• The Long Walk

    The Vitals

    • Published: 1979
    • Edition Read: Plume paperback omnibus, 1985
    • Pages: 384
    • Rating (out of 5): 3.5

    The Context

    Like most writers, King began writing stories long before he was published. Though some of the early chronology is hard to suss out, it seems that The Long Walk was one of the first books that King started writing, likely as a freshman at the University of Maine in the mid-1960s.

    The inspiration for the simple story was the mid-1960s fad of organized 50-mile walks. That’s right — ultra-long walks used to be a fairly popular pastime. John F. Kennedy himself brought the idea to the forefront of American culture after he observed some post-WWII softness setting in among ordinary citizens. Some of these walks would even be broadcast on radio and television programs.

    King took that little nugget and, as he’s so good at, turned it into a dystopian contest of life and death.

    The Story

    One hundred teenaged boys are participating in the annual Long Walk. We’re in a dystopian future, which, naturally, means that there’s only one winner — the boy who remains alive at the end.

    The Long Walk is broadcast on TV and citizens in local towns lines the streets as the boys walk by. Ray Garraty is our primary protagonist, and though we meet a number of other boys along the way, most of them, inevitably, end up cut down by the Squads.

    The reader doesn’t get much background info — we don’t know the genesis of the Long Walk, we don’t know why we’re in a dystopia, we don’t know much about any of the boys’ backgrounds; it’s just 100 teenagers walking as far as they can . . . until they can’t walk anymore and they’re eliminated.

    That’s the rules: if you fall below a 4 mph pace, you’re given three warnings and then the Squads pull out their rifles.

    It’s brutal. And it’s so simple. There’s no fluff at all — it’s as lean as a Stephen King book gets.

    Because of that, though, I actually had a hard time connecting with any of the characters. There was no warmth, no real friendship or camaraderie (because they’re all competing against each other, after all), no reason to root for any of the boys.

    Perhaps oddly, I also found the dialogue to be more grown-up than what was realistic for a bunch of teen boys. It was more mature than I’d expect . . . it’s possible that this is actually a product of King initially writing this story at such a young age. Maybe, just maybe, he wrote teens having adult-like conversations because he wanted his writing to appear older and more mature than it really was.

    What Is It Really About?

    This is the big question that I like to ask after every book I read. What is this story really about? What’s the defining theme? For every Stephen King book, this is the section where I’ll get into the one or two themes that stood out the most. It’s not exhaustive, but very much about how I personally encountered the story.

    Given the nature of our social media-saturated culture, I was almost more interested in the spectators than the walkers. People will accept just about anything when it’s framed as entertainment. I mean, that’s the premise of reality television as a whole, is it not?

    It’s not a bad thing, necessarily, but it does create an environment where we’ll accept the absurd and call it fun, even when it turns toxic, inhuman, and downright cruel.

    Be mindful of what you consume as entertainment — particularly when it’s under the guise of “news.”


    The Long Walk is often treated as an underrated favorite among King uber-fans, but I don’t quite agree. It’s meant to be spare, but I think that philosophy went just a bit too far in this particular story. I had a hard time connecting with the characters and found myself just wanting the narrative to reach its conclusion, despite the fact that it’s one of King’s shorter novels. Three out of five stars.

  • The Stand

    first edition cover of Stephen King's "The Stand"

    The Vitals

    • Published: 1978
    • Edition Read: 2012, Anchor paperback
    • Pages: 1,153
    • Rating (out of 5): 5

    The Context

    The writing and publishing history of The Stand is nearly as epic as the famous story itself. There are a couple threads of King’s thinking that came together to form the heart of the story.

    The real genesis was King’s desire to write an epic story in the tradition of Lord of the Rings, but set in modern America. He’d been trying for years, over a decade, in fact, and just hadn’t landed on the right bones—the mechanism to center the story and characters around.

    He found that mechanism in the story the 1968 “Dugway sheep incident” in Utah. The Dugway Proving Ground is a military installation that specializes in the testing and study of biological and chemical weapons. Seems like a real happy pappy place, eh? In 1968, one particular accident—it wasn’t the first nor the last—led to the deaths of over 6,000 sheep in the area. Not only were local farmers royally pissed, but the general public started asking serious questions about what was going on at Dugway. (Of course, answers, if they can be called that, are still few and very far between.)

    King saw images of the sheep on the TV and knew he had it. A government-created plague would escape containment, kill off 99% of the population, and set up a showdown between the forces of good and the forces of evil.

