Stephen King (b. 1947) is one of the most prolific authors of our time, and has sold more than 400 million books. In this article we’ve picked out the 10 best Stephen King books to enjoy.
The American writer is the author of suspense, crime, science-fiction, fantasy, and most famously, supernatural and horror fiction. He has published more than sixty novels and several short story collections. He also writes film and television scripts and multiple adaptations have been made of his works by others. King has received most of the prizes and fiction awards for American writers, as well as such awards as his contribution to literature, his life achievement, and contribution to the arts.
We offer a list of his ten best horror and supernatural novels, in no particular order, except that it is the general opinion of critics and readers that The Shining is his masterpiece. The novel was adapted for film by Stanley Kubrick and is regarded as one of the best films of the 20th century.
The Stand, 1978
This is an ambitious novel that tells an apocalyptic story on a vast canvas with scores of characters and settings, and multiple story-lines. King manages that size of story with complete, sure-footed mastery. It begins with a pandemic that grows into an epic battle between good and evil of biblical proportions. King edited the text, quite savagely cutting it down, and it became a best seller. He later restored the excised passages and by so doing, actually improved the novel. It has sold 4.5 million copies so far. It has been adapted for television in a major series.
Carrie is the novel that first brought Stephen King to the attention of the American reading public. Its theme is something that everyone can identify with – the pain of adolescence. King takes those pain points and exaggerates them enough to make them terrifying. Carrie has to endure a crazy religious fanatic for a mother, and cruel, bullying peers. They contribute to the growing pressure that makes her explode in a horrifying episode in which she uses her strange powers to bring it all to a terrifying head. The novel was hugely successful, still a major best seller and has several film and television adaptations to its credit.
Stephen King would be the first to say that the most terrifying things are not supernatural but exist in the seemingly normal things around us, like other people living normal lives – neighbours, colleagues etc.
When a writer, Paul Sheldon is injured and knocked unconscious in a car accident, former nurse, Annie Wilkes, comes across the crash and takes him to her home and administers treatment and painkillers. When he wakes up he begins to realise that he is being held a prisoner.
The tension in the relationship and actions between these two characters cannot be bettered in fiction. For a reader who thrills to suspense and tension it is a wonderful read, and unputdownable. The film, with two of the best actors, lives up to the example set by the novel. It was adapted for the theatre in 2015, featuring Laurie Metcalf and Bruce Willis.
Misery won the Bram Stoker award for novel in 1987
The Institute, 2019
The Institute ranks highly in the best ten. It is about a strange, sinister institute that draws together a group of “special” children – children with paranormal abilities like telekinesis and telepathy. They are used as laboratory rats – experimented on. Sometimes people are murdered so that their children can be taken into the Institute. The director is a cruel woman who wants to learn the secret behind harnessing the children’s powers. The kids have to endure harsh treatment while at the same time dreading graduation, after which they will enter the “Back half,” the next phase of the experiment, from which no-one has ever returned.
The Tommyknockers, 1987
King has said that he wrote this novel while being “high as a kite.” It’s an extravagant novel, full of the ideas that come from a vivid imagination, including a spaceship full of alien artefacts, that the town folk unearth in the woods, with disastrous results.
The Shining, 1977
This is the master of horror at his best. The Shining is his most famous novel, twice adapted for the screen, one of the adaptations – the Stanley Kubrick film – generally considered one of the greatest American film.
What could be more frightening than someone going slowly mad, departing completely from reality? Although the story has many events it’s impossible to know which are real and which aren’t. One of the best things about it is that it suggests that supernatural things are occurring but on the other hand they may not be, and it’s hard to know whether those things are only happening in the mind of the reader or really are supernatural events. But terrifying throughout.
It is a novel of epic length but, as always with Stephen King, it is not only an extended read but extended reading pleasure. There is something inexplicable about clowns that makes them frightening to children, who often cry in terror when they first see one. It brings that into fiction and, in the hands of King, the clown is thoroughly evil and terrifying, even to adults. King reaches deep into the terrors of all of our childhoods and turns that exploration into a literary nightmare.
The Dead Zone, 1979
It is part of King’s philosophy of fiction writing that supernatural events are more frightening and real if rooted in the everyday world of everyday people who encounter circumstances which are out of the ordinary. The Dead Zone presents a reluctant psychic who has a terrifying vision involving an unstable politician and a serial killer. It was the first of King’s novels to make the list of the top ten bestsellers in America. It has been adapted for film twice and made into a television series.
Pet Sematary, 1989
This is a very creepy story with the most terrible nightmare at its centre. It’s like the standard three wishes story in which someone is given three wishes and acts on that gift. The ending is always the same: the wisher would have been better off if she had not begun the process of making the wishes.
This is perhaps the most disturbing novel from a writer who specialises in disturbing fiction. In this novel King takes that idea and gives it his own spin. Doctor Louis Creed moves his family to a house in Maine. There is an old Indian cemetery nearby. When the family cat is accidentally killed he buries it in the cemetery after he’s told that doing that will bring the cat back to life. The cat does come back but its personality has changed. It is hostile and violent. Nevertheless, when Creed’s son dies in a similar tragedy, he buries him in the cemetery. And the nightmare develops from there.
The novel has been twice adapted for film and there has been a sequel.
Salem’s Lot, 1975
Salem’s Lot is Stephen King’s “rewrite’ of Bram Stoker’s classic, Dracula. It builds on all the 19th century vampire stories that fascinated King as he was growing up. He plays around with the vampire fiction tropes, like the vampire fearing the cross and sunlight, needing permission to enter someone’s house, and so on, and gives the legend his own spin. It’s a fascinating read for all those interested in the vampire legend.
That’s our pick of the 10 best Stephen King novels, taken from his incredible bibliography of some 90+ novels. We’d love to hear what you think of these picks – any Stephen King books you’re not so keen on, or some obvious candidates to add to the list? Let us know in the comments section below.