"Novella" is a word that may have a gajillion different definitions, most of them very similar to one another. I say "a gajillion," but more likely it's a mere few thousand. Only people who get obsessed over classifications would even bother worrying about it.
I say this upfront so as to defuse a bit of the potential controversy that might result from what titles I have and have not included on this list. It's a fairly simple process: I'm including novella-length works that did not get individually ranked on my recent Worst To Best list focusing on King's books. So in other words, the individual components of Four Past Midnight are all included, whereas a few tales which were published as standalone books -- The Colorado Kid and Gwendy's Button Box come to mind -- are not included, despite being shorter than, say, "The Langoliers."
I've argued in the past that "The Langoliers" really ought to be considered a short novel rather than a novella, but if sanity is to prevail, then such issues must be set aside fairly quickly.
And so shall they be.
Anyways, it's entirely possible some of you will think my classifications are bogus. I've eliminated from consideration anything I consider to be a short story. Some of these are stories you occasionally see listed as novellas, such as "Ur" and "N." Conversely, some of the briefer things I've included are occasionally referred to as short stories, such as "Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption" and "The Little Sisters of Eluria." Bottom line is: judgment calls on my part, going with my gut. If you disagree, use them comments and tell me all about it.
So let's move on to the rankings, beginning with the cellar-dwellar:
#15 -- "The Sun Dog" (1990, from Four Past Midnight)
The fact that THIS is what I'd argue is the worst King novella indicates pretty good news for the rest of the list, because the fact is, I don't think this is too bad. Its greatest sin is that the kid who is ostensibly its hero is boring as unseasoned oatmeal. Compared to most other hero-kid King characters, he's a nonentity.
King has more success with the concept: a Polaroid camera that seemingly takes photos of a dog from another world, a dog which seems to be aware of the person taking the photo and is moving ever closer, snarling and preparing to leap from one reality into the next.
I'd argue that King does a solid job with that concept, and also with the crusty old shop owner into whose hands the camera falls. Pop Merrill -- uncle of Ace -- is a well-drawn character, and King might have been better-served to eliminate the kid and focus on Pop altogether.
So what we've got here is a case of the concept and the execution not quite measuring up. It's not bad, but we can, and will, do better.
Not immediately, though...
#14 -- "The Library Policeman" (1990, from Four Past Midnight)
There is a lot of material in "The Library Policeman" that works quite well. King's prose is on point, and the overall concept has a bit of the same twisted-fairy-tale feeling that graces a lot of his work from the seventies and eighties. Specifically, elements of "The Library Policeman" seem to be leftover bits of It. Say, remember how in It a kid defeated a monster partially by squirting asthma medicine at it and claiming it was battery acid? Well, here, somebody gets to defeat a monster using Twizzlers. (Or is it a cheap knockoff version of Twizzlers? If so, that's kind of appropriate.)
The novella's worst offense, however, is the scene in which a child is anally raped. Look ... such things have their place in fiction, I suppose; but this ain't it. It makes the preteen-sewer-gangbang scene in It seem like Twain.
Still, the novella does have its virtues. It's on the lower end of the spectrum for me, as regards a list like this one; but overall, it's alright.
#13 -- "Big Driver" (2010, from Full Dark, No Stars)
|from the Cemetery Dance limited edition, art by Jill Bauman|
This is a good novella, but for me, it does not go any farther than that in quality. King's powers are not at their fullest in this one; it seems at times like he was disinterested in what he was doing, but kept plugging away despite that setback.
If so -- and that's almost certainly NOT the case -- then you've got to admire his ability to get lemonade out what might have been just lemons. This is by no means the tastiest lemonade you've ever tipped back, but you won't gag on it, and it'll cool you off on a hot day.
My biggest problem with the novella is the scene in which a rapist dances around singing "Brown Sugar." Such a thing would be terrifying in real life, I bet; but on the page, it's a bit ridiculous, and in a moment when ridiculousness really ought not to be happening.
On the plus side, the novella plays at times almost like an actualized version of the "Can You?" game Paul Sheldon plays in Misery. King is once again writing about a writer, but he has -- once again -- found an angle to come at it from that he's not used before. Give the guy credit where it's due; he might use some ideas over and over, but he doesn't typically use them in precisely the same way.
I'm sure "Big Driver" has its fair share of ardent fans, and while I'm not one of them, I don't begrudge anyone the enjoyment.
#12 -- "The Langoliers" (1990, from Four Past Midnight)
A novella with a killer high-concept at its core: an airplane passes through a tear in reality, and everyone disappears from existence except anyone who happens to be asleep at the time. The sleepers awake, and are puzzled as fuck by what's going on around them.
Superb! You would be hard-pressed indeed to come up with a better concept than that.
