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Best-Selling Novels of the 1980s

Updated on August 20, 2012


The 80s was the decade when the science fiction and horror genres edged their way into the bestseller lists, led by the grand master Stephen King and novelizations of popular films. Some traditional bestselling books continued to excel, but the literature of the extreme began to make its presence felt. This reflected a change in the overall culture from the adventurous but conservative popular titles from the past decades to that which appealed to the upcoming generation, which grew up in the shadow of Sputnik, the moon landing, and the space age. The list's source is Publisher's Weekly.


1980: The Covenant by James A. Michener


This is another huge, sprawling Michener novel covering hundreds of thousands of years and featuring generations of characters. In this case, the author focuses on South Africa, from prehistory up until the early 1970s, and uses historical facts and famous people to weave his fictional threads.


1981: Noble House by James Clavell


This is another enormous book, but instead of encompassing hundreds of years the author zooms in on just one week. It is set in Hong Kong in 1963, and has many characters and interconnected plot lines. It follows the history of the era quite closely and some of the characters are based on actual people, but there is quite a bit of artistic license involved in including events outside the timeline of the novel, and creating composites of real people. The television miniseries updated the story to the 1980s.


1982: E.T., The Extraterrestrial by William Kotzwinkle


This is a novelization of the hit film, and obviously it became a bestseller riding on the film's success. Though in the novel the story is fleshed out somewhat - for example, E.T.'s viewpoint is added – it follows the storyline of the film fairly closely.


1983: Return of the Jedi by James Kahn


This is another novelization of a popular science fiction movie which became a bestseller after the release of the movie. There are a few minor variations, but basically it closely follows the screenplay.


1984: The Talisman by Stephen King and Peter Straub


This begins Stephen King's ascendency to the number one bestseller lists. He and Peter Straub, another bestselling author, became friends and collaborated on this novel and a sequel called "Black House". "The Talisman" concerns a twelve-year-old boy searching in a parallel world for a crystal called "the talisman" which can save his mother's life. A multitude of characters help or hinder the boy in his quest. In particular, in the parallel world there is a race of werewolves, one of whom becomes the boy's partner in his quest.


1985: The Mammoth Hunters by Jean M. Auel


This book is the third volume in a series about prehistoric clans in ice-age Europe. The series was amazingly popular in spite of the fact that many readers accused this novel in particular of being an ice-age soap opera. Others have accused it of being too sexually explicit. But yet others have been enthralled by the romantic adventure with a large cast of major and minor characters set in the distant past.


1986: It by Stephen King


This is a horror story about a group of seven friends who encounter a murderous monster in the semblance of a clown in 1958 and seem to vanquish it, only to have it reappear again in 1985. Many consider it one of King's best horror stories. It's a long, long book that alternates between flashbacks to the original nightmarish murder spree and the investigation of an apparent resurgence many years later.


1987: The Tommyknockers by Stephen King


This novel starts out with a science fictional premise, the discovery of a spaceship, but then descends into horror as the evil aliens aboard the spacecraft wreak havoc upon the inhabitants of a town in Maine. There's plenty of mayhem, killings, and bizarre occurrences which should keep any horror fan happy.


1988: The Cardinal of the Kremlin by Tom Clancy


This is a cold war espionage thriller with Clancy's recurring hero Jack Ryan. The cardinal in the title is an undercover agent in Russia who uncovers vital Soviet secrets. It's full of mystery and intrigue and plot-twists.


1989: Clear and Present Danger by Tom Clancy


This is another Jack Ryan CIA thriller, focusing on the drug war against Columbian gangs, but which also emphasizes corruption in high places in American politics and the fact that personal ambition and self-protection often take precedence over honor and integrity. Ryan, of course, always does what he thinks is right, even at the cost of disobeying the orders of superiors and even exposing their corruption.


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