    So Stephen King did what he does best: he wrote, and wrote, and wrote . . . over 1,000 pages worth of story.

    When he presented that story, called The Stand, to his publisher, there was just one problem: it was too long. One version of the story says that the printing machines could only handle an 800-page manuscript; another version says that it was more of pricing problem and that readers wouldn’t pay the high price necessitated by a 1,200-page book.

    Either way, the original version of The Stand, published in 1978, was about 800 pages. King himself bitterly cut those 400 pages rather than handing the task to an editorial team.

    In 1990, King was given the chance to publish the entire, unedited manuscript, with a preface and a handful of black and white illustrations added in, to boot. Today, any copy you’ll find in a bookstore has those 150,000 originally excised words reinstated. (Unless, perhaps, you’re at a used and rare books emporium.)

    Even 30+ years later, it remains among his best-selling books and is always listed as a fan favorite.

    King himself had this to say about the legacy of The Stand:

    “Although it has never been my favorite novel, it is the one people who like my books seem to like the most.”

    from King’s preface to The Stand

    The Story

    The Stand is a classic story of good versus evil on the most epic terms, using a pandemic as the foundation for that story. A government-created super flu, nicknamed Captain Trips, has accidentally escaped the lab. It spreads incredibly quickly and easily, eventually killing over 99% of the population. The reader follows its spread from East Texas, to Arkansas, to New York, and Maine, meeting our handful of main characters along the way.

    Book One, about 400 pages long, is about the apocalypse itself. From ground zero to millions dead. How do people respond? How does the government respond? What about the media? How does the collapse of society actually happen? This chunk of text is among the most readable and powerful of all of King’s writing. The chapters are short—quickly zooming in and out on characters as they experience the pandemic—and though the cast is large, it’s not overwhelming.

    Book Two is 500+ pages and takes a radically different approach, diving deeply into the characters and their backstories with long, ~50-page chapters. The characters are trying to figure out how to live in this new world. Eventually, groups of them meet up and start having dreams . . . about the old woman in Nebraska and about the Dark Man.

    Ultimately, two main groups coalesce, one in Boulder and one in Las Vegas. (Can you guess which side is the bad one? Ha!) And this is where the genre moves from post-apocalyptic fiction to being more in the realm of fantasy and religious fiction. King himself calls The Stand “a long tale of dark Christianity.”

    Here, in the middle of the book, is where it feels a little bloated. The chapters get a little long and King includes just a few too many details.

    The final ~200 pages comprise Book Three and the conclusion of the story. I binged the finale and had a hard time putting it down. King’s endings always inspire a lot of debate, but I tend to enjoy them, including this one.

    For being one of the longest books you’ll ever come across, The Stand is incredibly readable and very rarely boring. The characters are easy to root for, the story is gripping (especially in the midst of a pandemic!) and surprisingly believable, and the world-building is nearly incomparable.

    All around, The Stand is not only a great book, but a dynamic, memorable reading experience too. It’ll stay with you for a looong time coming.

    What Is It Really About?

    This is the big question that I like to ask after every book I read. What is this story really about? What’s the defining theme? For every Stephen King book, this is the section where I’ll get into the one or two themes that stood out the most. It’s not exhaustive, but very much about how I personally encountered the story.

    Few themes are as easy to decipher as the ultimate choice of good vs. evil found in The Stand. Though we can see critiques of modernism and military bureaucracy, this book is really about the choices we make when the going gets really tough. Will we choose love and sacrifice? Or power and punishment? Will we lean into community or lean into chaos?

    You have a choice. In every scenario and every decision, you can choose the good path—love, community, sacrifice. The end result will always be worth it.


    The Stand is not perfect, that’s for sure. The middle is a little bloated and the final showdown a bit abrupt, and yet I loved nearly every page of this book. That’s rare. 5 stars for me and certainly among King’s top five.

  • Night Shift

    Pretty good cover! Better than most follow-up editions.

    The Vitals

    • Published: 1978
    • Edition Read: Anchor paperback, 2011
    • Pages: 505
    • Rating (out of 5): 4.5

    The Context

    Night Shift is Stephen King’s first published collection of stories. There are 20 short tales within, ranging from ~10-40 pages. Most of them were first published in smutty magazines like Cavalier, Penthouse, and Gallery. The content of the smut magazine stories is definitely a bit more grotesque—less literary and more base. There’s body horror, murder, and a handful of stories about inanimate objects coming to life. This is pretty in line with the kind of fiction that would land in those magazines in the ’70s.