The execution, unfortunately, lets it down. It's a gentle-ish letdown, though: this is a fun read that has a plethora of minor problems (and a few major ones) but also has a plethora of major virtues (and, to be fair, a few minor ones). King loves to get a diverse group of characters together in a small space and then give them an issue to contend with. He's passionate on that subject, and it shows.
#11 -- "A Good Marriage" (2010, from Full Dark, No Stars)
|from the Cemetery Dance limited edition, art by Vincent Chong|
Full Dark, No Stars is a collection of four stories, each of which tells the tale of men doing awful things of one sort or another to women.
It is, therefore, satisfying for the collection to end with "A Good Marriage," in which the bad man's misdeeds are foiled by a resourceful and brave woman. If that makes me sound like I have a liberal agenda, I apologize, both for the fact that I made it sound that way and for the fact that I do indeed have a liberal agenda. As, I suspect, does King; but he's graceful with it, at least in this particular collection.
And, indeed, in this particular novella, which is not a loosely-disguised agenda so much as it is a suspenseful and satisfying story. Specifically: the story of a woman who discovers her husband of many years is a serial killer, and how she reacts.
#10 -- "Hearts In Atlantis" (1999, from Hearts In Atlantis)
|Lacking any images specific to this novella, I chose the back cover to the book in which it appears.|
Some people consider Hearts In Atlantis (the book) to be a novel, others consider it to be a collection. I consider it to be a little bit of both. It all hangs together like a novel, but virtually all of its components can be read separately, too.
That's my justification for including the two long stories from the book on this list. Works for me!
"Hearts In Atlantis" (the novella) is very good indeed, and tells the story of a college freshman who gets himself in trouble during his freshman year. Like many new students, he's unable to buckle down; his specific demon is a neverending hearts game that the residents in his dorm are playing. Fine enough in normal circumstances, but in his, it could mean expulsion from school and eligibility for the draft. That would mean a one-way ticket to Vietnam, and perhaps a one-way ticket back home again in a bodybag.
Great stuff. You can also find the novella in the 2016 anthology Hearts In Suspension, in which King and some of his classmates from the era tell stories about what it was like at the University of Maine during wartime. The novella remains great there, too, but the recontextualization gives it an interestingly autobiographical element.
#9 -- "The Little Sisters of Eluria" (1998, from Legends)
The waits between novels for fans of the Dark Tower series were often interminable. Five years between I and II; four years between II and III; six years between III and IV; another six years between IV and V. Only a few months separated V from VI and VI from VII, though, so it eventually got to a point of bearability.
Helping out a bit between IV and V was "The Little Sisters of Eluria," which appeared eleven months after IV hit shelves ... provided you knew about Legends, the Robert Silverberg-edited volume of fantasy novellas. If you didn't, then it was 2002's Everything Eventual that clued you in, and that's five years, which scarcely better than six.
I was all over Legends, though, and while "The Little Sisters of Eluria" was not able to fully satisfy the craving for more Tower novels, it was -- and is -- thoroughly entertaining in its own right. It is a story of Roland that is set prior to the opening of The Gunslinger, involving him stumbling across a town full of vampires. Not just any old vampires, though; these are of a different breed.
You can read this novella without having read the other Dark Tower books; or, conversely, you can read the Dark Tower series without reading this novella.
But why do either?
#8 -- "Secret Window, Secret Garden" (1990, from Four Past Midnight)
The best of the novellas in Four Past Midnight, "Secret Window, Secret Garden" has been accused of being overly similar to The Dark Half. There ARE similarities, but there are also significant differences, and my assessment is that King isn't cribbing from himself, he's simply finding new ways to keep exploring some of the same topics.
I like the result here quite a lot, possibly even more than The Dark Half. I'd have to think about that, but why bother? Both are excellent; that's really all you need to know.
The story here involves a writer, Mort Rainey, who is paid a visit one day by a crazy man who claims that Mort stole a story from him and published it as his own. But how crazy is he?
Read this novella and find out.
#7 -- "Low Men In Yellow Coats" (1999, from Hearts In Atlantis)
King has told a decent number of stories featuring child protagonists, and that's mostly been a successful pursuit for him. He struck gold again with this novella, which is about a lot of things, including: the joys of reading; the magic of a first kiss; the perils of gambling; sexual harassment; how you can benefit from bringing a psychic to a shell game; bullying; fiduciary pursuit of a bicycle; and the disillusionment of childhood's passing.
It's also got a large bearing on the Dark Tower series, and that might put off some readers. Not me. This stuff is aces.
#6 -- "1922" (2010, from Full Dark, No Stars)
|from the Cemetery Dance limited edition, art by Glenn Chadbourne|
I was utterly transfixed by this one, start to finish. The only thing preventing me from ranking it higher is how incredibly awesome everything else on the list is; the fact is that in my opinion, "1922" is very close to being a masterpiece.
