Stephen King and I have a lot in common. We share the same birthday, we both love monsters and things that go bump in the night, and we both are wildly successful and exciting authors (well, I’m manifesting that last one still).
Because of these similarities, he’s always danced around the edge of my TBRs, but I didn’t get to reading his works until about two years ago when I read the slim and entirely un-daunting Elevation. The story was moving and strange, so I decided to move on to bigger (literally) books. I picked up The Institute when it was released, being completely unable to resist a story about kids with magic powers in a strange school-like environment, and the next summer, I read ‘Salem’s Lot while passing the time between classes in my summer teaching gig. I liked it well enough, though it gave me the heebie-jeebies, so when a friend of mine suggested we read The Stand together at the start of the pandemic this year (we all did insane things in March), I decided to conquer my fear of enormous novels and give it a go. I didn’t finish it. My brief and lukewarm love affair with King’s books are officially finished and no, I won’t feel bad that I didn’t even try Carrie.
Who can truly say what put me off King’s works for good? Like the terror he invokes for his characters, my dislike of his novels was creeping, lurking, infesting, infiltrating, oozing, dripping… it crept up on me like a blood-thirsty vampire in an alleyway — slowly but with intention. Like the atmospheres he builds in his tiny little horror worlds, I couldn’t put my finger on exactly what it was, but it was there and breathing in the dark waiting for me to get up the courage to look at it.
Unlike Stephen King, I won’t leave you dangling in terrified suspense. Unlike King, I know exactly what the bump is in the night, and it’s not plot holes. It’s sexism, homophobia, the use of rape as a plot device, violence against women and children, excessive gore and trauma, an overall lack of depth, using adult sexual language on children, racism, use of abusive slurs…. Are those enough red flags for you?
Put down your stakes and turn off your murder cars, King fans. You can say all you want about how King wrote in the ’70s before everything “had to be politically correct,” but I’m not listening to that busted argument. It has actually always been politically correct to treat other people with respect, whether or not it was popular to, so climb back in your “I miss the old days” basements and please, don’t feel inclined to write.
I also won’t hear arguments of, “he’s not like that now, because he said women should have rights on twitter.” Great! Glad he caught up to what women have been saying for literally all time, but sorry, I am fresh out of “bare minimum” cookies! Try again never. I also don’t want to hear, “it’s just his characters! It’s not what he believes!” Nope. This guy throws around slurs and the n-word way too frequently and casually for me to believe he was uncomfortable doing it and felt there was no other way to get the point across about the hicks in Maine without it (there was).
The thing is, there are so many other authors and stories out there that are doing what King does, and better. So that’s why I’m really here, fun as it is to put forward my case about why I’m the coolest person born on the 21st night of September.
It’s Halloween soon, you’re hankering for a good spooky novel to get you in the spirits (or get the spirits to you), you’ve watched Hocus Pocus seven times today, you’ve got your pumpkin candles lit, the jack-o’-lanterns are carved, you’ve got candy and a hot drink and you’re ready to really enjoy this Ol’ Hallow’s Eve, and you think you’ll finally crack open a Steve King classic…. Let me stop you before you ruin the whole vibe we’ve got going here. You, and Halloween, deserve better. Come child, put out your little jack-o’-lantern bucket and let me take back that Trick that the world has sold you about Stephen King. Let me give you a little Treat instead. You deserve it.
Here are five books that I recommend you check out instead of the Dark Prince of Only the Bare Minimum When People Are Actually Holding Him Accountable.
Instead of The Stand, Read Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel
I figured I’d start with the timely topic here and go straight for the light, sweet, and not at all terrifying global-pandemic-causes-mass-extinction-and-this-is-life-at-the-end-of-the-world plot line. The Stand has long been a crowd favorite and even made its way onto the Great American Read list put out by PBS a few summers ago. I tried it in the early days of pandemic and found, surprisingly, that an enormous and traumatic book about a respiratory disease killing almost all life on earth was actually not enjoyable at this time. I DNF’d it with immense glee. It was violent, gross, sexually disturbing, and just down right f-ed up. If you’re in the market for pandemic related reading, I suggest Station Eleven instead. It also tells the story of a pandemic with a scary-high mortality rate that effectively ends life as we know it on earth. It follows the story of the survivors, a group of which are a traveling Shakespeare troupe, and like King, brushes up against a cult. Overall, Station Eleven is a poetic, haunting, and deeply satisfying story about the ways that our humanity can and will endure. The Stand is, well, the opposite.
