Stephen King: a reading guide to the King universe
Editor’s Note: This guide tries to keep it light on the spoilers, but there are some, gunslinger.
For the past 40 years, Stephen King, an American master of letters, has shown time and time again why he’s the king of pop fiction. Whether you’ve only read his horror stuff, or are all about his hard techno-fantasy books, you’ve probably read more than one of King’s works and have undoubtedly started to see the connections that form. Because for almost the same amount of time as his entire professional career, King has been creating his very own fictional universe.
I previously wrote about director Josh Boone’s upcoming adaptation of The Stand, a fat novel that Constant Readers often regard as King’s magnum opus, and how it could spark an entire King cinematic universe. That concept, of course, could only be made possible by the web of connections that King has painstakingly written into a nice chunk of his bibliography.
You see, King has written several books that connect in very specific ways, whether they share characters or plot points or locations or monsters. These “standalone” works are part of a much larger meta-story. Books like The Stand, Eyes Of The Dragon, Insomnia, Hearts In Atlantis, ‘Salem’s Lot, and Everything’s Eventual in some way affect the outcome of The Dark Tower series, which you could almost refer to as “Crisis on Infinite Kings” if you’re a comic book fan. But the “Crisis” of reality that takes place in The Dark Tower books is probably best left for another, much bigger article.
I want to take a look at how King got to that series by first examining the essential books a reader needs to understand the larger King universe. I won’t be cross-referencing every single little connection in the books, but rather provide a good look at the Kingverse in broader strokes.
‘Salem’s Lot (1975)
Why it’s important: Father Callahan.
Father Callahan’s story spans 29 years and 4 books, making him one of the most important characters in the entire Kingverse. The story begins with his fall from grace in King’s seminal novel about a vampire that decides to move to the town of Jerusalem’s Lot, Maine. You’ll find that King loves doing terrible things to Maine, where most of his tales take place…Because it’s his home state, I guess.
The vampire, whose name is Barlow, begins causing all sorts of havoc in the town, biting the townspeople and infecting them with vampirism. Pretty soon, Jerusalem’s Lot is plagued with the undead, who are thirsty for blood. A particularly terrifying moment involves a school bus full of vampire children that scared the crap out of me when I was a kid.
Along with the novel’s protagonist, Ben Mears, Father Callahan decides to fight back against Barlow and his vampire army. But when Callahan confronts Barlow, he stumbles in his faith in God, and Barlow shatters the cross in the Father’s hand. Then, in a sick punishment and heinous show of strength, Barlow forces Callahan to drink his blood. From that point on, Callahan is no longer able to step into a church, feeling the same effect vampires do when before a cross. He leaves the town in shame.
But the real story begins from that point on. He returns in The Dark Tower V: Wolves of the Calla, and we get to enjoy King’s best redemption tale, as Callahan regains his faith and gets his hard-earned revenge on the evil vampires that plague this world and all the others.
The Stand (1978)
Why it’s important: Randall Flagg, The Big Battle Between Good and Evil, Postapocalyptic Kansas, The Cyclical Nature of the Kingverse.
In case you don’t know, this is early King–his best era, in my opinion–at its most ambitious. This sprawling novel tells the story of two groups of survivors after a weaponized superflu known as “Captain Trips” obliterates most of the Earth’s population. As you can imagine, these groups are at odds with each other, which triggers the first big battle between good and evil in the Kingverse. The winner? Well, the outcome is pretty shocking and definitely worth a read. At the end of the novel, in a pretty grim moment, the remaining characters wonder what they can learn from their past mistakes, but they can’t come up with an answer. King seems to say that humanity is meant to commit these same atrocities over and over. It’s like an episode of The Twilight Zone without any hope.
But the most important thing about this novel is its villain, who pretty much ends up being the BIG BAD of the entire Kingverse, although it isn’t immediately apparent. A master of disguise, deceit, and all things evil, this novel introduces readers to Randall Flagg, an all-out agent of chaos who would go on to stalk other worlds, including the ones of The Dark Tower series. Flagg can rally others to do his bidding and wage war against the forces of light, and that’s what he’s often up to. But his big scheme isn’t apparent until his very last appearance in the final Dark Tower book. At the end of the day, what do all men with power want?
Roland Deschain, the gunslinging protagonist of The Dark Tower books and the main hero of the entire Kingverse, runs into Flagg at several points in the series. At one point, the two meet in The Stand‘s version of postapocalyptic Topeka, Kansas. It’s a very nice nod to this book.
