Even if you’re not a fan of horror, or even much of a reader, you are undoubtedly familiar with Stephen King. He is arguably one of the more prolific writers out there, and undoubtedly one of the most successful.
There are plenty of people who have heard of his most successful works like IT, The Shining, Carrie, The Green Mile and short stories like The Shawshank Redemption.
But here I want to talk about some of his lesser known books that might be missed by some who aren’t super familiar with his work, outside of his most popular. As a huge Stephen King fan, I want nothing more than for more people to enjoy some of his less popular works.
So, here I will discuss three underrated Stephen King books, in no particular order.
The Long Walk
As is public knowledge nowadays, King wrote under the pseudonym Richard Bachman for a short time. The Long Walk is one of the books he wrote under the Bachman name, and can be pretty easily found if you pick up a collection called The Bachman Books.
That collection can vary on what it contains, my version has The Long Walk, Roadwork and The Running Man, but some can also come with the story Rage as well.
As great as the other stories in the collection are, The Long Walk is easily the crowning gem of the piece. The basis of the story is one we’ve heard a few times now. It’s set in a dystopian version of the present, where there is a yearly gruelling walking contest which is a brutal and deadly reality show held in a totalitarian version of the US.
The story is told from the perspective of one of the participants of the Long Walk, known as Walkers, and the rules of the Walk are simple but gruelling: the Walker must maintain a speed of four miles per hour, and if he drops below this he gets a verbal warning. Three of these results in a “buying a ticket”; the meaning of which kept deliberately vague for the beginning portion of the story. If a Walker can keep from getting another warning in an hour period, his previous warning is erased.
Sounds simple enough, but the Walk is called a Long Walk for a reason. The Walk travels down the East Coast of the US until the winner is determined. There are no stops, rest periods, or even an established finish line, and the Walk does not pause for any reason (including bad weather or even a downed bridge); it ends only when one last Walker is left alive.
The story, which mostly features young boys, is engrossing. I read it for the first time fairly recently, and could not put it down. The tension of the “ticket” keeps you turning the pages, as well as the small but interesting cast of characters around the main one. The story of the boy’s mental state and how it degrades as more and more Walkers fall and the Walk seems never ending is impossible to put down.
It’s a brilliantly written, gripping story that doesn’t really show it’s age.
As any fellow Constant Readers will know, Stephen King wrote many books set in the town of Castle Rock. At the time, Needful Things was touted as “the last Castle Rock story”, but the town did feature once more in a short story by the name of It Grows on You.
The story will feel comfortable and familiar to any Constant Reader, like putting on an old and worn pair of slippers you just can’t bear to throw out.
For the uninitiated, the small town setting with it’s pretty squabbles between neighbours and rival churches, plus the gossip about every little thing will still feel welcoming even without knowing the characters.
King does a good job of fleshing out the characters within the story for anyone who might not have met them before. The main prong of the story is the titular Needful Things, an unusual new store which opens right at the start of the book. The small town rumour mill goes into overdrive as the residents speculate on what the store even sells, and who the owner might be.
The store is revealed throughout the course of the story to be owned by a very unusual man by the name of Leland Gaunt, who immediately gives off an eerie there’s-something-not-right-about-you vibe without really doing much… at first.
The trouble begins when people begin buying things from him. Leland only seems to stock items that a single person in town really desires to the point of obsession. A picture of Elvis, a foxtail, a fishing rod, a baseball card. Driven by the perceived “need” of these items, the residents of the town agree to play a small “prank” on one of their neighbours to get the item, as well as a paltry sum of money.
These pranks rapidly spiral out of control as neighbours turn on each other, each assuming the “prank” performed on them was done by that neighbour they really hate, or so-and-so down the street who has never liked me, and the powder keg of the small town slowly smoulders into flame.
King is almost gleeful in his destruction of the familiar town and characters, as things escalate from “prank” to outright fighting in the streets, all while Leland watches from the side-lines.
If you’re at all familiar with the usual tropes of small town America, this is definitely a satisfying read with great characters and a well-executed story.
As you might know, King has an eight book fantasy epic by the name of The Dark Tower series. However, several books are either tangentially or directly connected to this series, giving it a “multiverse” feel. Insomnia is a book which has quite a significant connection to the series, but there is no need to read the DT books to appreciate this gem.
This story is quite brilliant. It has an usual set of main characters (old people), as well as a very fantasy-esque setting, yet it has a foundation in believable everyday events. Underneath all the overarching “save the world” stuff that gets introduced about halfway through (ish), are real characters doing real things about real problems.
The main character of the story is an old man named Ralph, who suddenly finds himself struck down with Insomnia. Each morning, he wakes slightly earlier, and earlier and earlier, until his sleep is slowly eroded to only a couple of hours.
This allows him to see what he calls “auras” around people, animals, and certain objects like phones and telephone wires. These auras allow him to accurately, to pinpoint precision, read someone’s emotions and mental state. He then gets dragged into a larger conflict between huge forces too large and powerful for most humans to understand and is tasked with stopping a key event from happening.
As mentioned, though, under all this philosophical stuff and the overarching “save the world” narrative, the foundations are grounded in reality. This is mostly achieved through the characters Ralph and his later partner in insomnia (no spoilers) interact with, the key one being a woman called Helen Deepneau.
Through her, we get a very grounded “battered wife” story, where her husband suddenly turns from “wouldn’t hurt a fly” to beating her to a pulp. Her story, and the story of the women’s shelter she ends up at, is intrinsically tied to the overarching narrative, but it also serves an effective and interesting grounding post for the fantastical narrative.
Her, plus the fantastic and down to earth main character, and of course the well-executed story, makes Insomnia one of my favourite King books of all time.
You should also read: The Talisman, Desperation, The Regulators and Rose Madder.