The story is about a farmer whose wife is a bit of a shrew. He decides to do something about that, in an inverse of a plot point from Dolores Claiborne. The impact this has on his family is profound.
The novella's story is seemingly not at all supernatural -- a trait it shares with two of the other stories in Full Dark, No Stars -- but there is a seriously Lovecraftian flourish toward the end that makes me wonder. Either way works for me.
#5 -- "Apt Pupil" (1982, from Different Seasons)
|This paperback is the entire Different Seasons collection, not just "Apt Pupil," right?|
If I absolutely HAVE to choose which of the four novellas that comprise Different Seasons is the "worst," then I'll pick this one.
But it's dynamite. It's one of the scariest things King has ever written, and there's not a drop of supernatural content in sight. Nope, this one is all about the horror that lurks within the heart of a seemingly-normal adolescent boy. Oh, and Nazis, who are always ripe material for horror.
One thing that fascinates me about the novellas on this list is the idea that they may have been written well before their publication date. With most of them, we don't know. But with the ones contained in Different Seasons, we do, because King tells us during his afterword. In the case of "Apt Pupil," it was written after work on The Shining was done.
Does this matter? Not really. I find it cool, though; if I had a means of doing so, I'd love to look at a chronology of King's works in terms of when they were written. Many of them likely overlap to one extent or another, so it's not really possible to create such a timeline. Still, that's the sort of thing that intrigues me.
#4 -- "Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption" (1982, from Different Seasons)
The first time I read Different Seasons was during my junior year of high school. I did a great deal of the reading in the school's parking lot, and I'll be goddamned if I can remember why that is. I didn't have a car; pretty much the only reason I'd have for being in the parking lot was if my friend Dan was giving me a ride someplace. But since I played football during my junior year, I had practice and/or workouts during the last period of school, so I wouldn't have been catching a ride home from Dan until senior year, after I'd quit the team.
So what gives?
All I know is, I have very strong memories of reading both this novella and "The Body" in the parking lot behind the school. I was a very fast reader in those days, so this may well have been within a day or two of each other; less, if for some reason I was able to devote most of the day to reading, but I can't think of a scenario in which that would have happened.
It's a mystery, and one which you give zero fucks about, I am sure. Why would you?
Regardless of self-indulgent non-reminiscences by yours truly, this novella -- which, you will note, has no "the" in its title (despite how you sometimes see amateurs list it) -- is obviously a big deal within King's body of work. It didn't seem so until the movie adaptation came out, though. Prior to that, it was likely seen as a bit of an aberration, a short piece of work designed to deliver a twist ending. It did that very capably, of course, and -- apologies for dipping back into where this began, but it can't be helped -- I can remember letting the book go a little limp in my hands at the moment when King allows the shoe to drop; I looked around me at the cars, the trees, the street, the football field, and I just sort of took stock of my surroundings.
More to the point, why do I remember this some twenty-seven years later? My memory is kinda shite, so it ain't that I've got a steel cage for a brain. So, again: why?
I'm speculating here, but maybe it's because the novella is so powerfully focused on the notion of not taking one's freedom for granted that when it became apparent to me that Andy was, against all odds, actually going to be able to steal his back, it jolted me. A bit of a mental stimulus, an electrical current passing from one lobe to the next, a whispered command for me to look up from the page and try to see my surroundings as though, for just that one moment, I were Andy Dufresne (which, to some extant, I likely fancied myself to be, in the way all teenagers see themselves as trapped and persecuted).
I don't know for sure. All I know is that the feeling is still with me. The circumstances surrounding it puzzle me, but nothing puzzles me about the reaction itself: it was a well-earned response to a wonderful story. A lot of people were surprised by how well the movie turned out.
Not me. I kind of expected it, and I think that expectation can be traced back directly to that day in the parking lot at good old Central East.
By the way, so that I maintain this running theme: this novella was written in the aftermath of the writing of The Dead Zone. So while Johnny Smith couldn't escape his fate, Andy Dufresne perhaps benefited from what might have been a desire on King's part to transmute a different fate to somebody else.
It's a nice idea, if nothing else.
#3 -- "The Body" (1982, from Different Seasons)
Stand By Me was the first significant exposure I had to Stephen King; this was probably true for a lot of people who are roughly my age. For that reason, I love the cover to the movie-tie-in paperback edition I've included above; but that was also the copy of Different Seasons that I first owned, so it has that undeniable whiff of specific and personal nostalgia that the cover to the hardback does not hold for me.
Variant designs of book-cover art likely work that way on most everybody, and I suspect that that is an unsung factor in hardcore fandoms for people like me.