The Talisman (1984)
Why it’s important: The Territories, Twinners
Things get a bit funky in this novel by King and collaborator Peter Straub, who’s a horror legend in his own right. The most important lesson you’ll get from this book, which arrived two years after the first Dark Tower novel, The Gunslinger, is that King loves parallel universes and parallel versions of characters. Although The Gunslinger hinted at these other worlds — Jake Chambers’ famous line “Go, then. There are other worlds than these” comes to mind — The Talisman delves deeper into the concept.
In the novel, little Jack Sawyer must save his mother from cancer by finding a mythical crystal called “the Talisman.” While on his journey, Jack learns how to switch between the world he knows and an alternate fantasy version known as The Territories, where there exists parallel versions of the people in our world known as “Twinners.” The parallel version of Jack has died, and so he’s able to travel between both worlds. Like all good fiction, this is a special circumstance, since most other individuals usually have their twinners in the other world, but even then, they can flip between bodies with their counterparts. It’s the kind of string theory that will make your head spin.
The nature of The Territories was later retconned a bit in the sequel, Black House, to be a parallel version of Mid-World, the world on which the true Dark Tower — the centre of all creation and the point in the Kingverse that holds up all of reality — is located. All of a sudden, Jack Sawyer might be the Twinner of Jake Chambers himself. This is all good fun if you have the patience.
Why it’s important: Pennywise, Energy Vampires, The Macroverse.
Even if you haven’t read the book or seen the TV film, you probably know about King’s evil clown monster that preys on children from the sewers of Derry, Maine. (Yes, it’s always Maine!) Chances are that you think clowns are scary just because you heard about this story or saw a promo or anything at all resembling this terrifying clown’s face.
First and foremost, this big horror novel is worth reading for the ridiculous and gruesome story alone. A group of friends who have been haunted all their lives by the memory of the demonic clown must return to their hometown and destroy Pennywise once and for all. It’s another great battle between good and evil that’s not to be missed.
In terms of larger connections, there are three things you should know: 1) Pennywise is an enemy of The Turtle, one the guardians of the six beams that hold the worlds together and lead to the Dark Tower. So basically, yeah, Pennywise is one of the big bad guys of the Kingverse; 2) Pennywise is an energy vampire, a kind of monster that feeds on emotion, much like Dandelo, who is one of the villains in The Dark Tower VII; and 3) Pennywise is from a place called The Macroverse, which is like Todash Darkness–a sort of nothingness that exists between alternate dimensions in the Kingverse where all the really awful creatures come from. Think H.P. Lovecraft’s Great Old Ones. Although it’s never stated that The Macroverse is the same thing as Todash Darkness, they sound like the same awful place. King might’ve just missed a retcon.
Eyes of the Dragon (1987)
Why it’s important: Randall Flagg can traverse different worlds and times, the land of Delain.
Okay, I’m going to draw a theory here because it’s wide open: the most obvious connections to the Kingverse in Eyes Of The Dragon (the first King book I ever read) are King Roland and his advisor, Flagg. While Flagg is the same evil sorcerer from The Stand — this was technically his first official appearance since that book, although he’d been in disguise all along since 1982’s The Gunslinger — the origin of King Roland is still open to speculation. My theory is that he’s Roland Deschain’s Twinner (remember those?) from a parallel world, although King Roland lived way before gunslinging Roland.
Anyway, this a fantastic high fantasy tale that King decided to work on when his daughter asked him to write something that she could read. You know, something that wouldn’t make her cry at night…
Eyes Of The Dragon is still one of my favourites and a spectacular entry point into the genre if you haven’t jumped on the A Song Of Ice And Fire bandwagon yet. It’s the tale of two brothers, who at first fight for the throne of their dead father in the Kingdom of Delain, but must join forces to defeat a much darker threat. That’s the very watered-down summary.
The most important thing you learn in this novel is that Flagg can travel through different worlds and times. No matter where you are, the evil wizard can get you. And he was able to flee Delain and into Roland Deschain’s world at some point after this novel, because Roland later crossed paths with two men from Delain who were chasing the wizard. Delain is somehow connected to Mid-World. How? You’ll have to do the maths.
Why it’s important: The Crimson King, Patrick Danville, The Purpose vs. The Random.