    Other stories from the collection landed in lesser-known but decidedly more reputable outlets like Maine and Ubris (the U of Maine’s literary journal). The stories found in these magazines are, without a doubt, more literary in nature. There’s clearly more care given to the writing and the stories are less graphic; they may even qualify purely as drama rather than horror or thriller.

    And four of the stories, all of which are among the best in the collection, were previously unpublished, meaning they were written specifically for Night Shift.

    To me, what’s most interesting about this collection are the few tales that offer context and backstory for other King novels and mythology.

    • The story that opens the collection, “Jerusalem’s Lot,” is a Lovecraftian precursor to ‘Salem’s Lot. (And a very good one, at that.)
    • My favorite story in Night Shift, “One for the Road,” is a ‘Salem’s Lot sequel—giving us a brief and powerful scene of what the town is like after the events of that vampiric novel.
    • “Night Surf” is an origin story for The Stand; though I didn’t much care for the story, I enjoyed the obvious work that King was doing to build out his most epic book.

    It’s also worth mentioning the most well-known story in Night Shift: “Children of the Corn.” The story itself is very good—the horror is of a kind that’s more of a slow build at the edges of the story rather than being graphically explained. It’s famous, though, because of the film franchise, which deviates quite a lot from the core of the source material. The idea (a bunch of demon-worshiping, murderous children) is equally brilliant and terrifying enough to build out an entire series of films and TV shows—which all came from one 40-page story.

    The Stories

    There are a few themes in Night Shift that are repeated in multiple stories:

    • Technology/inanimate objects becoming sentient
      • “The Mangler”
      • “Battleground”
      • “Trucks”
      • “The Lawnmower Man” (sort of)
    • Serial-killing men
      • “Strawberry Spring”
      • “I Know What You Need”
      • “The Man Who Loved Flowers”
    • Religion/bodily possession
      • “Jerusalem’s Lot”
      • “I Am the Doorway”
      • “The Mangler”
      • “Gray Matter”
      • “Sometimes They Come Back”
      • “The Lawnmower Man”
      • “Children of the Corn”

    What’s most impressive about this collection is simply King’s range. He can go from gross-out horror (“Gray Matter,” “The Lawnmower Man”) to noir-like suspense (“The Ledge,” “Quitters, Inc,” “Battleground”) to literary drama and thriller (“One for the Road,” “The Last Rung on the Ladder,” “The Woman in the Room”)—and do them all really well.

    To float between genres like that is proof of King’s astounding writing talents—you wouldn’t realize that some of these stories are the same author without them being housed between the same front and back cover.

    You can tell that he’s experimenting with form and subject matter here, and as noted above, doing some world-building for other stories too.

    Since there are so many stories here, I’ll zoom in on my two favorites, both of which take place in the world of ‘Salem’s Lot:

    “Jerusalem’s Lot”

    This story is a bit of an origin tale about how evil found its way to the town of Jerusalem’s Lot. It takes an epistolary form (which I can’t resist) and has sort of an old-timey language about it that really transports you back to the mid-1800s. It builds and builds through the main character’s discovery of an ancient evil—then culminates in an unforgettable final sequence that is even more Lovecraftian than HP Lovecraft himself. Loved all of its 40+ pages.

    “One for the Road”

    This one is my favorite story in the book and clocks in at about 20 pages. It centers on a traveler whose car has been stranded on a snowy country road in the middle of a blizzard. This traveler makes it to a diner to recruit some locals for help—you see, the wife and daughter are still in the car. And there are vampires afoot.

    As in ‘Salem’s Lot, the beauty of this story is in the environment and atmosphere that King creates. He can write winter storms like nobody on the planet and he keeps the horror (mostly) at the edges. It’s a vampire story wrapped up into an epic blizzard and it’s just so so good.

    What Is It Really About?

    This is the big question that I like to ask after every book I read. What is this story really about? What’s the defining theme? For every Stephen King book, this is the section where I’ll get into the one or two themes that stood out the most. It’s not exhaustive, but very much about how I personally encountered the story.

    For me, the thread behind a lot of these stories is that word found in the title: “Shift.” Every story makes it clear that life can and does shift on a dime — it changes, it twists, it turns. And many times, it’s in ways we least expect.

