With 58 novels, 11 collections of short fiction, and 6 works of nonfiction, Stephen King is more than just “the master of horror”. He’s one of America’s most prolific and beloved writers. Over 350 million copies of King’s books have been sold worldwide, and his many awards include the prestigious Medal of Distinguished Contribution to American Letters from the National Book Awards. Indeed, King has been credited with reinventing horror. By sprucing up the fast-paced genre with rich characterization and thoughtful commentary, King earned a place for himself among the ranks of literary giants.
King’s first horror novel Carrie was published in 1973, meaning he’s been terrifying readers for nearly half a century. The writer’s mind seems to be endlessly creative; time and time again, he’s taken a worn-out topic like demonic possession or vampirism and breathed new life into it, stretching the limits of the horror genre and what it can achieve. Though King clearly has a penchant for the macabre, the talented writer has managed to break into a variety of genres, including nonfiction, mystery, drama, western, and more. He’s even published works under a variety of pseudonyms, underscoring the fact that his massive popularity is well-earned, and his writing can stand on its own.
Whether you’re a die-hard King fan or you’re new to his twisted imagination, here are 10 of the best Stephen King books, from his forays into genre-bending to his most gruesome tales that will keep you up late at night. Sweet dreams.
If you’ve never read King and want a good place to start...
Louis Creed should have listened to his neighbor Jud when he warned him never go to into Pet Sematary, much less bury anything there. Inspired by King’s daughter Naomi asking what happened to her cat after it was hit by a car, this 1983 novel has everything a horror fan could want, from ancient burial grounds to killer kiddies. The book’s dark meditation on life and death makes it the perfect introduction to King’s work. Even the master of horror himself calls it one of the scariest and most shocking things he’s written. Terrifying and heartbreaking, Pet Sematary will make you afraid to turn the page. There’s a reason so many diehard King fans consider this one a favorite–pick a copy up and find out for yourself.
If you love vampires...
Inspired by Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Stephen King’s second novel is his take on the classic vampire story. And by that, you know this will be no typical vampire story—trust King to avoid the modern day pained, brooding teenage vampire. ‘Salem’s Lot is set in Jerusalem’s Lot, Maine, where residents are slowly but surely transforming into the undead … with a thirst for blood. Of all his books, King has said ‘Salem’s Lot is his one of his favorites, “because of what it says about small towns. They are kind of a dying organism right now … I have a special cold spot in my heart for it.” King pokes at the trope of small, idyllic, tranquil towns with care and terror. Fans praise the tense build-up, keeping them on the edge of their seat from page one.
If you're into short(er) fiction...
“Get busy living or get busy dying.” King’s 1982 collection of four novellas contains three stories which were adapted into major films: “Rita Haworth and the Shawshank Redemption” spurred 1994’s The Shawshank Redemption; “Apt Pupil” was made into a 1998 film of the same name starring Ian McKellen and Brad Renfro; and “The Body” was the basis for the cult classic 1986 film Stand By Me. As if we needed any more proof that King’s books make great movies. The stories are bound together by changing seasons, and some readers call it some of King’s best work. It’s another successful example of King’s masterful blending of genres–young adult, coming of age, and mystery, among others. He takes a small step back from the horror, but still manages to keep readers guessing about what will emerge on the next page.
If you want something from a female perspective...
It’s a love story done King-style. King is famous for using his own life as inspiration for his novels: There’s an awful lot of male writers with drinking problems located in New England to be found among his fiction. But this story took an even more personal moment as inspiration. In 1999, King was struck by a car while out for an evening walk and nearly died as a result of his injuries. Though his recovery was lengthy and painful, and even left King believing that he may never write again, his 2006 novel imagines what would’ve happened to his real-life wife, Tabitha, had he passed away. Lisey is the widow of a popular novelist, who discovers things she never knew about her husband once she cleans out his office. An unconventional horror novel, Lisey’s Story is a touching portrait of the complexity of marriage.
If one book is never enough...