Insomnia is a really weird 800+ page book with some pretty strong connections to the Kingverse. To try to explain the plot or endorse the novel (it’s definitely my least favourite on this list) would be a bit of a stretch. This is for the most seasoned Constant Readers, but it’s also required reading to really understand the backstory of two pivotal characters in the final phase of King’s meta-story.
Basically, the main character, Ralph Roberts, has insomnia and develops the ability to see the auras of life force that surround other people. He can also see these white-coated beings known as “little bald doctors,” who recruit him to fight the Crimson King, the supreme ruler of the Red (aka The Random). Yeesh, he’s the leader of dark side, okay? It is revealed that the things that are happening in the Kingverse–this recurring battle between good and evil throughout the novels–are part of a larger conflict between The Random and The Purpose (aka the good guys, I guess…).
In this novel, the Crimson King is especially interested in killing a little boy named Patrick Danville, who will one day grow up to help Roland save the Dark Tower. Oh yeah, the Crimson King is trying to bring down the tower so that he can rule over the chaos in the aftermath. Moving on.
Hearts in Atlantis (1999)
Why it’s important: Ted Brautigan, The Low Men in Yellow Coats, The Crimson King.
The Crimson King is pulling his bullshit again in this collection of two novellas and three short stories. But first of all, Hearts In Atlantis is a heartfelt piece of work by King about conflict, childhood, memory, and hope. It’s a great book about the Vietnam War and a fine addition to his longer fantasy yarn.
A little boy named Bobby Garfield meets an older man named Ted Brautigan, and his life is changed forever. Brautigan, who has the psychic abilities needed to bring down the Dark Tower, has been running from the forces of the Crimson King for quite some time, and he thinks he can avoid the conflict between The Random and The Purpose in 1960s Connecticut. Boy is he wrong. The Crimson King sends his henchmen, the low men in yellow coats, to hunt Brautigan down. Eventually, he gets him, but not before passing on some of his powers to Bobby.
Brautigan later aids Roland in his quest against the Crimson King. Good for him!
Everything’s Eventual (2002)
Why it’s important: Dinky Earnshaw, Little Sisters of Eluria.
This short story collection has some whoppers in it! The first tale, for example, “Autopsy Room Four” is an insta-classic. Read all of these stories and call me in the morning.
“The Little Sisters Of Eluria” is a little tale that precedes Roland Deschain’s quest in The Dark Tower novels. His adventure is still in its infancy, but he’s already getting himself into trouble. After battling some Slow Mutants (King’s version of zombies when they’re in Mid-World) and losing, Roland is saved by the Little Sisters, who pretend to be nurses but are actually vampires. Remember, all of the vampires in all of these books are bad guys. No Lestats here.
In my opinion, this prequel story isn’t really necessary for the larger enjoyment of the Kingverse, but it’s there if you want a little bit of fun. At the time, this was King’s first Dark Tower story since 1997’s Wizard And Glass. He’d finish up the remaining three books in the next two years.
Meanwhile, “Everything’s Eventual” tells the story of a psychic assassin named Dinky Earnshaw who works for the Trans Corporation, a company that’s using his particular gift (the ability to make people kill themselves) for personal gain. The story is fairly simple: Dinky is planning his escape (and hopefully a name change) from the corporation. Dinky is also captured by The Random after this story, but manages to escape and, like Ted Brautigan, helps Roland defeat the Crimson King.
The Dark Tower series (1982-2004)
Why it’s important: Crisis on Infinite Kings, Mid-World, The Dark Tower, Final Showdown with Flagg & Crimson King, Stephen King is a character.
This is the big one. The maxiseries. The meta-story that includes Stephen King himself as an alternate version of the author–a dead alternate version that doesn’t survive the accident that King actually suffered in 1999. A fantasy western that leads to the final destination in King’s cycle of stories: the Dark Tower.
To tell you too much about these seven books would be to rob you of an epic, hard-earned reading experience. The final confrontation between good and evil, a journey through multiple parallel worlds, vampires, demons, gunslingers, evil wizards. Flagg and the Crimson King’s plans in full swing. The very strange Mid-World–the land on which the entire fate of our universe (and others) lie.
You have this guide. The books are out there. Go, then. There are other worlds than these.
This article originally appeared on Den Of Geek US.
The Dark Tower, the latest Stephen King adaptation, is available now on DVD, Blu-ray, 4K Ultra HD and Digital Download. More on that release here..