Last month, good friend and fellow Horror writer Richard Thomas commented on my Cut Your Teeth On These: 10 Horror Books You Must Read article, which has been quite a hit here at Obscuradrome. His comment was simple: Shame on me for not including any Stephen King novels in my list? King was briefly mentioned the article, but I purposely omitted him from the list because if you’re writing Horror, King is a must read author. Same with Peter Straub, and Dean Koontz. Richard also mentioned that I didn’t mention Jack Ketchum, but I’m saving him and a whole slew of other writers for another article. I’m a big fan of King, and Koontz, so I don’t want anyone to think I don’t care for them, or that I’m ignoring their importance in the field of Horror.
Both King and Koontz are often listed as Horror writers, and for the most part, I agree. Honestly, I feel the scale is a little tipped in King’s favor when it comes to all out Horror, while Koontz is the Sultan of Suspense, with Horror fiction rounding out his box of tools. But hey, they’re both in the General Fiction section of the bookstore, both of their last names start with the letter K, and they’ve got an amazing amount of books out. Obviously, they are doing something right.
Richard suggested we do a Face/Off, King vs. Koontz. Our favorite five from each author. This article is the result of that face off.
Truth be known, both writers have their pros and cons. With King’s penchant for writing about writers, and Koontz obsession with tidy, and Happy, endings, both writers can get tiresome. But when it comes to Horror and Suspense, neither of these Kaisers of Killer Thriller Koolness can be beat.
In the Red Corner, weighing in at…
Here’s Richard to talk about his choice, Stephen King.
Stephen King: His Five Best Books Ever
Bob Pastorella and I are having a discussion about King vs. Koontz, so I’m posting up my five favorite books by Stephen King, and he’s posting up his five favorite books by Dean Koontz (if he can FIND five). I kid, I kid. I grew up on King, Koontz and Straub so I definitely am a fan of all of them. With Koontz it’s his older titles that really resonate with me, books like Phantoms, Watchers, and Whispers. Basically, you’re safe with any book of his that has a one-word title and is at least five years ago. Although, I do kind of have a soft spot for the Odd Thomas series. But this is about King, who in my opinion is one of the best storytellers ever.
I have a definite three titles that I always mention when talking about King. They never change. I’m talking about The Stand, It, and The Shining. I’ll talk about those in a minute. But my other two, well, maybe they aren’t the most obvious choices. The other two titles are The Dead Zone and The Long Walk. Let’s talk about these fantastic books.
Note: Bob made me promise to leave out the Dark Tower series, which if I could include that as a whole, would definitely be on this list.
The Stand. This is an epic good vs. evil story and one of his longest books ever written. The original version clocked in at 823 pages, but the uncut paperback is over 1,400. This is a title that really requires a commitment, the number of pages, the characters, the scope of the book—it’s an epic journey. But from the opening scene, a man fleeing from an outbreak of a super-flu, up until the climactic ending, this is one of his best. Mother Abigail represents the light, and Randall Flagg represents the dark. We get to root for everyday good guys like Stu Redman, as well. He’s just a down-home boy trying to do the right thing. And he’s easy to cheer on, you get connected to him, want to see him succeed. The book is divided into three sections: “Captain Trips,” which is about the outbreak and spread of the virus; “On the Border,” which brings the bands of misfits together; and “The Stand,” which is the final confrontation. If you had to read one and only one King title, this would be the one for me.
The Shining. I know that a lot of people think of the movie when you bring up this book, and that’s okay. I happen to love the movie, but I’m not sure if that’s because I’m a fan of Jack Nicholson or the work of Stanley Kubrick. King is famous for hating the film because the ending was changed, but I still loved it. This book is the story of the Torrance family. The father, Jack, is an alcoholic writer with a wicked temper who takes a job as the caretaker at the Overlook Hotel, in Colorado, one winter. He has in fact lost his job as a teacher after assaulting a student, and he even hurt his son, Danny, which sobers him up. I can’t think of a couple of catch phrases that are more commonplace than “Here’s, Johnny!” which Jack utters while chopping down a bathroom door after he’s lost his mind, trying to kill his wife, Wendy, or the words he types on the typewriter “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy,” over and over again filling up page and pages, revealing his insanity, or the utterances of Danny as he looks in the mirror and says “Redrum, redrum,” which is murder backwards. That’s a part of pop culture history. Danny has some supernatural abilities, which come into play throughout the story, and there is actually going to be a sequel coming out soon. This book scared me so much that I had to put it down and pick up a bible when I was in high school. This is one of King’s best. It’s not as long as The Stand, only 447 pages, so many people are drawn to that, as well.