    The pandemic was a shift for everyone; new jobs and new babies are shifts; a run of bad luck in love or at work is a shift.

    The first thing: Accept the reality of whatever the shift is, whether a global pandemic or a cow-sized, murderous rat (that one is from “Graveyard Shift”). Even if it seems unreal, reality is reality, regardless of how crazy it seems.

    The second thing: The best-written and most impactful stories in Night Shift are those that detail the importance of the people in our lives. When things shift, we realize what matters most: people. Even if they can’t fix or resolve whatever horror (or plain old challenge) is upon us, they can ease the discomfort and help us feel less alone.


    This is a superb collection of stories which fully shows off King’s range as a writer who can cross genres (and sub-genres of horror, which is harder to do than it might seem) with ease. Night Shift gives you a flavor of all that King can offer, from the grotesque, to the thrilling, to the downright beautiful. An easy 4.5/5 for me.

    Coming up next week, I’ll rank every one of the 20 stories in Night Shift.

  • Rage

    Charlie Decker. What a smug little SOB.

    The Vitals

    • Published: 1977
    • Edition Read: Plume paperback, 1985
    • Pages: 130
    • Rating (out of 5): 2

    The Context

    There are two really interesting contextual pieces to cover when it comes to Rage.

    First: the appearance of Richard Bachman as King’s pseudonym. Why did he write a handful of novels under a different name?

    Second: Rage is the only one of King’s books to now be out of print, not due to a lack of commercial success, but due to the author’s own insistence that the title be pulled from shelves. What’s the deal there?

    Let’s quickly take a look at both.

    First, the pseudonym.

    Stephen King has always been a prolific author, cranking out a book or more nearly every year. Early in his career, while still getting his footing as a full-time author, King’s publisher was hesitant to crank out more than one novel a year from the scare-master, at the risk of the book being seen as an opportunity for a quick buck rather than a fully-formed story.

    King was also intensely interested in the idea of talent vs. luck—now that he had a recognizable name, would all of his books become bestsellers, regardless of quality? What would happen if he published a book under a different name? Would it be successful or would it flop?

    “Richard Bachman” — this person is actually Richard Manuel, an insurance agent in King’s circle.

    So Richard Bachman was born, complete with a made-up biography and author photo.

    There would be five Bachman books published before King was eventually “discovered” in 1985 by bookstore employee Steve Brown, who noticed enough similarities between the “two” authors to write a letter to King’s publisher. King phoned up Brown, confessed to being Bachman, and subsequently let the world in on his secret. There would be a couple more Bachman books published (more on why when we get to those books), and the name would even remain on book covers in new printings, but King ultimately declared Bachman suddenly dead, with “cancer of the pseudonym” noted as the cause of death.

    King’s question of talent vs. luck was never fully answered. The Bachman books did still manage to sell tens of thousands of copies with little-to-no marketing efforts, but they didn’t blow up the bestseller list like the books published as Stephen King. As with everything in life, the reality is that there’s a mix of talent and luck that’s impossible to fully disentangle and analyze.

    Now let’s talk a little bit about Rage.

    To cut to the chase: Rage is the story of a school shooter who takes a classroom hostage. King started writing it while he was just a teenager in the late ’60s, trying to work out his storytelling chops.

    Rage was, in fact, one of the handful of novels that King wrote prior to Carrie (which, you’ll remember, was his first published book). Given its amateurish, teenage feel, I’m surprised that King let it be published at all, which is perhaps why he chose this as his first Bachman title.

    Though school shootings are sadly unsurprising these days, back in the ’60s and ’70s, that kinda thing didn’t really happen. Today, the subject matter is among the few topics that are almost too sensitive to write about; 50 years ago, it didn’t quite have the same shock value. So from the outset, it’s a book that sits differently today than when it was originally published.

    In the late 80s, though, once it was known that Bachman was actually King, this 1977 book started getting a lot more attention, particularly from a certain subset of angry young men.

    Between 1988 and 1997, there were five incidents of school violence in which the perpetrators were known to have a copy of Rage (often in their locker or backpack) or been influenced by it. It obviously wasn’t the book itself that pushed these criminals over the edge, but it didn’t help. After the ’97 incident, in which three students were killed at a prayer meeting, King decided he would no longer allow the book to be sold or printed.

    Today, Rage is hard to come by, especially as a standalone book (it’ll run ya three figures). You can get Bachman compendiums on Amazon, but most of those are new copies that don’t include Rage. Your best bet, if you’re looking for a copy, is to head to eBay and make sure you get a pre-1997 copy of The Bachman Books, which collects four of King’s novels in one volume.