King started writing what would become the story of Roland, a lone gunslinger, in the 1970s. Eight novels later, he still claims he’s not done. King fans are heavily divided on the series: Some love it, while others hate it. But if you’re a fan of genre-mixing, then this epic sci-fi/fantasy/horror/western is for you. Fans finally got the movie adaptation they’ve been waiting for, starring Matthew McConaughey and Idris Elba. The film hit theaters in 2017, joining the long list of King stories to be adapted to the big screen. Like the series, fans of the book series were split on the film. Rumors of a sequel to the film, and even a television series, have been thrown around, but nothing has been confirmed.
If you think you're tough...
You know the type: the party guest who says she’s not afraid of anything, including that horrifying movie that made everyone else run from the theater. Well, step aside. Stephen King’s 1986 novel is the stuff of nightmares. Reader, if you weren’t afraid of clowns before, you certainly will be now–get ready to never be able to even look at an image of a clown, much less attend a child’s birthday party for the rest of your life. Pennywise the clown is the embodiment of evil, and IT will scare the living daylights of out the most diehard of horror fans. This book is a monster. Not only because of the creepy clown from King’s rich imagination but also because of the epic page count of 1,116 pages. How else could you tell such an intricately horrifying tale?
If you haven't read his more recent work...
Another genre-bending book, 11/22/63 proves that the author can write the heck out of any genre. In this novel, Jake Epping, a high school English teacher, discovers a portal that allows him to travel back in time to prevent a murder that forever changed the life of one of his students. Then it hits him: What if he could stop even bigger tragedies? Like, perhaps, the assassination of JFK? Before long he sets his plan in motion … but as Epping finds out, there are severe complications to interfering with the time/space continuum. King manages to take an event we were all taught about in high school and make it shocking and exciting in new ways.
If you’re a history-lover, a fan of horror, and maybe even enjoy a splash of well-executed romance here and there, take a peek in 11/22/63. You’ll wish you could travel back in time to read it again for the first time. Of course, if you can't get enough, you can always watch the Hulu adaptation after you're done reading.
If you’ve been known to claim the book was better than the movie…
King was inspired to write The Shining after an eerie visit to the Stanley Hotel in Boulder, Colorado. Arriving just before the hotel closed for the season, King and his wife Tabitha were the only guests lodging in the huge building, and stayed in a room that was supposedly haunted. This creepy experience, combined with King’s real-life struggles with alcoholism, formed the basis for the novel. The Shining is about a man who is hired as a caretaker for the Overlook Hotel in the off season, and moves into the empty building with his wife and young son. As heavy snowfall prevents any outside contact, malevolent forces prey on Jack, a recovering alcoholic with anger issues. Jack slowly descends into insanity, with horrifying consequences for his family. The Shining was adapted into a 1980 film directed by Stanley Kubrick. Though it’s considered one of the best horror films all time, Stephen King has been famously outspoken about hating the adaptation of his novel. If you finish the book, watch the movie and decide for yourself which one’s better—fair warning, it’s a tough call.
If you’re more of a cat person…
This book will leave you seriously suspicious of man’s best friend. Cujo is a disturbing novel about a good-natured St. Bernard, who never so much as growled at anyone until he was bitten by a rabid bat. With rabies coursing through his system, Cujo turns vicious and kills several people. After witnessing what the dog is capable of, Donna Trenton finds herself trapped in her car with her young son as Cujo prowls outside. She becomes increasingly desperate to escape as the car gets dangerously hot in the summer sunshine. This book shows off Stephen King’s mastery of psychological horror—you’ll feel the adrenaline coursing through your veins as though you were sitting right alongside Donna. Check out the 1983 movie for a heart-pounding visual adaptation.
If you're an aspiring writer yourself...
The first book King published following his near-fatal accident, On Writing is a fascinating mix of writing and life advice from the horror master himself. Dealing with extreme pain as he recovered from the aforementioned accident, King later explained that returning to his desk was like “starting over from square one,” giving him the idea for a writing manual.
Like all of his books, it is compulsively readable and reveals intimate details from King’s autobiography, including his childhood, his relationship with his wife, and his past struggles with alcohol and drug addiction. King holds back nothing, giving us a personalized glimpse into the mind of this master creator and shares some of his greatest writing secrets along the way. Okay, upcoming horror writer: It’s your turn.
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