I mention this so as to also mention an error I made at some point in the distant past: when I began collecting King hardbacks via the Stephen King Library, I then got rid of the original copies I'd owned, the ones I'd cut my King-fandom teeth on. What a dolt! God damn it, I'd love to still have those ratty old used paperbacks! One of these days, I'm going to make it a point to begin reacquiring copies of those editions, all of which I remember quite vividly. This version of Different Seasons may be the first on that list.
None -- or little -- of which has anything to do with "The Body." It was written quite early in King's career, seemingly not long after 'salem's Lot was finished. Roadwork apparently followed that, and Blaze had preceded 'salem's Lot, which mans that the vampire novel was, in many ways, the odd man out during this stretch of King's career. (Full disclosure: "The Mist" was also written during this stretch, which only fits my narrative in the exception-that-proves-the-rule sense; and yes, I know that that is horseshit.)
Given that to some extent "The Body" is focused on the idea of what sort of writer its protagonist wants to be (and what kind he actually is), maybe that's kind of an interesting nugget.
Or maybe not! You will have to be the judge on that one. Either way, wouldn't you agree that "The Body" is one of King's most deeply-felt pieces of fiction? By turns hilarious and bittersweet, hard-edged but also sweetly innocent, it is in no way what most people -- including most Stephen King fans -- think of when they think "Stephen King." And yet, the focus on the mythology of one's own childhood would later be explored extensively in It, and works like Hearts In Atlantis and Joyland (both written decades later) also seem to be fishing from the same pond.
In other words, I don't know that's it's actually an aberration at all. I think it may actually be a bit of a keystone.
#2 -- "The Breathing Method" (1982, from Different Seasons)
I don't necessarily think "The Breathing Method" is the best of the novellas in Different Seasons (in the as-objective-as-a-subjective-thing-like-opinions-can-be sense), but I will say that it is my favorite. "The Body" maybe comes close, but not all THAT close.
It took a while for this to be the case with me. The novella thoroughly ooged me out the first time I read it (which, for the record, I believe to have taken place in that same school parking lot I was talking about earlier); that decapitation scene got to me, man. I had a serious phobia for decapitated heads in fiction back then. I guess I'd probably have had an even worse one for them in real life, too, except that was blessedly not an issue. Anyways, for 1990 Bryant, "The Breathing Method" was handily the fourth-place finisher in the race of that book's contents.
Over the years, though, I became more intrigued by it, and its stature began to grow in my mind. Now, it's the one that calls to me the most. The idea of that mysterious Club, man; it seriously gets me.
There was talk of a movie version a few years ago, and while I'd like to see that, I seriously question the ability of anyone to depict the aspects of the novella that I hold most dear; and, because I hold them very dear indeed, I lean toward hoping for no movie if a compromised movie is likely to be the end result.
By the way, this novella was the most recently-written at the time of its publication; it had been written after the completion of Firestarter.
#1 -- "The Mist" (1980, from Dark Forces)
There are a few things in this novella that don't work, but the rest of it exerts a very powerful hold on my imagination indeed. It would, had I included it solo in my recent ranking of King books, have placed very highly; top five, maybe, and for a body of work as large as King's, that's a heck of a showing.
It would later appear in 1985's Skeleton Crew, of course, and it is undeniably the cornerstone of that collection.
Things I think of when I think of "The Mist":
- the dream Drayton has about God moving on two legs about the landscape
- the fact that Drayton later encounters a two-legged alien behemoth moving about the landscape, its bulk so massive that it disappears into the clouds above
- the ambiguity of the ending, which suggests no end may ever come
- the Arrowhead Project
- Mrs. Carmody, perhaps a scarier monster than any to be found in the mist (although her descent into bloodthirsty fundamentalism is perhaps a bit too speedy to be fully convincing)
- that weird hookup Drayton has
- the unwillingness of some people to believe what is right in front of their eyes
- the willingness of people to immediately begin separating themselves into factions
- that tentacle reaching under the bay door
It really is a hell of a piece of work. For the record, I love the movie, too, its ending included. I also love the ending of the novella. Neither overwrites the other for me; each is extremely well-suited to the specific work for which it serves as a finale.
I will say, though, that the movie utterly failed to capture for me that moment of the colossus passing overhead as it strode by. That moment is one of my favorite in all of literature, so I'll grant you that the movie had a high bar to clear in order to please me with that moment. It didn't get there.
But King left 'em a hell of a difficult task. He's a tough cookie in that regard, especially when he's at his best, which he absolutely is with "The Mist."
So there you have it, folks. A decidedly briefer ranking than the last one I undertook, but fun nonetheless, at least for me.
Not sure what'll be rolling off the assembly line around here next. It might be radio silence until the television version of The Mist premieres.
See you when I see you!