    The Story

    Rage is the first of Stephen King’s psychological thrillers. There’s nothing supernatural or dystopian found within these pages; he’s taking a stab at scary realism.

    There’s hardly any scene-setting here—we start with Charlie Decker (the psychopath) sitting in the principal’s office, discussing what needs to be done for him to get “back on track.” There’s been some troubling behavioral patterns, to say the least.

    What the principal unfortunately doesn’t know is that Charlie has a pistol on him, and today is the day he decides to “get it on.” (A truly terrible phrase that King uses over and over in the story.)

    Charlie finds a way out of that scenario and makes his way to his algebra classroom, which is where the rest of the story’s action takes place, with hardly any deviation in setting.

    The major problem is that here in 2022 we know how school shootings play out. And it is NOT how things happen in Rage. The reaction of the students in that classroom is laughably unrealistic and shockingly sexist.

    As one Goodreads reviewer aptly put it: “In this Bachman book, Holden Caulfield takes the Breakfast Club hostage with a pistol.”

    Another problem, this one with the writing itself, is that teenage King just hadn’t yet figured out that writing commandment of “Show, Don’t Tell.” The narrator does a lot of telling through memories and flashbacks delivered in monologue form (unrealistic monologue, at that). It just doesn’t work on a basic storytelling level.

    There are some flashes of great writing and the outlines of the story are totally workable, but the framing and execution just aren’t there.

    What Is It Really About?

    This is the big question that I like to ask after every book I read. What is this story really about? What’s the defining theme? For every Stephen King book, this is the section where I’ll get into the one or two themes that stood out the most. It’s not exhaustive, but very much about how I personally encountered the story.

    What I think King is trying to get at in Rage is that even psychopaths have a backstory and a reason for their actions. Regardless of how messed up those reasons are, there’s not a murderous criminal out there who went from fully emotionally stable to psychotic overnight.

    Rage, hopefully, is less about making an excuse for someone’s actions than about simply seeking to understand the why, if for no other reason than providing some sense of closure for the victims rather than making them live in a fog of random senselessness forever.

    There’s always good reason to find the backstory, not to displace any amount of guilt, but simply because understanding the full story—in any life scenario—is the better way to approach the world.


    Of what I’ve read so far, Rage is easily the most poorly written of King’s novels. It makes sense, given that King wrote it in his late teens and early twenties; again, I just don’t quite understand why he let it go to print in the first place, especially when he had a few great novels already published at that point. Final rating is a 2/5. I can’t recommend it to anyone other than a Stephen King fanatic and completist.

  • The Shining

    the shining book cover - first edition - stephen king
    How frickin weird and creepy is this first edition cover?

    The Vitals

    The Context

    After two blockbuster novels to kickstart his writing career, Stephen King wanted a vacation. Besides that, he needed a new place setting, too—those first two stories were set in small town Maine, so he set off to Colorado. Boulder, specifically, which is right on the edge of the mountains, about 45 minutes northwest of Denver proper.

    While he and Tabitha lived in the state for about a year, they visited The Stanley Hotel in Estes Park, about 45 minutes up into the mountains from Boulder, perched on the edge of Rocky Mountain National Park.

    I’ve spent a lot of time in Estes Park, so The Stanley is a familiar place. It’s a huge, white hotel that sits on a hill which overlooks the entire town. (In the novel, The Overlook is the name of the hotel.) It’s picture perfect on the outside and rather dated on the inside—though the whisky bar is among the finest in the entire region.

    When Stephen and Tabitha spent a night there, it was towards the end of the season, when it used to close for the harsh winter (it’s open year-round these days). They were the only diners in the restaurant and it seemed that the entire hotel was just empty. Stephen would peek into the hallways in the dead of night and feel an intense, haunted emptiness.

    From there, it’s easy to see how The Shining was born.

    Beyond that, Stephen was a dad to three young kids, as well as an addict—writing the story of Jack and Danny Torrance was a way for King to get all those conflicting, demon-chased emotions out of him, almost as a confessional.

    The story took just four months to write and was published in 1977.

    Because of the famed 1980 movie adaptation, The Shining is among King’s most culturally influential books and has remained one of his bestselling titles.

