supernatural horror in a most unsatisfying way).
43. Firestarter: King is in full on "paranoid dude of the sixties-seventies mode" here. The Shop is a secret government agency that, on account of an experiment it performs on one college campus, inadvertantly creates two students with special powers. They marry and have a kid who is capable of wreaking fantastic havoc through her psychic control of fire. With several wonderfully tense set pieces, the book nonetheless has a few too many stationary scenes set in an underground government bunker.
42. Nightmares & Dreamscapes: His third short story collection, this book's a beast, big and baggy. But there's enough of a mix of the surreal (the story with the human finger sticking out of a drain), the silly (the haunted toilet stall) and the scary (the Lovecraftian "Crouch End") to prop up the lesser tales.
41. The Running Man: Another angry Bachman book, another plot about a dystopian game show. But this one's a slam-bang action-suspense story (supposedly written over the course of anywhere from three days to a week), in which one man must evade a group of well-supplied hunters out to kill him on live TV. The novel (spoiler alert!) ends with our hero flying a jet into a skyscraper. Like Tom Clancy's Debt of Honor, in which an embittered pilot flies a passenger jet into the U.S. Capitol, it is hard to read the climax of The Running Man without dredging up the obvious associations.
40. Bag of Bones: "Readers have a loyalty that cannot be matched anywhere else in the creative arts," says Mike Noonan, the Stephen King stand-in and protagonist of Bag of Bones. "Which explains why so many writers who have run out of gas can keep coasting anyway, propelled onto the bestseller lists by the magic words Author of on the covers of their books." King has yet to run out of gas, and critics have responded — since the turn of the century, he has experienced increasingly positive notices for his novels. This book was the turning point, pushed by new publisher Scribner (of Fitzgerald and Hemingway fame) as a piece of literary, rather than genre, fiction. Still, it's not nearly as good as the critics thought, full of King standards (a Maine writer, a dead family member, the past resurfacing, puzzles to be solved) that have trouble convincing us that they are anything but the same old.
39. Just After Sunset: This 2008 collection was a reminder that King is the only best-selling popular novelist who still regularly traffics in the short-story form. One of the book's longer stories ("N") is classic cosmic horror in the vein of Arthur Machen (directly) and H.P. Lovecraft (indirectly). "The Cat From Hell" and "A Very Tight Place" are both the right kinds of gory-nasty, while "They Things They Left Behind" subtly deals with 9/11 survivor's guilt. A solid late career addition.
38. The Dark Tower V: Wolves of the Calla: The Dark Tower series has always been a genre mash-up, but it was only in Wolves of the Calla that readers first realized how all-encompassing King was going to be in his vision. A loose rewriting of The Magnificent Seven, Calla also manages to throw in significant references to Star Wars, Harry Potter, and Marvel Comics. The climactic confrontation is a prime example of what King does not do well — battle scenes. Hundreds of pages of dialogue and it's all over in seconds. Sure, that's how gun battles typically go down, we reckon, but give us a little more, man!
37. Faithful: It's hard to fully enjoy this book if you're not a baseball fan (and more specifically, if you're not a Red Sox fan). Co-written by King and novelist Stewart O'Nan, it follows the two of them through the 2004 season, when the Sox miraculously and finally won their first World Series in 86 years. For those who aren't fans, it gives readers this insight into the depth of King's reading obsession: "Baseball is a great game because you can multitask in so many ways and never miss a single pitch. I find I can read two pages of a book during each commercial break."
36. Everything's Eventual: Another short-story collection, this one features four King tales that made it into The New Yorker, including "That Feeling, You Can Only Say What It Is in French" (is that a New Yorker title, or what?) and "The Man in the Black Suit," which won King an O. Henry award in 1995. The book was published in 2002, right as the critical shift toward King had approached one of its peaks (the following year, he would receive a lifetime achievement award from the National Book Foundation). Still, for all their literary merit, few of the stories stick in your nerve centers.
35. The Dark Tower: The Wind Through the Keyhole: Or, Dark Tower 4.5, as King is calling his latest release. Set in between the events of Wizard and Glass and Wolves of the Calla, Keyhole contains a story within a story, a fairy tale of great adventure and beauty. Because of its interstitial position, though, the book cannot wholly live on its own.
34. Cujo: Thirty years later, the name still serves as shorthand for a vicious dog. And it's a vicious book (that ending!), one that even manages to take us, if briefly, into the point of view of a rabid pooch. It was King's first explicitly non-supernatural book (there are some hints here and there, but it's mostly rabies and human weakness to blame) and so is important, though it is firmly of middle quality.
33. Thinner: He should have just published it under his own name, it was so familiar and Stephen King–ish. But Thinner, with its supernatural plot of an obese lawyer who starts to lose weight, unceasingly, after a gypsy curses him, was released under King's pseudonym, Richard Bachman. With four books to his credit, Bachman had never written a story with anything approaching the otherworldly, which tipped some off that King and Bachman might be the same. A harsh look at American success and excess and avarice, Thinner takes a Tales From the Crypt conceit and spins it into something lean and mean.