To say that Stephen King is an institution in and of himself would be an understatement. His books have influenced numerous generations of readers and writers, expanding the cleverness of the horror genre—and literature as a whole—along the way. If there’s any problem with being so prolific, it’s that many books will undoubtedly get buried in the rubble caused by the noise emitted by some of King’s more popular titles—like The Stand, Carrie, or IT. This can make it daunting for the discerning reader to dig through his extensive bibliography.
Well, have no fear! We’ve done the dirty work for you and dived into the depths of Stephen King’s impressive back catalog to unearth some of his more obscure hidden gems. These are the must-read underrated Stephen King books that you should add to your repertoire.
Cujo is one of the books Stephen King wrote during the height of his battle with alcoholism—so much in fact that he doesn’t remember writing it. That alone is ominous, as though the novel manifested itself from the darkest despairs of one’s addiction.
Cujo is about the eponymously named Saint Bernard who succumbs to rabies. Once a loving family dog, he soon becomes a monster with a devilish snarl. Of course, when a beloved pet devolves into a monster, it becomes a reflection of the family and town surrounding it. Cujo is as much a symbol of inner demons as he is a reflection of the very real demons that haunt our everyday lives. The novel has, in recent times, become less discussed—and it’s a shame because the central premise is timelessly irresistible.
One of the novels King initially published under his pseudonym Richard Bachman, Thinner is an addictive page-turner for fans of body horror. Billy Halleck is an unlikeable protagonist, a lawyer who is as arrogant as he is “obese.” He accidentally hits and kills an old woman while driving. Unbeknownst to him, the woman’s father places a curse as punishment, effectively causing him to lose weight. What initially becomes a nice surprise turns into true body horror when Billy’s body continues to thin out, long after the excess pounds have dropped.
A fun fact of sorts for fans of King: Thinner was the book that finally got readers suspicious of the Bachman pseudonym. A bookseller named Stephen Brown eventually used Library of Congress cataloging data to discover that King and Bachman were one in the same.
King has certainly written post-apocalyptic (and pandemic) fiction that is far more propulsive than Cell, especially when you look back at the book from the uncertainty of 2022. However, Cell remains an underrated novel by King, if only because it now reads more like a cautionary tale of what would inevitably become the everyday tech staple: our phones.
The premise of the novel is quite simple: on October 1st at 3:03 PM, a “pulse”—or a call that is sent to everyone who owns a cellphone—goes out. Anyone who answers the call turns into a psychopath incapable of doing anything but pursuing their basest urges. Clay Riddell is an artist who chose to live off the grid, not buying a cellphone—and for that reason, he is “saved.”
Reading Cell nowadays carries different weight, a sort of “hindsight is 20/20” effect, where we see how bound to our phones we’ve become. That “pulse” might be more so an eroding of our attention spans, a depletion of those calm moments which we don’t feel pressured to fill with content, content, and content.
The Eyes of the Dragon
An offshoot of the acclaimed Dark Tower series, Eyes of the Dragon is considered by many to be one of King’s least common books. A king dies and the cause of death is poisoning. Peter, his eldest son, is implicated for the King’s murder and tossed into prison. A darkness hangs over the kingdom, perfect timing for Fragg—an evil wizard and truly memorable character—to enter the scene and take advantage of a weakened kingdom. Naturally, it is Peter, stuck in his high tower, who might be the kingdom’s only hope in fending off Flagg’s machinations.
Written to be a book for King’s daughter, it could be considered more in line with fantasy, fitting into the young adult category. That said, Eyes of the Dragon is a truly remarkable book.
Four Past Midnight
Similar to King’s more popular novella collection, Different Seasons (which includes the novellas that inspired films like The Shawshank Redemption and Stand by Me), Four Past Midnight consists of four novellas framed around a loose theme.
The most recognizable novella would undoubtedly be Secret Window, Secret Garden, which was adapted into a film starring Johnny Depp. A successful novelist named Mort Rainey is confronted by a man named John Shooter, who claims Rainey stole his story. Another novella, The Langoliers, pertains to a red-eye flight from LA to Boston whose passengers go missing, leaving behind only physical mementos of their existence. The other two novellas—The Library Policeman, about a policeman suffering against a persistent fear, and The Sun Dog, about a suspicious camera that only takes one photo, that of a menacing dog who appears to attack the camera holder—join them in encapsulating personal and often paranoid fears, themes echoing throughout the entire book.
The Long Walk
A novel published during King’s Richard Bachman phase, The Long Walk was a surprisingly captivating read back when I first encountered it over a decade ago. At the center of what could be considered, nowadays, a derivative concept, readers are witness to an epic and dangerous event consisting of 100 teenage boys walking with the fear of breaking the rules. They only have so many warnings before they are essentially taken out of the epic walk in a heinous and grotesque fashion. However, King harnesses the opportunity to explore the motivations and inner struggle of the walk’s entrants—and it’s in this deep inspection that The Long Walk becomes its own beast altogether, rather than say, a Battle Royale rip-off.
Related: 9 Extreme Horror Books with Heart
If you have battled insomnia for most of your life like I have, any story that promises to explore the nether realms of being neither awake nor asleep, will undoubtedly call to you. The stories that explore the way reality feels elastic and you are so exhausted you could swear you were watching yourself stumble through life from a far-off perch are asking to be read.
Ralph Roberts is suffering from insomnia and has been for long enough that he is having visions. Soon those visions become less illusory and more prophetic, like they might be real—and outright revelatory. Ralph enlists a lonely friend of his, Lois, to aid in an investigation that borders on cosmic. King’s Insomnia is one such novel. Thankfully King knew well of that hazy effect of sleeplessness.
Nobody’s going to notice that I began this list with Cujo and ended it with Christine, but hey, it makes sense to me thematically. Like Cujo, Christine creates a palpable concept based on the more mundane elements of life. Houses, marriages, house pets, and cars. In Christine, King leans on the absurd and explores a man’s love for his car—literally. But this isn’t Crash or Titane; it’s a story about a teenager named Arnie Cunningham who finds a run down 58 Plymouth Fury called “Christine.” The car gives Arnie the sudden confidence he’s never had, changing his life overnight. It doesn’t stop there; Christine begins to haunt every corner, as though she might have a mind of her own. It’s easy to picture King really having fun plotting this novel out from the ground up.
Featured image via Wikimedia Commons.