    The Story

    The Shining starts with a job interview. Jack Torrance, husband and father, is trying to get a job as the winter caretaker for the historic Overlook Hotel—an isolated outpost high in the Colorado mountains. (The real life Stanley Hotel, on the other hand, isn’t isolated hardly at all.)

    Jack gets the gig, which means him, Wendy, and precocious five-year-old Danny get the spend the long winter months all alone in this big ol’ building.

    The sense of creepy atmosphere that King builds in the early chapters is incredible—as a reader, you feel isolated as everyone leaves for the season (including Hallorann, one of the great supporting characters in King’s catalogue), you feel chilled to the bone as winter sets in, you feel terrified as it becomes more and more obvious that Jack is losing his mind.

    Then there’s Danny. He’s only five, but he’s sure intelligent and observant. (Some critics complain he’s too intelligent; I don’t think it’s out of line.) You see, Danny has the shine. The is what King calls the boy’s psychic abilities—he knows what other people are thinking and he can see bits and pieces of the future.

    Danny explores the hotel and, as we all know by now because of cultural osmosis, finds some unsavory spirits around the place. As Jack loses his grip on reality, Danny’s visions become strong and stronger . . . he and his mom are in serious danger unless they can get word to someone who can help.

    The Shining combines the horror niches of the isolated haunted house, someone driven crazy by cabin fever, and a young boy with a combination of psychic abilities (he can see ghosts, read minds, see the future, etc.). It seems like it’d be a lot to roll together, but King does it incredibly effectively.

    Really, though, the book is about the characters. Rather than the driving plot of Carrie or the large cast found in ‘Salem’s Lot, King narrows in on just a few primary characters and studies them to the core. What fears do Jack, Wendy, and Danny have? How has addiction changed Jack’s relationship with his wife and kid? What does isolation do to us? What happens when our inner angel and our inner demon collide . . . and what happens when the demon wins?

    What Is It Really About?

    This is the big question that I like to ask after every book I read. What is this story really about? What’s the defining theme? For every Stephen King book, this is the section where I’ll get into the one or two themes that stood out the most. It’s not exhaustive, but very much about how I personally encountered the story.

    At its core, this is a story of a man going to war with his inner demons—those voices in his head telling him things about who he is, what’s he done, and how he’s seen by the people around him.

    The voices in our own heads are strong, no doubt, but they also lie. We don’t need to listen to those voices. Other people are not out to get us, we’re not weak in the face of hardship, and we are not governed by the voices that tell us anything otherwise—whether those voices are coming from our head, from the internet, or even from the people around us.


    Though there were a few short chunks that didn’t quite land for me, the beginning and end of The Shining were total knockout punches of suspense, atmosphere, and character study. Jack is one of King’s great villains and the Overlook Hotel is one of the great haunted houses in American literature. It’s also certainly the scariest of what I’ve read so far. For cultural awareness alone, The Shining is a must-read, but also because it’s just a damn good book.

  • ‘Salem’s Lot

    first edition cover of ‘Salem’s Lot

    The Vitals

    The Context

    Back when Stephen King was teaching high school in Maine, he would use Dracula as a primary text in his fantasy and sci-fi class. It’s a classic of the genre and introduced the vampire to a broad range of readers in a way that had never been done before.

    King loved the novel and wondered aloud what would happen if Dracula were dropped into a modern day metropolis. Tabitha King, ever the keen observer, said, “He’d probably be run over by a Yellow Cab on Park Avenue and killed.” True enough. “But if he were to show up in a sleepy little country town, what then? I decided I wanted to find out.”

    And ‘Salem’s Lot was born.

    The title that King originally worked with was Second Coming. Tabitha thought it sounded like basement smut (she’s a smart woman, isn’t she?), so Stephen changed it to Jerusalem’s Lot—the name of the town the story takes place in. The publisher decided that iteration was too religious, hence it was shortened to ‘Salem’s Lot, with the apostrophe in front—a small detail most readers don’t notice.

    I, for one, think it works much better than either of the other two working titles. The use of “Salem” immediately conjures an occult vision of a spooky New England story.

    At the time, ‘Salem’s Lot was well-reviewed for being a fresh take on the vampire genre. Dracula was still very much a part of the cultural imagination, as was Richard Matheson’s 1954 I Am Legend, which reads as more of a noir/hardboiled look at the subject. The genre was ripe for new exploration, which King was happy to do.

    How does it read today, though? Let’s find out.

    The Story

    “If a fear cannot be articulated, it can’t be conquered.”

