Vulture recently published an article ranking all of Stephen King’s books, and while I may have a quibble or two on the ranking of some of the books, I think it’s a good list, with my top 10 more or less jibing with the site’s top 10. So anyway, after that article came out a friend asked me to write about my top King books. While I am not going to do anything as ambitious as ranking my faves, here’s a sort-of list on those books that have struck me over the years. And sometimes, more than the language and the plot, that’s what good fiction is all about — when the story, or the emotions the story evoked, stays with you long after you forget the plot highlights.
Let’s start at the beginning, with Cujo: This was memorable because it was the first King book I ever read, in freshman college. I know, I know. For rabid fans of King, I am a late bloomer. What can I say, even though my friends would call me a fangirl, it would be more accurate to call me fangirl-ish or fangirl adjacent. I’ve read most of the books, true — in the Vulture list, I’ve read 55 of his 62 books — but I can’t for instance, say in which King books Sheriff George Bannerman, sheriff at the time Cujo terrorised Donna Trenton and her four-year old son Tad in that unfortunate summer afternoon, appeared (I think the sheriff was also a character in The Dead Zone and a few others).
(This was the good sheriff’s curtain call, by the way. Cujo killed him in the Cambers’ yard. SPOILER!)
It was while reading this that I got hooked on King. The guy knows how to make you turn a page and this one was a doozy. Who after all doesn’t relate to a story about a beloved pet — in this case, a big lug of a Saint Bernard? And Cujo was really such a sweetheart of a dog. He was a “gooddawg” as a friend would say it. He tried to be anyway, but as often happens in King’s universe, sometimes or even oftentimes, bad things happen to good people, or good dogs. Cujo got bitten by a bat and got infected by rabies. It’s King’s genius that he was able to evoke dread and pity in the reader as he shifts POVs from the various characters in the story, including Cujo’s. I remember just hanging to every word and cursing each character, particularly the Camber family (Cujo’s humans) to just please notice that something is not right with the damn dog! And of course, they never did. Human failing, people. That’s really the grease that keeps the great wheel of fiction turning. And there were human failings galore in this book. What was tragic and true about Cujo was how the characters were so wrapped up in their lives (as are we all) that they failed to recognize the danger in their midst. This was also one of the first books I’ve read wherein the author kills off the kid. There’s an unwritten “rule” in fiction that when animals and pets get killed off by the author, it’s because they act as a sort of stand-in for a child character. Well, King wasn’t afraid to go there: He killed both the pet and the child. It’s a heartbreaking book, really. I hate it when the kids die — especially ones who didn’t do anything wrong in the story and just happened to be at the wrong place at the wrong time. But as King always says, bad things happen to good people and to quote from Cujo: “Free will was not a factor.”
Incidentally, for people who dismiss King as a hack horror writer, this is one of his many works where he doesn’t delve into the supernatural or uncanny — at least, there aren’t any actual vampires or ghouls or things that go bump in the night. But then again, in the King canon, there is always some sort of monster, supernatural or not. As he says in Cujo: “Except the monster never dies. Werewolf, vampire, ghoul, unnamable creature from the wastes. The monster never dies.”
[First of a long series]