Solving the “King Conundrum”: Top Ten Stephen King Stories of All Time.
Dr. Guy T. Mann
I have done what previously had been proven impossible. I have developed and published the infallible and inarguable list of the ten greatest Stephen King stories of all time. Note I did not say I am listing the ten best Stephen King novels. Or movies. Or short stories. Or original screenplays. No, those endeavors are left to lesser minds with fainter hearts. I have come up with the definitive list of the greatest Stephen King stories…period. This includes novels; novellas; short stories; original screenplays; grocery lists; really anything that I could find that could pass as a story. Every published work was considered. Except, of course, for Thinner. Man, that was a terrible book. I have often thought of bringing a lawsuit against Mr. King for the hours of my life he stole from me while I read that book. But I decided to let bygones be bygones. Mr. King was not consulted in the development of this list. He’s too close to the material to be unbiased. Plus, I don’t know him.
I do know his work, however. In the late 70s I wandered into Waldenbooks (remember those!) looking at the oceans of books at my fingertips. Books were a solace for me. I enjoyed the escape. I needed the escape from a life I was struggling to understand at the time. I was in my early teens and I remember the scene as if it happened yesterday. As my eyes were leaping from title to title…something caught my eye. It was a book cover for a paperback novel. It was all black except for a raised impression of what looked like a child. Except the child had fangs. The only color on the cover was a single red drop of blood in the corner of the obvious vampire’s mouth. It caught my attention. I read the blurb and discovered the novel was about a small, New England town which was about to receive a mysterious visit from a vampire. The title of the book? Salem’s Lot. The author? Someone I had never heard of. Stephen King.
To say that this craftily created book cover changed my life might smack of a bit of hyperbole, but not by much. I was captivated. I retreated to the inner sanctum of my room as I poured through the pages of a modern day Bram Stoker-like tale. I stayed in there for hours as I poured over the book with a fervor. When I finished it, I read it again. Thanks to good old capitalism, I found out in the opening pages before the story actually began, that he had written several other books. One in particular caught my fancy. It was about a group of people who had survived a massive flu epidemic and the aftermath of that tragedy. The title of that book? The Stand. That one really did change my life.
Despite the massive amount of pages in that book, I tore through it like a hyena that had spirited away a lion’s kill. I read it as if someone was going to take it away from me. I could not wait to get home from school to step back into that bizarre and amazing world. I began to actually feel real emotions for people that really didn’t exist. I cared about what happened to Stu, Larry, Glen, Mother Abagail, Tom Cullen, Leo Rockway (Joe), Harold, even Frannie. But mostly, I cared about Nick Andros. To this day, I have never felt that kind of connection again to a character in a story. And for that reason, I will never forgive Stephen King. Enough said about that. Suffice it to say that after that, I was a bona fide Stephen King fan.
I’m an older guy now, and I still have such affection for his work. Granted, I don’t read the newer stuff like I did the older stuff. Thinner really did a number on me. But I do go back and read the older stuff while perusing the new. The impact King has had on my life from a literary standpoint cannot be overstated. He is one of the single greatest writers I have ever read. And I was an English major…so I read a lot of good stuff. I do not accept the all too familiar mantra that he is a hack that writes for the masses while the critics who tell us this tout people who are never heard of and have not had the impact King has had. I have never seen anyone so successfully weave amazing storytelling an in-depth character development at the same time (except, of course, for Thinner). He is a once in a lifetime talent. Which makes selecting the 10 best stories from the hundreds he has written a daunting task. But I’ve done it.
This was originally thought to be impossible. Linguists, statisticians, social scientists, botanists, critics and representatives from the world’s best intelligence agencies gathered in secret in Helsinki, Finland to study this phenomenon in 2005. Their conclusion? It is physically, mentally, emotionally and morally impossible for any one person or groups of persons to produce a definitive list of the top ten Stephen King stories. Forget Riemann…forget the Unified Field Theory. The King Conundrum (as it has since been named) was listed as the construct that would never be successfully solved. And they were right…until now. There will be no use arguing the results of solving the King Conundrum, it is settled science. Just like the Skunk Ape and Climate Change. So, without any further delay, here are the top ten Stephen King stories of all time…you’re welcome.
