Under-the-radar Stephen King books you need to read ASAP

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Sep 21, 2017

Happy birthday to Stephen King, who turns 70 today. The legendary horror author shows no signs of slowing down as he enters his eighth decade, with an epic new novel called Sleeping Beauties (co-written with son Owen King) coming out next week. He's also suddenly the hottest name in Hollywood again, as It becomes the highest-grossing horror movie of all time and lots of other film and TV projects are in the pipeline.

With more than 50 novels and many more shorter pieces in his bibliography, it would be easy to do a "best of King" list for his birthday. We're delving a little deeper here, going past the obvious choices like Salem's Lot, The Shining, The Stand, and Under the Dome to look at some perhaps lesser-known works. Diehard fans may know these and want to revisit them, while readers just looking to explore his vast back catalog might appreciate some of the lesser-known gems here.

Whichever way you go, it's worth it to take a moment to appreciate the sheer scope of his output over the last 40 years. Let's hope he sticks around for another 70 years ... even if he has to find a way to come back from the dead to do it.

The Long Walk (1979)

Published 38 years ago under King's one-time pseudonym Richard Bachman, The Long Walk is actually the first novel he wrote, having started it around 1966 during his freshman year in college. It's also one of his most overtly science fictional, which is weird for a book that's essentially about a marathon. But this is not exactly your annual run in NYC or LA: a totalitarian U.S. government forces 100 teenage boys to participate in a grueling walk that only ends when one boy is left alive. If you didn't know it was King writing, you might not recognize his early style. Frank Darabont has held the film rights to the story for ages -- having already filmed The Mist, he could out-grim himself with this bleak tale.

"The Breathing Method" (1982)

The shortest and least plot-driven of the four novellas in Different Seasons, it's the only one that brushes against the supernatural. It's also distinguished by the fact that it is the only story in that classic collection -- which also included "The Body," "Apt Pupil" and "Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption" -- that was never adapted for the screen ("The Body" was adapted as Stand by Me, in case you needed a refresher). There's a pretty good reason why: we're not quite sure that a story that ends with a woman's headless body giving birth to her baby would play very well at the multiplexes.

Danse Macabre (1981)

King has written a fair amount of non-fiction over the years, mainly shorter pieces, but he's only penned three book-length works of non-fiction. This was the first: a wide-ranging and comprehensive (for its time) overview of the horror genre in film, TV, books and pop culture overall, with nods to related genres like sci-fi and fantasy. It's a freewheeling tome, written in King's trademark conversational style, and it's an entertaining look at the genre in which he made his name. If you're already a King fan and have not read it, it's like having a long talk with the man; non-fans or beginners may enjoy his take on the genre's long (and underappreciated) history. We kind of wish he'd do a sequel.

The Dark Tower: The Gunslinger (1982)

This is where it all began. Actually, the defining work of King's career began in the pages of Fantasy and Science Fiction magazine, where the five interlocking stories that eventually became this novel were first published. King was so hesitant to present this surreal, hypnotic and unsettling fusion of Western, sci-fi, horror and dark fantasy to the public that he initially only allowed The Gunslinger (and subsequent volumes) to be published as limited editions. But even mainstream fans got wind of his magnum opus and demanded mass market editions as well. There's no question that when The Gunslinger first came out, it was kind of a shock in that it was utterly unlike anything King had written before. But if you're game, start with The Gunslinger and then work your way through the next seven volumes... and may we wish you long days and pleasant nights while doing so.

The Plant (1982-1985, 2000)

This unfinished novel is one of the oddest works of King's career. He initially published it as a series of chapbooks sent to friends in lieu of Christmas cards from 1982 through 1985 before abandoning it. Then in 2000 he took the sections he had written and made them available as an e-book through his website, mainly as an experiment to see if he could sell his work online directly (they're still on his website, now free of charge). Written in epistolary style -- that is, as a series of letters and other correspondence -- The Plant is about the disturbing relationship between a book editor and the mysterious author whose manuscript the editor rejects. It's eerie, weird and we'd like to see King finish it -- heck, we'd certainly pay for it!

