With 56 novels, 11 short story collections, five books of nonfiction, seven novellas, and 10 that defy easy categorization, Stephen King is a literary madman, as well as an insanely-quotable storyteller. His books have sold over 350 million copies since he first published Carrie in 1974. What primordial evil inspires this twisted genius?
Chances are, King has freaked you out at some point in your life. Maybe it’s that tattered copy of IT you found in the public library. Maybe it’s the image of Zelda, wasting away in her bed in Pet Sematary, that you can’t get out of your mind. Whatever it is, there’s no denying that Stephen King knows what scares us—and he’s not afraid to deliver. In celebration of sleepless nights, here are some of the freakiest, scariest Stephen King books. And, by all means, if there’s a King book that (somehow) scared you even more than these did, tell us about it in the comments.
This one is particularly timely, as the remake of IT has just surpassed The Exorcist in earnings to set a new box office record for horror movies. But if the flood of theatergoers and critical praise isn’t enough to convince you there’s something frightfully special about this King story, the timeless plot certainly will.
The 1986 award-winning novel about a killer clown follows seven kids who are terrorized by a creature preying on the fears of residents in the small town of Derry, Maine. A group of seven kids, all of whom claim they’ve had a terrifying run-in with the unknown entity they call “IT,” attempt to figure out what it is and put a stop to its reign of terror. But what is it, exactly, about Pennywise that makes him so freaking horrifying? Well, aside from the whole creepy clown aspect, there’s the fact that Pennywise is the literal embodiment of evil, feeding on the fears (and lives) of children. It doesn’t get much scarier than that.
King's hotel horror classic—and Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 movie adaptation, The Shining—are masterpieces of the genre. In fact, this haunting tale is so popular, that the Colorado hotel that originally inspired King—Estes Park’s The Stanley—has now become a major travel destination for horror aficionados.
In King’s creepy story of possession, aspiring writer and recovering alcoholic Jack Torrance agrees to be a winter caretaker of The Overlook, a hotel with a dark past. When he and his family are snowed in at the remote location, the hotel becomes a house of horrors. The ghosts of the Overlook Hotel are undeniably and uniquely creepy, and torment the Torrance family nearly to death. But it’s always been Jack, going after his family, which scares us stiff. Although the Stanley has seemingly made a profit off King’s iconic tale, the book has probably been very bad PR for hotel caretakers everywhere.
Fans of King’s million-page-long saga The Stand know all too well that shows like The Walking Dead would have never existed without this dystopian masterpiece. This book was so beloved that King reissued it in 1990, so we could squeeze as much apocalyptic horror out of the pages as humanly possible. It was also turned into a totally disturbing 1994 mini-series, which aired on ABC network in three parts. An expansion of his earlier short story "Night Surf," the engrossing novel attempts to answer what would happen to society—and our humanity—after a biologically weaponized strain of influenza creates a pandemic of apocalyptic proportions.
With survivors forced (or guided) to two separate locations across the country, they soon realize they’re representative of the ultimate forces of good and evil and must fight for the future of the world. 38 years after it was first published in 1978, The Stand is more relevant and terrifying than ever. With all the horrors of the modern world, it seems that The Stand is moving farther and farther away from fantasy and closer to reality.
If you were afraid of dogs as a kid, you might have this 1981 novel to thank. Of course, even if you didn’t get around to reading the book, the terrifying 1983 movie version may have put the fear of “man’s best friend” in you. Humans—alive or dead—are often the figures of terror in King’s stories. But in Cujo, the author whips up scares by preying on his readers’ potential to love their pets.
After a family’s good-natured St. Bernard is bitten by a rabid bat, he transforms into a terrifying and deadly beast that menaces an entire town. Cujo's name was based on the nom de guerre of Willie Wolfe, one of the men responsible for orchestrating Patty Hearst's kidnapping and indoctrinating her into the radical and short-lived Symbionese Liberation Army—a subtle message about how “good people” can be driven to do “bad things.” Written during a dark period, when the author was suffering from alcoholism and drug abuse, King revealed in his memoir that he “barely remembers writing it at all.” Well, we remember! We remember the horrifying feeling of being trapped in the car and surrounded by a rabid dog all too well!
Sure, animals and people that come back from the dead in some kind of evil, zombie form are terrifying. But what’s even scarier is the question at the heart of this 1983 novel: what happens after we die? Throughout the nearly 400-page story, King’s main characters—the Creed family—are unexpectedly forced to confront death again and again before they finally try to beat it, with the help of a creepy cemetery used by local children to bury their pets. King was inspired to write this unsettling meditation on mortality after his family’s cat was hit and killed by a car, and his children asked him what happens after death. King at first felt the book was far too dark and hopeless to be published, but on his wife’s advice he ultimately submitted it to his publisher Doubleday.
One of the most horrifying parts of Pet Sematary is the traumatic past that continues to impact the Creed family matriarch, Rachel. Rachel’s sister Zelda died a horrible death of spinal meningitis, and this traumatic experience with death, recounted by Rachel in gruesome detail, takes the book from creepy to downright terrifying. Unfortunately, almost everyone has a personal experience with death, which is what makes Pet Sematary one of the most scary Stephen King books ever—the true horror at the heart of this story feels all too real.
The unexpected horrors that lurk outside your front door made King’s 1987 novel a modern classic. In Misery, there’s nothing supernatural going on here. Rather, the monster is an apparent Good Samaritan named Annie Wilkes, who “rescues” a popular romance novelist from a car wreck. But as we all know, Annie’s motives are hardly noble. What follows is a suspense-filled thrill ride that may leave you questioning any interest you have in gaining celebrity, and increasingly distrustful of seemingly friendly people.
Though King claims he wrote the book as an analogy for his feelings on being “chained” to horror fiction, this book basically made us never want to trust another stranger again, let alone ever leave our houses again. And if you’re a well-known or famous person like King, it’s sure to chill you even more. If the book leaves you wanting even more depravity, you can also check out the 1990 movie adaptation starring Kathy Bates as Annie Wilkes.
Featured photo: New York Daily News Archive / Getty Images