Stephen King is known as the King of Horror for a pretty good reason: he can be pretty scary when he wants to be! From a billion-year-old clown that emerges from the sewers every twenty-seven years to feast on the flesh of unsuspecting children, to a living hotel that kills its guests to add to its ranks of ghosts that forever wander through its bedeviled halls, King has gained a reputation has being able to terrify even the hardiest of supernatural horror readers.
What he doesn’t have a reputation for, however, at least among mainstream audiences, is writing stories that contain themes that are disconnected from the horror genre, such as loss, childhood, hope and sometimes even, much to my surprise, political commentary! Stephen King is far from a one-trick pony, and no doubt you’ll look at some of the entries on this list and think, “He wrote that? Really?”
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There are two kinds of people, people who cried during the movie adaptation of The Green Mile, and liars. Originally published in six lower-priced paperback books, its release was (pun totally intended) novel. Authors haven’t published their works as serials since the time of Charles Dickens, but regardless of how it was initially received, The Green Mile is a fantastic story.
The oscillates between the past and the present, as nursing home resident Paul Edgecombe tells the story of a death row inmate he encountered as a prison guard back in 1932, named John Coffey. Convicted of raping and murdering two young girls, John is incredibly cowardly, asking Edgecombe to leave the hallway lights on because he’s afraid of the dark, and is also very kind to his fellow death row prisoners.
Cajun arsonist, rapist, and murderer Eduard “Del” Delacroix and self-proclaimed “Billy the Kid” William Wharton, both make Edgecombe question whether or not he’s a man capable of the crimes for which he’s been sentenced to death. But then, over time, Paul realizes that John possesses inexplicable healing abilities, and comes to the conclusion that he must be innocent, and has to be broken out.
While Stephen King is known for his negative portrayal of organized religion, The Green Mile is certainly more positive about religion in its themes of healing innocence, and it even contains biblical parallels.
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A novella from King’s 1982 collection Different Seasons, the tale of Andy Dufresne and his escape from Shawshank State Penitentiary is told through the perspective of Ellis “Red” Redding, in a narrative he claims to have been writing from September 1975 to January 1976, with an additional chapter added in the spring of 1977. In 1948, Andy Dufresne, a banker, is tried and convicted for the double murder of his wife and her lover, and Red chronicles the twenty-eight years he spent living within the Shawshank’s walls.
But I don’t really have to go any further, do I?
Almost everyone has seen the film adaptation, and knows that Andy is “the man who crawled through a mile of shit and came out clean on the other end”. Still, I highly recommend reading the short story, as it goes into far more detail of Andy’s time at Shawshank and Red’s perspective.
4. Apt Pupil
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While this novella, also from Stephen King’s Different Seasons, isn’t horror, it’s still quite disturbing. Set in a fictional suburb of Southern California called “Santo Donato,” the story unfolds over a period of about four years, and follows teenager Todd Bowden and his relationship with elderly German immigrant Arthur Denker, who he has discovered is a former Nazi.
Not only will you read gruesome tales of the atrocities Arthur Denker (whose real name is Kurt Dussander) committed while he ran a concentration camp, but also those of the demise of Todd’s moral character, as the once-ordinary boy starts to be negatively affected by Dussander’s stories.
3. The Body
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I promise this will be the last entry from Different Seasons. After a boy named Ray Brower disappears and is presumed dead, twelve-year-old Gordie Lachance and his three friends set out on a quest to find his body along the railroad tracks.
Sound familiar? Because The Body is the direct inspiration of the movie Stand By Me. Told from Gordie’s perspective as an adult, several times he diverges from the plot to share with the reader stories that he wrote, which emphasizes the theme of growing up and leaving your childhood friends behind.
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You’ve likely heard of or seen the film adaptation of The Running Man: the 1987 movie starring Arnold Schwarzenegger at his peak. It’s a campy, schlocky affair and a world away from the novella of the same name.
Set in a dystopian, totalitarian police-state in the year 2025, the United States’ economy is in the toilet. Ben Richards can’t afford medication for his ill daughter, so he applies to appear on The Running Man, a game show in which contestants go on the run and try to evade the show’s Hunters, a team of trained killers. If Richards can survive for 30 days, he wins $1 billion dollars.
This is a grim reality that, while not our own, isn’t a million miles away. TV stations are infamous for pushing the boundaries of what is tasteful and decent in order to turn a profit, and in our blood-hungry modern culture, violence is the best way to profit.
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If you could, would you travel back in time and kill Hitler? It’s a well-known thought experiment with most people answering yes (understandably, of course), but King’s novel 11/22/63 applies the time travel conundrum to another significant historical event – the assassination of John F. Kennedy, and all of the unintended consequences that come with changing the past.
English teacher Jake Epping learns that his friend Al Templeton is dying of cancer. He owns a restaurant, and within its basement lies a portal to the past, specifically to 11:58 AM on September 9th, 1958. All of Al’s time-traveling had taken a toll on his body, and understandably skeptical, Jake enters the portal and spends hours in the past, only to return to the present and discover that only two minutes had passed. Al has been planning to stop Lee Harvey Oswald from shooting John F. Kennedy, and now, dying, passes the torch to Jake.
One of Stephen King’s rare science-fiction novels, 11/22/63 raises the ethical questions of whether or not to change the past.
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