"Rage" (published 1977, same year as "The Shining")
The first half was written in 1965, while 17-year-old Stephen King was still in high school. He completed the book seven years later. "I didn't rewrite it much," he says. "It's still there. It still has a smirky sophomore quality to it."
The story is told by Charlie Decker, a high school boy who saunters into his algebra class one day and shoots the teacher dead. He takes her place at the desk and confronts a now very attentive class. For a long afternoon Charlie holds the class hostage, while the streets fill with police and their bullhorns.
"The Long Walk" (published 1979, same year as "The Dead Zone")
Finished in 1967, when he was a 20-year-old college freshman, this was the first novel King completed. Published in paperback by NAL six years ago, it has only recently gone out of print, surely a record for a paperback thriller by an unknown.
It tells the story of a hundred boys, aged 14 to 16, who take part in a brutal sporting event. They walk across Maine, from Canada to New Hampshire, paced by halftracks containing soldiers whose duty it is to shoot and kill any boy whose pace drops below 4 miles per hour for longer than two minutes. The winner of the race -- broadcast around the world with $2 billion wagered on the outcome -- is the last one left alive, about 400 miles down the road. There is no finish line.
This novel contains one of King's most terrifying accomplishments. After 10 hours on the Walk, the boys enter their first horrifying night. By the time the walkers (and the readers) stagger into the dawn, we feel that they have just climbed out of Hell.
In the early '60s, King was big on 50-mile hikes. Radio and TV stations organized them throughout the country.
"I had that in mind," King says. "I didn't have a car when I wrote that book. I was hitchhiking everywhere. I didn't finish my 50-mile hike, though. I fell out after 20 miles."
"Roadwork" (written in 1974, immediately after "Salem's Lot," and published in 1981, the same year as "Cujo")
The book's protagonist, George Dawes, is a middle-level executive at a large industrial laundry firm. The novel begins 3 1/2 years after his son's death from a brain tumor. Dawes, initially devastated, has learned to cope with daily life, but he is far from healed. Then another problem arises. A freeway is planned for the land on which rest both his business and his residence. He has been assigned by his superiors to relocate the factory and by his wife to relocate their home.
As the freeway moves closer, Dawes cannot face the responsibility of his twin tasks and all the anguish over the loss of his son surfaces. He loses his job and his wife, and gradually descends into the Pit.
"Yeah, that one's my favorite," King says. "But I don't think it ever made a cent. It was probably bought by 12 people in bus stations with just that or the Encyclopaedia Britannica or the Audubon bird book to choose between."
"The Running Man" (published 1982, the year "Different Seasons" came out, and the year King and Peter Straub began "The Talisman"; written, King says, "in one feverish weekend in 1971")
It is another barbaric-future-sport novel. Ben Richards is a poor man who has turned to gladiatorial competition in a last-ditch effort to feed his family. TV channels are filled with "game" shows based on real pain and death. Richards takes part in "The Running Man," the top-rated show. He is tracked through city streets by a professional team of hunters. The show follows his progress from week to week, and encourages viewers to participate with offers of fame and money for those who spot Richards and report his movements. It builds without pause to a final chapter that must be one of the most appalling scenes ever written.
"Thinner" (published November 1984, written 1982)
The protagonist is an overweight lawyer named Billy Halleck who has accidentally killed an old Gypsy woman in a traffic accident. Leaving the courtroom, where he has escaped responsibility (but not the guilt), he is accosted by an ancient Gypsy man:
" 'Thinner,' the old Gypsy man with the rotting nose whispers to William Halleck . . . just that one word, sent on the wafting, cloying sweetness of his breath. 'Thinner.' And before Halleck can jerk away, the old Gypsy reaches out and caresses his cheek with one twisted finger. His lips spread open like a wound, showing a few tombstone stumps poking out of his gums. They are black and green. His tongue squirms betweem them and then slides out to slick his grinning, bitter lips."
From that moment on, Halleck begins to lose weight dramatically. The novel chronicles his disintegrating personal life and his desperate attempts to relocate the Gypsy and get the curse lifted.
"It has a funny subtext about eating," says King. "It's about how everybody's eating, everywhere, all the time. It's about how we look, how we look at ourselves."
But "Thinner" is not a funny book. And the novel had its genesis in a serious episode in King's life.
"I used to weigh 236 pounds, and I smoked heavily," King admits. "I went to see the doctor. He said: 'Listen man, your triglycerides are really high. In case you haven't noticed it, you've entered heart attack country.' That line is in the book. He told me that I should quit smoking and lose some weight. I . . . spent a very angry weekend off by myself. I thought about it, thought about how awful they were to make me do all these terrible things to save my life. I went and lost the weight, and pretty much quit smoking.
"Once the weight actually started to come off, I began to realize that I was attached to it somehow, that I didn't really want to lose it. I began to think about what would happen if somebody started to lose weight and couldn't stop. It was a pretty serious situation, at first. Then I remembered all the things I did when I weighed a lot. I had a paranoid conviction that the scales weighed heavy, no matter what. I would refuse to weigh myself, except in the morning, and then after I had taken off all my clothes . . . It was so existential that the humor crept in after a while."