    Ben Mears is a pretty successful author, by most accounts. He’s not a household name, but literary types are aware of his novels. Though he’s been out of the Lot for a long time, he’s come back in order to do firsthand research for his new story.

    (‘Salem’s Lot is the first time that King introduces us to a writer protagonist. It’s a semi-autobiographical tactic that will be utilized numerous times throughout his work.)

    He quickly strikes up a romance with Susan Norton and rekindles a friendship with high school teach Matt Burke, all while trying to figure out what’s going on with the Marsten House.

    It’s a big house up on a hill that overlooks the Lot. The townspeople won’t say it’s haunted, at least not out loud, but Mears believes it is. You see, the house has been empty for a looong time and Old Man Marsten left a grisly legacy.

    Recently, though, a couple of out-of-towners, Barlow and Straker, have bought the place, as well as a downtown storefront for them to sell their high-end antiques out of.

    Meanwhile, a kid has disappeared, which leads to a cascade of problems for the Glick family.

    The timing is a bit fishy, ya know?

    From there, night by night, the town slowly unravels as a mysterious plague descends upon the citizens of Jerusalem’s Lot.

    The cast of characters that King builds up in ‘Salem’s Lot is impressive, to say the least. Father Callahan, 12-year-old Mark Petrie, Dr. Jimmy Cody—I haven’t mentioned these names yet, but they’re just as memorable as any secondary character you’ve come across.

    This is the book which really highlighted King’s ability to world-build. The story is as much about the town itself as it is the vampires. When King moves around the town in the narrative, it’s incredibly easy to place yourself there and visualize exactly where you’re at and what you’re seeing. The sense of place is as well-done as I’ve ever encountered.

    For me, though, the heart of the story is just a little too trope-y. I wish the vampires weren’t tied so closely to the original vampire mythology and that King had ventured a little more into speculative, modernized territory.

    That said, this is a book that has gotten better in my short memory of it (I finished it about four weeks ago). The atmosphere has stuck with me more than the lame-at-times plot line.

    What Is It Really About?

    This is the big question that I like to ask after every book I read. What is this story really about? What’s the defining theme? For every Stephen King book, this is the section where I’ll get into the one or two themes that stood out the most. It’s not exhaustive, but very much about how I personally encountered the story.

    There’s no doubt that one of the primary themes of ‘Salem’s Lot is the plight of American’s dying small towns (literally, in the case of the Lot). Almost 50 years ago, King was writing an ode to the rural communities that were being overtaken by “outsiders.” Turns out that idea was probably more evergreen than he anticipated.

    For me, though, the most salient idea was that seeing is not always believing. Reality is not always easy to realize. Each night, more and more townspeople become victims. But there’s so much disbelief among the remaining healthy people that there’s just not much action taken. “Vampires can’t be real. They just can’t.” Despite all the clear evidence, they couldn’t make themselves accept something that went so wildly against the grain of their previous beliefs about the world.

    Whether in the realm of politics, faith, work, or elsewhere, seeing and accepting and believing reality, the facts that are staring you in the face, can sometimes be hard work—and even a stretch of the imagination.


    Though I give it a 3.5, ‘Salem’s Lot is closer to a 4 than a 3. King shows off his remarkable world-building talents and his penchant for creating a spooky atmosphere. Though the characters were incredibly memorable, a few of them fell flat and the storyline wasn’t my favorite of the King novels, hence the 3.5.

  • Carrie

    carrie first edition book cover
    first edition cover of Carrie

    The Vitals

    • Published: 1974
    • Edition Read: Anchor paperback, 2011
    • Pages: 285
    • Rating (out of 5): 4.5
    • BUY THE BOOK from Bookshop.org

    The Context

    Though Carrie was not the first novel that Stephen King wrote, it was the first to be picked up by a publisher. Up to that point, King had mostly dabbled in stories and a few short novels which didn’t go anywhere (and later ended up being published under King’s pseudonym, Richard Bachman). One critical reader said that he didn’t know how to write women, which King took as a personal challenge. He wrote up a few pages of Carrie, which was originally just going to be a story, and tossed it in the trash, believing it to be literal garbage.

    Luckily for us future generations, King’s wife, Tabitha, fished it out, read it over, and told him to keep at it. It was a bit rudimentary, but she offered to help with the feminine perspective. King finished the story and sent it off to a publisher.

    The rest makes for one of the all-time great author origin stories.