It. Maybe it’s the clown, Pennywise, or maybe it’s the vulnerability of the kids, but It is my third favorite book by Stephen King. It’s a very unsettling book, partly because you constantly worry about the kids. They form a group called The Loser’s Club. Each of them has something unique that makes them different, outcasts. Ben is fat, Bill has a stutter (made worse by the death of his brother), Richie is a smart-ass, Stan is Jewish, Bev is the only girl and beaten by her father, and Mike is black. They are a rag-tag gang, but when they make a clubhouse, they discover “It” and a possible cure, in The Ritual of the Chud. The story jumps back and forth between the initial stand they take in 1957 and the “current day” as adults in 1984. I won’t reveal what the beast is, what “It” looks like, but it’s pretty terrifying. There is a very controversial scene towards the end of the book, which I won’t mention here, because it would spoil it for you but it’s somewhere between disturbing and hauntingly touching, so you’ll have to decide for yourself. A must read King book, in my opinion. It’s a long one as well, about 1,100 pages, but worth it, trust me.
These three are what I consider the holy trinity of King’s work. If you’ve never read his writing, I’d consider these to be perfect examples of what he does well—create lifelike characters that we care about, stories that are hypnotic and layered, and epic yarns that leave you satisfied and full. Some people say he is wordy, that his novels could be cut in half, but I couldn’t disagree more. You either like what he does or you don’t, but I wouldn’t edit his books down. Some people mention Salem’s Lot as being one of his best, and I’d say it’s probably my number six pick. The Dark Tower series is also fantastic. He’s also a great short story writer. Really, I can’t think of a book he’s written that is flat out terrible. I loved Needful Things, Misery, Carrie—there are really so many great titles. Here are my final two selections, probably not the most obvious choices.
The Dead Zone. I’m not sure why this book stands out in my memory. Maybe it has to do with the movie, which starred Christopher Walken. Maybe I just really loved rooting for Johnny Smith, a character that acquires the ability to see into the future when he touches your skin. His noble quest to stop a politician from being elected, in order to stop World War Three from happening—it’s such a wild story. I can’t imagine what it would feel like if you were Johnny. Maybe it’s what Lee Harvey Oswald felt, when he assassinated Kennedy—that he was saving the world? The idea of a crooked politician, well that’s nothing new, but the idea of revealing to the world what this man, Greg Stillson, is really like? I find that deeply satisfying. When we see Stillson kick a dog to death as a young man, we are let in on this secret, shown what a bad man he is, but it’s not until the final scenes, when Johnny tries to assassinate Stillson that his true character is revealed. Loved this book.
The Long Walk.This novel may come as a surprise to many. Written at Richard Bachman (a pseudonym that King adopted in the 1970s so he could publish more titles without flooding the market) it’s a slim volume, only 384 pages, but a fascinating mix of Shirley Jackson’s story, “The Lottery” and a modern day Hunger Games. It’s also been revealed that it is actually the first book that King wrote, before Carrie. It’s set in the near future in a dystopian and somewhat despotic and totalitarian version of the United States. There is an annual contest called “The Long Walk” which is a national sport, part lottery, part military draft, with the entire group of teens walking to their deaths, with only the last person standing winning glory and riches. Ray Garraty is our protagonist, and it is through his eyes that we meet the other teens that are in this competition, hear their stories, and one by one watch them die. It’s a powerful book, dark for sure, but one of his best.
King is portrayed as a horror writer, and some of his novels and short stories, are certainly horrific. But he’s so much more than that. His work crosses genres into fantasy, science fiction, suspense, and even into that dry and snobby land known as literary fiction, at times. He has written over 50 novels and 200 short stories. I can’t even begin to list the number of awards he’s gotten. To me, King is one of the best storytellers to ever write. I am unashamed to say that I love his work, and have read every book he has published. He is an inspiration to me, and if you can’t find a title in his massive collection of work that blows you away, well, then you aren’t really trying.
The really cool thing about this is that I agree with Richard on most his choices, though I do think Pet Semetary is King’s scariest book.
When I was just a young buck, I would go to the library and browse through the stacks and stacks of mass-market paperbacks, looking at the pictures on the front covers and reading the descriptions on the back, trying to decide what books I wanted to read. Time and time again I landed on a novel by Dean Koontz. At first, it was because someone else had already checked out all the Stephen King books. Eventually, I discovered Koontz was a true force to be reckoned with, the yang to King’s yen. Similar, yet different in so many ways. It’s easy to lump both King and Koontz into one category by themselves, but you’d be doing yourself a major disservice by doing so. Here are my favorite novels by Dean Koontz.