- The Mist
An amazing story with an even more amazing ending. I read once where King stated he liked the ending of the movie’s version better than his own. It’s still the only time I have ever seriously questioned his sanity. For a guy that doesn’t like endings, he gave this one a doozy. Seamlessly written with both a great story and extremely engaging characters.
- The Green Mile
Just when I thought King may be reaching the downhill side of creative story-telling, he came up with this story. How he can evoke emotions in the middle of such bleak surroundings is still amazing to me. Death row, murdered children, botched executions, psychopathic inmates, psychopathic guards all wrapped up in the Great Depression. And yet we are openly weeping when John’s story comes to an end. Extraordinary tale.
- The Body
The most “classical” (in a literary sense) of any of King’s stories. There is not even a whisper of the supernatural throughout this amazing tale. There is, of course, evil. We see it in Ace, his friends, the unnamed man who ended Chris’ life…maybe even in the desire to see the dead body of a kid who innocently wandered too close to the railroad tracks. This story makes me think as much of Flannery O’Connor as it does Stephen King. That is a huge complement. Anybody over 40 who can read this story without looking back with both longing and regret at their own childhood is a better person than me.
- The Shining
The only reason why this is not higher on the list is one of the main reasons why this is a remarkable novel in the first place. If you stop and think about it, there is barely a likeable character anywhere in this book. Especially among the main characters. Jack and Wendy are not likeable. King overwrites Danny just a bit, but he has a tendency to make young children in his stories seem waaaay more cognitive than is believable. The fact that he can make most of the main characters unlikeable and still tell an amazing story is just proof of his storytelling ability. The Kubrick movie doesn’t help either. The story is not about a haunted hotel. The Overlook is ancillary to the real story of a man struggling with alcoholism and on the verge of losing his family. These demons then literally attempt to finish the job. If you miss that part of the story…you miss the entire story.
- Salem’s Lot
There is a lot of sentimental value attached to this story for me. It was, as mentioned above, the first King book I ever read. It also shows King’s prowess at telling a story in under his usual 5,475 pages. At just over 670 pages, it is not short by human standards…but is practically brief by King standards. As a result the pacing is excellent and the story moves briskly but not at a break neck pace. We get a chance to savor even relatively minor characters like Dud, Weasel, Mike Ryerson and Larry Crockett. The characters are extremely relatable and King is able to do what might seem actually very silly. He rationally (even expertly) answers what could be a ridiculous question: What if Dracula came to New England in the 70s? While in clumsy hands that answer may have devolved into farce, King makes it believable enough for me not to want to stop in ANY small, New England town for the night. Bravo.
- Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption
This novella was in the same collection as The Body. A book entitled Different Seasons which contained four King novellas. And though the other two stories are mostly forgettable (at least to me), The Body and Rita Hayworth are amongst the greatest stories King ever wrote. Again, there is not even a suggestion of the supernatural in this story. I have to wander if King wrote these, at least in part, to “show” critics that he could write things that fell outside of his “filter”. I hope not. I hope he wrote them for the same reason he claims he writes all of his stuff…because it pleased him. Either way, I’m glad he wrote this one. Again, King is able to get us to actually care about a group of prisoners who had done horrible things. We don’t just care about the “innocent” Andy Dufresne…but we grow to like most of them. Especially Red. I don’t know if King’s point was that we need prison reform in this country. I don’t know if he is trying to preach to us that people really aren’t that bad. But I will say this. The letter he leaves to Red about the nature of hope is some of the most amazing words put to paper.
- Quitter’s Inc.
Short stories are not Stephen King’s forte. That doesn’t mean, of course, that he is bad at writing them, it simply means that for the most part they are not a part of his best work. King is best when he has a lot (and I mean a lot) of pages to work with in order to build stories and develop characters. Short stories give him the opportunity to do neither. That doesn’t mean that there are not gems in the midst of a strip-mined mass of rubble. But for every “I am the Doorway” there seems to be about five of “The Lawnmower Man”. When you are amazed by “Sometimes They Come Back” you are shaking your head at “The Mangler” or “Survivor Type” or “Morning Deliveries” or…well you get the picture. But “Quitter’s Inc.” is simply one of the best things King has ever written. The fact that a short story made the list and made it this high up in the list is testament to the brilliance of this story. The conflict between the results of pragmatism juxtaposed against the failures of idealism wrapped in the context of a man who desperately needs to quit smoking is still fodder for conversation with me and my kids more than 35 years after I first read it. There are few stories I can say that about.
