COVID-19 has disrupted our lives with concerns of getting sick and the limitations of quarantining. Since a lot of us have more time on our hands, we can dive into the books we’ve wanted to read but kept putting off. Those factors make now a good time to get some cathartic release through reading a few of Stephen King’s absorbing novels.
In 1978, Stephen King wrote what would be his longest novel – an impressive feat considering the girth of his books – in The Stand. It begins when an apocalyptic influenza spreads throughout the world killing most of the population. In the US, the survivors begin to feel a spiritual call toward two locations – a messianic old woman named Mother Abigail in Nebraska and an antichrist figure named Randall Flagg in Las Vegas. For obvious reasons, the two factions do not trust each other with plans of interaction ranging from spying to annihilation.
The Stand is a hefty book with a large cast of characters spread out from the Northeast to the Southwest. The super flu, dubbed Captain Trips, is a gnarly illness that can make the squeamish cringe. What makes this book so interesting is how people react to the new version of the world. Some crave connection and want to reestablish society with committees and its other trappings. Others see it as the opportunity to cut loose and enjoy any and all activities that come to mind. The flu may start this book but it’s the sociological elements that drive it forward.
The title says it all for this 1987 psychological thriller. As an opposite to The Stand, the cast of characters in Misery is limited to just two. Novelist Paul Sheldon, who writes sweeping romance novels starring a woman named Misery, is traveling through a remote section of Colorado when he crashes his car into a snowbank. Paul is saved by Annie Wilkes, a former nurse who is coincidentally a superfan of his books. Rather than take him to the hospital, Annie tucks Paul into a bed at her home – where she manages to keep him immobile and demands that he write a new Misery book for her.
Anyone frustrated with quarantining can find some perspective in reading this book, because the way Annie keeps Paul in her house is not so appealing. Fueled by dual desperation, Paul tries to be crafty enough to stay alive and Annie, who doesn’t seem to understand that using sharp objects to control her favorite author is wrong, wants to be appreciated and transported to a literary fantasy world. If Paul needed inspiration to overcome writer’s block, he certainly finds it.
King’s third book is one of his most celebrated masterpieces. Published in 1977, The Shining is a story of isolation and manipulation with a little help from psychic abilities. Jack Torrance, a recovering alcoholic, takes the job as winter caretaker of a hotel nestled in the Rockies. Jack, his wife Wendy, and their clairvoyant son Danny are all set to live at the hotel, cutoff from the outside world, while its closed for the season. Soon the hotel’s malicious energies begin to possess Jack, turning him from a flawed husband and father to a bona fide psychopath.
The dark side of human nature and how drastically people can be manipulated are at the heart of this cabin fever chiller. Through his abilities, Danny senses danger all around him, but it is no help to his father’s slow descent into madness. In addition to the psychological aspects, this book has some truly terrifying moments stemming from topiary animals, hotel room ghosts, and a roque mallet.
Sickness meets isolation in 1981’s Cujo, which has a premise that is straightforward and singularly focused. A woman and her 4-year-old son become trapped in a hot car when they are attacked by a rabid Saint Bernard in a rural area. With little hope of an outside rescue, Donna and Tad must survive on limited supplies and endure the sweltering temperature as the summer sun bakes the car.
This is one of King’s shorter books, but it elicits a visceral reaction page after page. Donna and Tad are tortured by the sizzling heat and dehydration as Cujo circles the car and blocks their path to the house and a phone. It’s the kind of terrifying scenario that makes people wonder how they’d react to such insurmountable odds.
Covetousness turns to anarchy in 1991’s Needful Things. The final book set in King’s fictional town of Castle Rock, Maine, the residents are all in a tizzy when a new collectibles-type shop opens up on main street. People who visit the store become mesmerized by Leland Gaunt, the proprietor, and each finds exactly what is their heart’s desire. To obtain these objects Gaunt charges reasonable, even nominal fees – along with requiring the buyer play a trick on someone else in town.
Gaunt’s tricks start at as relatively harmless, if mean spirited, but they are soon revealed as a tapestry of misdeeds set to incite mayhem in the town. This isn’t one of King’s scarier novels, however, it’s an interesting read for collectors given how infatuated people become with the wares in the shop. It might also make restless folks think twice about unnecessary trips into town.