Instead of ‘Salem’s Lot, Read Vampires Never Get Old edited by Zorida Cordova and Natalie C. Parker
Ah, the vampire. My first love. It is surprisingly hard to find a good vampire novel that’s not either glibly romantic (ala Twilight) or kinda f-ed up (ala Interview with a Vampire). ‘Salem’s Lot has long been held up as one of the greats, but frankly, I’ll keep Dracula. The story itself isn’t terribly original; a down-on-his-luck writer (take a drink whenever King writes about a male writer; just kidding! I don’t want you to get alcohol poisoning!) returns to a scene of his youth hoping to find that illusive spark of creativity and instead finds a lot of murder. I read this book in an enormous, retro (read: creepy), and empty college building last summer between teaching evening classes and would literally run to my car and lock the doors when I left for the day. This book made me hate dusk. Still, there’s rampant child abuse, violence against women, rape, and a lot of slurs. Oh, and the crowd pleaser plot device of killing a woman to make the male protagonist Feel Things. Put a stake in this book and bury it in the backyard. If you find yourself hankering for some vampires, I recommend this awesome new anthology from editors Zorida Cordova and Natalie C. Parker, Vampires Never Get Old. Like the contributing authors, the characters and stories are diverse and you’re bound to find a favorite. There are stories that look like The Lost Boys (the best vampire movie EVER MADE, no further questions) and Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and some that look different from any vampire story you’ve seen before. Bonus: no slurs! Thank you, bare minimum!
Instead of The Institute, Read The Wilder Girls by Rory Powers
I’ve yet to run up against a novel set in a school that I didn’t like. And for the most part, I think I liked The Institute. It was kinda like Stranger Things, but less memorable. Kids are collected by an unknown scientific group, tests are performed on them, they band together, use their powers against the people trying to use them, etc. Frankly, I don’t remember the main characters’ names or how it ended. If Goodreads wasn’t around to remind me, I’d think I dreamt reading that book. So, instead of giving yourself amnesia, like I did, pick up Rory Power’s The Wilder Girls, which you will undoubtedly be completely unable to forget (try as you might!). Wow, what a novel. It lives up to the hype. It is crazy, scary, romantic, freaky, disturbing, sad, and everything in between, a true rollercoaster of emotions. The novel is about the slow decline of a girls’ school by the sea after the students and teachers begin to develop strange illnesses and die. The mystery of this novel was eerie and complex, the relationships between characters were moving and realistic, and overall this novel was just like taking a leisurely swim in horror lake. I loved this novel. One of the best and most original stories I’ve read in years!
Instead of The Gunslinger, Read The Good Luck Girls by Charlotte Nicole Davis
This is the only novel of King’s on the list that I haven’t actually read (I also don’t intend to, in case you need clarification about my stance on his work this late in the game). The premise is kinda intriguing — fantasy and western are two words I like the look up saddled up together like that. But the storyline sounds kinda wacky, and I hear that the villain in this story, The Man in Black (original), is Randall Flagg from The Stand, and I’d rather pluck my own eyeballs out with a fork that read that freaky man again (it’s what he would want). I don’t want to read it, and you don’t have to, because Charlotte Nicole Davis came to the rescue with a much better version of a fantasy western epic called The Good Luck Girls. When I tell you I ate this book up and asked for seconds! I loved it! The fantasy and western elements were perfectly blended and in harmony with one another, the girl gang was ruthless and emotional and powerful, the stakes were high and our characters were ready to do whatever it took to secure their freedom. I am not-so-patiently awaiting the sequel!
Instead of The Shining, Read Beloved by Toni Morrison
The best for last, as they say. I read The Shining last Halloween-time expecting to be terrified, electrified, horrified! ‘Salem’s Lot had scared me pretty good so I was hoping that King’s most famous book might pack another punch, but, no. I wasn’t even disturbed. It was just boring. I was more interested in the ghosts than the people, and I hated Jack so badly in the first chapter that I carried around my annoyance with him the whole time like it was my full-time job. The book wasn’t really scary, mostly I just waited with bated breath for Jack to blow himself sky high. It was less a haunted house/hotel story than a descent into madness by a man who greased the slope. So, instead of dealing with writer-alpha-male Man Pain, pick up a book by god. Beloved by Toni Morrison is one the best haunted house stories I’ve ever read. Not only does Toni Morrison write like the English language was made specifically for her use, but the story was so full of magic, power, trauma, and love that I found myself stunned at the end of it, and honored to have been alive to read it (think of all the years the world existed and people could read but they couldn’t read Toni Morrison because she wasn’t alive yet?! Now that’s a real horror story). This haunting novel tells the story of Sethe and her daughters as they struggle with the chains of the past and the promise of the future. It is exquisite. Read it once and read it again and read it every year for the rest of your life.
Wow, what an act of public service that was, dear reader! Imagine all the time you would have wasted reading some sub-par horror novel that might insult you at any moment, and all the time you got back for really powerful and original stories by people who not only think people other than white men deserve rights, but deserve to be the heroes of their own stories! Revolutionary. You’re welcome.
What did I miss? What other King novels can we replace with their better versions? Let me know in the comments!