I know this isn’t the end of the list as you are reading it, but this is the last slot I have to fill and I struggled to decide which story to name. I was tempted to throw in a Chandler novella because I love Chandler the bestest, but none of those are really a patch on the novels they were cannibalised to create. I thought about a Roger Zelazny piece because really people should still be reading Roger Zelazny. For a nanosecond I toyed with Robert E Howard as a nod to the ghost of my adolescence –and to be really perverse to Jonathan – but let’s face it, he was a fairly shitty writer and his minor significance lies outside of his actual talent as a writer.
Then there is the King.
I love Stephen King. I don’t love everything he has published – god, I stopped trying to even keep up years ago. (‘No mas, no mas,’ to quote Roberto Duran.) But beyond the brand and the astonishing commercial success and the mostly awful adaptations stands a brilliantly entertaining – and frankly brilliant – writer. Not every book, lord knows, but enough of them.
At his best King is more readable than anyone. The Shining, The Dead Zone, Misery… spectacular stuff. And there are rib-tickling (or rib-cracking) short stories, especially the early, pulpy stuff collected in Night Shift.
I’m cheating by choosing ‘The Mist’, I know. Really it is a short novel, though it originally appeared in a short story anthology: Kirby McCauley’s legendary Dark Forces. But it contains everything that makes King so much fun to read. The storyline is stripped down to Lifeboat circumstances: a bunch of people who don’t all get along, trapped in a tight space with limited hope of survival. It is gussied up with an unexplained fantasy backdrop/MacGuffin, but it works because of one thing: characterization.
King just does it so well, so easily. Even when you don’t believe every word of his dialogue – and King can get a little hokey – you believe in and care about his characters to the last page. That’s the first rule of writing, I know, but few succeed in doing it as well as Mr King does.
I remain, now and forever, his humble subject.
First published in Dark Forces, edited by Kirby McCauley, Viking, 1980. It was collected in King’s own Skeleton Crew, Putnam, 1985, and later republished as a stand-alone volume, Signet, 2007