- The Dead Zone
This incredible story does not generally figure this high in a list of King’s best work, but it deserves its lofty position. While haunted cars, hotels, trucks, computers and automated laundry folding machines may just barely strain the bonds of credulity, John Smith’s awakening from an extended coma with extra-cognitive abilities seems rationally plausible. This is the quintessential King story for those wanting to see a perfect example of developing amazingly genuine, likeable characters while weaving a nuanced story with extremely important moral complexities. After recovering from his coma with this new gift (curse?) John Smith simply wants to go back to his old life. We agonize with him as he comes to the realization that this is not possible…ever. He is thrust into a narrative in which he has to play a horrific role and which has worldwide ramifications. We watch helplessly as he practically screams out for someone to tell him the “right” thing to do in the face of a deadly moral dilemma. The ending is as heartbreaking as anything King has written. Pick up this book…read…and enjoy.
- The Dark Tower IV: The Dark Tower
Up until a few years ago, I fell into a category that more than half of King’s fans fall in to. I had never read even one of the Dark Tower books. King himself acknowledges that probably more than half of his fans have not read what he considers to be his magnum opus. About two years ago, with some time on my hands, I decided it was probably time to tackle this monster. I hesitated before because it just seemed too daunting. Would I really read all seven of them? What if they were really bad? Or even worse…what if they were really good and I had to devote time I didn’t have to finish them? So, I simply began by taking it one book at a time. I was hooked. There are, of course, some really weird crap in these books. The psychotic, murderous, talking monorail was probably the least weird of some of this stuff. Some of the books were better than others but that is to be expected. However, I have rarely been moved and captivated as much as I was in this last installment of the Dark Tower series. This is King at his near best. The end of Eddie’s story had me openly weeping. And these were simply words on a page. The penultimate ending King warns us about had me equally emotional for an entirely different reason. The ultimate ending can be debated, but to me, it is the only ending that makes the entire journey make any sense. I wish I could tell you to just read the last book. But that won’t work. You have to come to love Roland, Jake, Eddie and Susannah…and Oy. Read these books and I promise, you will.
- The Stand
It would take way more time than we have, to tell you what this book meant to me as a 15 year old kid. As I was making my way through this massive tale taking up more than 820 pages. I never once wanted King to rush through introducing us to Nick, Larry, Stu, Frannie, Glen, Ralph, Nadine, Harold, Flagg, Mother Abagail, or any of the plethora of character backstories to “get to the good stuff” of the story. I knew then that getting to know these people actually was the “good stuff”. The actual story that The Stand tells, is relatively simple. It is as old as the tale from the Garden of Eden. It is a simple story of good versus evil; God versus the devil; right versus wrong. That’s really it. However, the package that story is wrapped in is pure perfection. We are not observers in this story, we are participants. We cheer when our heroes get the power back on in Boulder. We weep when Frannie is discovering who was killed in the explosion. And we smile when we realize that this entire story is more about Larry Underwood than it is anyone else. When Larry, Glen and Ralph stand on the precipice of that washed out highway and King tells us “And none of them ever saw Stu Redmond again”, we ache not only for them…but for us. Saying their names and talking about their story always makes me smile. I re-read that book every so often and it is as if I am sitting down to talk to old friends. Thank you, Stephen King, for writing The Stand. I will never be able to put into words what that book still means to me. But…I gave it a shot.