In the Blue Corner, weighing in at…
Watchers. You can’t go wrong with a golden retriever. Koontz tugs at our heartstrings with his blast of a novel, while tickling that spot in your brain where conspiracy theories breed. If you always thought that the government made an evil alliance with science, this novel will only make you a true believer. You write about what you know, and Koontz found inspiration in his own dog. The story is quite simple, which is exactly why it worked so well. Exploring canyons in California, Travis Cornell is wondering if there’s any reason to go on at all. That’s when he meets a dog fleeing a horrifying creature. He helps the golden retriever escape and soon learns this is no ordinary dog. This dog is part of a scientific experiment, super intelligent, and able to communicate with humans with various means, like using the letters of scrabble game to spell out words. The creature, also an experiment, is hellbent on killing the dog. Top that off with a very human hitman hired to eliminate the creatures and everyone else they come in contact with, and you have makings of an instant classic. Koontz goes way over the top here, but you never notice it. Impeccable pacing, with a little soggy bottom because, it’s Koontz, and everything has to work out in the end, right? Right?
Midnight. Koontz first hardback New York Times number one bestseller, is a massive showoff of what he does best. Take a handful of people and put them into strange situations, force them to figure it all out, all the while running for their lives. Starting off with a vicious attack on a woman jogging at night, three people with no connection at all converge to find out what is happening to the people of Moonlight Cove. The reasons why the people of this normally quiet town are turning into beasts are legion, but the main reason, the real reason, is so over-the-top that if I mention it here, you won’t read the book. It’s that crazy. To take such a crazy idea, the stuff of fantasy, and make it happen in a story with such seriousness, is the work of a genius, or a madman. Maybe both. Koontz, of course, is a professional/genius/madman, and simply grabs you by the neck and makes you believe what is going on. He uses short, tight chapters, with impeccable pacing, steering us exactly where we need to go with the story. Combining Horror and Science-Fiction, this one is a must read for any fan of suspense.
Strangers. This will be brief, for to tell too much about this story will give it all away. A group of seemingly unconnected people are compelled to go to the middle of the desert, unaware that others are suffering from similar circumstances. Strange dreams, brainwashing, suicide, murder. What is happening to these people? Global conspiracy is a cool concept, but if you don’t get down into the level of the people affected by it, the story soon becomes mired down with no sense of direction. The real trick is getting personal with the characters, reading on to discover exactly what they have at stake, which builds suspense and excitement. Koontz shows his mastery of situation, stringing you along, and once you realize your treading over familiar territory, it’s too late, you’re in too deep, you having a blast and just don’t care, and you just can’t stop reading.
Phantoms. I’ve always been fascinated with strange mass vanishings. Ghost-towns, the lost Roanoke Colony. The Mayans. Throughout history, large groups of people have just disappeared off the face of the planet. What happened to these people? Koontz gives us a chilling look at what could have happened to these people. If you haven’t read this book, but have perhaps seen the film, please, please for the love of God, force those memories of the film from your mind and give this book a whirl. Trust me, if you like your Science-Fiction on the gory side, this is a book for you. This was my first Koontz book to ever read, and it blew me away. At the time, I was convinced Stephen King was the Master of Horror. But after reading this book, I saw that there was another who could wear the crown, and his name was Dean Kootnz.
Whispers. The second Koontz book I read happens to be my favorite. Like Phantoms, if you’ve seen this film, please strike it from your memory and find this book. Published one year before Red Dragon by Thomas Harris, Koontz takes us into the mind of a twisted killer. Bruno Frye believes certain woman are possessed by the spirit of his mother. Horribly abused as a young child, he still fears his mother long after she died. Frye must kill these women to keep his mother away from him. After he attacks a young woman he recently met, who pulls a gun on him, Frye escapes. The police don’t believe her because Frye has an alibi. When the police call his house hundreds of miles away, Frye answers the phone, proving he couldn’t have been anywhere near the woman. He attacks her again, this time receiving some severe stab wounds from the woman. Police find Frye’s body, but the case is far from over. Frye returns from the grave to attack and kill again. If you’re thinking there’s a twist to this story, you’re right, and it’s awesome. Definitely not something you’d find from the mind of Stephen King, though it seems as though he should have thought of this one for sure. Once you find out what the whispers really are, your skin will crawl.
Blow and counterblow. Punch and jab. These two bestselling writers have been hitting away at each other for years, occupying that same prestigious letter K spot in the stacks at the bookstore, and neither have been able to bring the other down. Why? Even though at first glance it’s easy to lump both authors into the same category, you really can’t do that and be fair about it. King is the master of creating characters we can all relate too, while Koontz places his story people in strange and interesting situations; two very different aspects of building suspense, both very effective.
After fifteen rounds, the judges score this bout…
Can you really tally up the points here?
The winner, and the remaining Heavyweight Champion of The World is…
You didn’t really think we’d be crazy enough to pit these two masters together and have a victor other than the readers. More than likely, these two guys have been unconsciously trying to out do one another for so long it’s not even a contest anymore. So who really wins? Us, of course. Now quit trying to figure who’s better and get to reading.