Skeleton Crew (1985)

This was King's second story collection following 1978's classic Night Shift, and it may be his most important. The book collected 22 tales that showed King in transition: while many of the stories in Night Shift were straight horror, usually involving an EC-style twist, Skeleton Crew was a snapshot of a maturing writer who still had complete command of his chosen genre but was experimenting with different and bolder styles as well. Many of the stories here -- from the relentless "The Mist" to the hair-raising "Gramma" to the poignant "The Reach" -- are among King's best-known. If Night Shift was the A New Hope of King's many collections, Skeleton Crew was definitely The Empire Strikes Back.

Gerald's Game (1992) / Dolores Claiborne (1992) / Rose Madder (1995)

In the early '90s, King challenged himself to write a series of stories told exclusively from a woman's point of view. The results were three of his most atypical novels, with two of them remaining among the most rewarding works of the middle section of his career. Gerald's Game and Dolores Claiborne (which was also made into one hell of an underrated movie) are loosely connected and have only a passing involvement with the supernatural, with the latter being one of the writer's most experimental books ever (it's written as a long monologue, with no chapters or even paragraph breaks). Rose Madder is more overtly fantastical but less successful overall as a story. All three books focus with often moving clarity on the plight of women and the secret suffering they undergo at the hands of men.

"The Man in the Black Suit" (1994)

This acclaimed short story is considered one of King's best of the '90s, and it's also one of his most acclaimed: it was originally published in The New Yorker magazine, winning the World Fantasy Award and the O. Henry Award for Best Short Fiction. King himself has collected it twice, in his very limited Six Stories collection and the mainstream 2002 collection Everything's Eventual. It's a simple tale about an old man remembering an encounter he had as a little boy with the devil himself, but it's one of King's eeriest and most resonant.

Lisey's Story (2006)

As recently as this past August, King called this his favorite of all the novels he's written -- if that's not a recommendation, we don't know what is. A dark fantasy mixed with a psychological drama and a deeply felt love story, it marked the beginning of a stretch in which King spent a lot of time looking specifically at the concepts of marriage and relationships. In this case, Lisey is the widow of a successful yet emotionally disturbed author who unlocks all sorts of repressed memories and finds her way into the other world where her husband was able to transport himself. It may not be straight horror, but it's one of King's most personal works.

"N." (2008)

It's not often that a single story or novel can literally scare us -- as in giving us goosebumps -- but "N." does the trick. It's about a psychiatrist who begins to fall prey to the same apparent delusions that drove his patient to suicide, having to do with a mysterious circle of stones in a field outside town. It's a thoroughly unnerving and genuinely creepy tale, almost all told through suggestion. A 25-chapter animated version of the tale was created and posted online to promote the collection, Just After Sunset (2008), in which the story first appeared (it was later adapted into a limited-run comic book by Marvel as well).

"A Good Marriage" (2010)

King continued his exploration of marriage with this extremely grim novella (which first appeared in the collection Full Dark, No Stars) about a woman who realizes she's been married to a serial killer for 27 years. The tale is one of his strongest of this decade, a haunting rumination on justice, forgiveness and whether we ever really know the people we love. It's a horror tale where the horror comes from within the human soul. "A Good Marriage" was made into a little-seen 2014 movie starring Joan Allen.

Joyland (2013)

Hard Case Crime is a publishing imprint that puts out paperback crime thrillers meant to resemble the old pulp dime novels of the 1940s and '50s, right down to the lurid covers. King has written two books for them: the first, The Colorado Kid, ended up loosely inspiring SYFY's own series Haven; the second, Joyland, is a crackling coming-of-age thriller set in an amusement park, where a student working a summer job discovers long-buried and dangerous secrets. Being that it was published somewhat under the radar, a lot of readers may or may not know about it (that's what we're here for).

"Blockade Billy" (2010 / 2015)

Perhaps the only Stephen King book we have not read is the non-fiction Faithful, which he co-wrote with Stewart O'Nan and in which the two authors recap the Boston Red Sox's 2004 championship season. Not being Red Sox fans, we just weren't interested. But King -- a huge Sox fan and baseball devotee in general -- always said he'd get around to writing a baseball story as well, and here it is. First published in limited edition form in 2010 and reprinted in the 2015 collection The Bazaar of Bad Dreams, "Blockade Billy" is a baseball yarn with a decidedly dark and grisly twist -- as if you'd expect anything else, right?