So, that’s it. There is the solution to the King Conundrum. When you reach out to the Swedes to nominate me for the Nobel Prize for Literature (that’s a thing…right?) make sure you get the spelling of my name right. Once again, this is science not opinion. Any complaints about this list will be ignored as it should be. I mean, you’re not going to argue the viability of the reality of gravity, are you? It’s the same thing with this. Just appreciate what I have been able to do for you. If you have any questions about the methodology I used to unlock the Conundrum, I won’t tell you. Your brain would melt if you found out. I’m doing you a favor. But, as usual, if there are any other questions I can answer, please reach out to me at firstname.lastname@example.org I’ll get back to you as soon as I buy a computer.
Since Dr. Mann is going to be a regular contributor to the Growth Project blog, we thought you would be interested in hearing about his amazing life. Classically trained in both Reformed theology and ballet, Guy is the quintessential “Renaissance Man”. His unique perspective on life and culture will engage our minds and tweak our hearts. Dr. Mann’s posts will deal with virtually all aspects of life and provide insights that will challenge and probably enrage most of us.
Born in 1965 in Tupelo, Mississippi, Guy was raised in a very typically American home. His parents were loving and disciplined, and Guy had a very unspectacular childhood in most respects. His childhood days were like most of his contemporaries, filled with daily ballet lessons and pie eating contests. Aside from the normal hijinks that come with being a rambunctious child, Dr. Mann’s childhood was unmarred by any serious infractions. The only exception to this spotless adolescent record was his unfortunate arrest and incarceration for an incident at Elvis Presley’s boyhood home. While details are sketchy, eyewitness accounts allege that Guy was touring the home with many other Elvis fans. After he remarked aloud that Slim Whitman had sold more records than Elvis in Turku, Finland, the crowd immediately turned on Guy. Once he was released from the hospital, Guy was arrested and spent several months in jail. Being a minor, those records were of course expunged, and he lived a quiet life afterward.
After graduating from college, Guy applied for and was accepted into graduate school at Princeton University. He immediately began to pursue a PhD in Bugs. It was only after the first year of study that he realized the program was, in fact, a study of insects and not a study of the famous Warner Brothers cartoon rabbit. Disappointed but not dejected, Guy finished his coursework and was awarded his doctorate. His PhD dissertation entitled Bugs: I Thought it Meant Something Else, was well received in academic circles around the globe.
One of the most ambitious projects Dr. Mann ever participated in was his failed campaign for President of the United States during the 1985 election. He attributed his failure to two very important missteps. 1) He wrongly underestimated the popularity of current President Ronald Reagan. Dr. Mann had polling data that showed people were tiring of Reagan and wanted a change. Turns out that was wrong. 2) There was no Presidential election in 1985. Just the year prior, Reagan had been elected in one of the biggest landslides in US electoral history. Sensing his window for political success may have closed, Guy moved on to bigger and better things.
For the next 30 years Dr. Mann took on a series of odd jobs in communities all across this great nation. Feeling he had accomplished all he could as a drifter, he retired in May, 2018 and settled somewhere in the Midwest. It was at this time that Dr. Mann first discovered the internet. This strange new world opened up a plethora of opportunities for Guy, and he decided to take advantage of this by starting his own blog: A Mann’s World: Musings From a Regular Guy. After submitting his blog posts to a number of high profile media sites, he found his home here at Growth Project. He emails his work to us from an undisclosed location in a bunker deep beneath the American heartland. His unique take on theology, the culture, and the world at large will challenge your thinking and inflame your emotions. You may disagree with him, but we feel you will not be able to ignore him. His is a voice that must be heard. So, please welcome Dr. Mann as our newest Growth Project blogger and please send all complaints to him at: email@example.com He will get back to you just as soon as he buys a computer. The views and ideas posited by Guy T. Mann are his own and do not necessarily reflect the views of Growth Project and its subsidiaries.
Dr. Purvis started Growth Project with Robert Houghton after spending 20 years on active duty as a Chaplain in the United States Navy. After many moves and multiple deployments, he settled in Winter Haven, Florida to do God’s will. A glutton for educational punishment Danny has a BA in English from Carson-Newman College, an MDiv from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary; a ThM from Princeton Theological Seminary; and a PhD in Organizational Leadership from Regent University. He has been married to his wife Kimberly (whom he met when they were 6 years old) for nearly 30 years and they have four wonderful children.