    The Kings were living in a mobile home at the time; Stephen was a meagerly-paid high school teacher and Tabitha worked the counter at a doughnut shop. To make ends meet, they actually had phone service removed, which means King received the good news about Carrie via a telegram(!), which read:

    “Carrie Officially A Doubleday Book. $2,500 Advance Against Royalties. Congrats, Kid – The Future Lies Ahead.”

    The money was good, but not life-changing. King kept on teaching, hoping that the paperback rights would also be sold, for which he’d get a 50% cut. After about 6 weeks, King got a phone call—they restored service after the initial advance was cashed—that the paperback did indeed sell.

    “For how much?” Stephen asked.


    “Sorry, did you say $4,000?” King responded, in utter disbelief.

    “No Stephen, $400,000.”

    The now-famous author, known for his prodigious output and high word counts, was speechless.

    That was life-changing money.

    He quit his job, took up writing full-time, and the rest is history.

    Carrie sold over a million copies in its first year.

    The Story

    Carrie starts with one of the most memorable scenes you’ll ever read: a teenage girl, Carrie White, gets her first period in the school shower and thinks she’s dying. Her mother, a religious fanatic, has never informed her about the mechanics of the female body. Carrie is cruelly harassed by the other girls in the shower that day—an impulsive teenage reaction which they’ll come to regret soon enough.

    (That last sentence is a nod to King himself. Throughout his novels he’ll throw in tidbits of foreshadowing like that—just a sentence or even a few words tacked onto the end of a paragraph or chapter that quickly ratchets up the tension. It’s an incredible technique that King nails, repeatedly, in his work.)

    Those other girls are rightfully reprimanded, but of course that’s not the end of it. One of them, Chris, vows to make Carrie’s life even more of a living hell. Another, Sue, tries earnestly to make amends by getting Carrie a prom date.

    Those are two of the threads, which will converge in the final quarter of the novel. The third narrative arc is Carrie’s relationship with her domineering, psychotic mother, Margaret White. She’s as chilling as any character King has created, and foreshadows a bit of what the famous Annie Wilkes (found in Misery) will come to be. Margaret is cruel, abusive, and wants to ensure that Carrie has nothing to do with any of those rotten kids at school.

    Like every teenager responding to an overbearing parent, Carrie rebels. She agrees to go to the prom and even experiences a brief moment of happiness before it all goes wrong.

    The final chapters of the novel find Carrie White, now realizing the full extent of her telekinetic powers, on an all-out revenge tour which will change the small town of Chamberlain, Maine forever.

    I especially enjoyed the semi-epistolary structure of Carrie, meaning the story is told alternatively between narrative prose and also fictional court documents, newspaper clippings, scientific journal articles, etc. From the very start, the reader knows that something terrible has happened—it just takes the entire book to fill in all the details. For a debut novel, it’s an especially risky format which paid off incredibly well.

    What Is It Really About?

    This is the big question that I like to ask after every book I read. What is this story really about? What’s the defining theme? For every Stephen King book, this is the section where I’ll get into the one or two themes that stood out the most. It’s not exhaustive, but very much about how I personally encountered the story.

    King readily admits that the majority of his books hit on the same handful of themes, so it makes sense that Carrie introduces a number of ideas that are found in his subsequent books. Here are a couple:

    One, Carrie is about the unleashing of your powers as you grow up, whatever those may be, and even when those powers aren’t socially acceptable. There’s an undeniable nod to the unique feminine forces which were being brought into the open in the early ‘70s when this was written and published.

    But it speaks more broadly than that, too: King is a prolific author of horror and pulpy fiction, which is a segment of books that’s usually looked down upon in the literary world. But he doesn’t care—he leans in to his unique powers and cranks out bestseller after bestseller after bestseller.

    Two, it’s about how villains are often created through outside forces beyond their control. Throughout many of his books, King tries to understand the mindset and origin story of evil itself, whichever form it happens to take. Though the cruelty and violence is never forgiven, it’s always deeply explored. Carrie is (at least partially) a product of not only her callous upbringing but also the hateful and impulsive actions of her classmates. There’s a sub-lesson in there that the mistakes we make in our youth feel less serious, but can have far-reaching consequences in the emotional and inner life of the people around us.


    It’s obvious that Carrie is Stephen King’s first novel—it’s not as tight or polished as later books—but all of King’s hallmarks are there. It’s hard to imagine a better debut and even ~50 years later it still holds up as a gripping, unputdownable story.