Stephen King’s Best Books: A Guide

Stephen King’s Best Books: A Guide

Before the vampires and the haunted hotels, before the killer clowns, killer cars and killer dogs, before Shawshank and that green mile, there was Carrie. A teenage girl, bullied to her very limit, who discovers that she can move things with her mind, and uses that power to massacre her classmates.

By the time “Carrie” was released, in April 1974, Stephen King had already written several unpublished novels. But none of them gave any real indication that he would come to dominate horror fiction, and arguably all popular fiction, for the next half century.

In his review of “Carrie” in The New York Times Book Review, the columnist Newgate Callendar (who was actually the music critic Harold Schonberg writing under a pseudonym) marveled, writing: “That this is a first novel is amazing. King writes with the kind of surety normally associated only with veteran writers.” Eight years later, Time magazine would call him the “master of postliterate prose.” Four years after that, in the same publication, King would call himself “the literary equivalent of a Big Mac and fries.” In 2003, he accepted a lifetime achievement honor from the National Book Awards. It’s now 2024 and he’s about to publish another collection of short fiction.

This is all to say that critical reception has waned and waxed, but the books have continued apace — more than 70, with no sign of stopping. If you’re like me (committed? troubled?) you’ve had occasion to read them all, some more than once. And if you’re not, and have always been curious, you’re lucky enough to find an author who can write short and long (and extra long!), outside of the horror genre as much as inside of it. Few writers are more famous and few writers have as many accessible entry points.

You will find those who recommend jumping straight into the King pool with one of his door-stopper classics like “The Stand,” the postapocalyptic adventure story about the survivors of a plague that decimates much of the world’s population, or “It,” the tale of a group of friends stalked by a murderous supernatural clown. And while both are great, they can also be intimidating for beginners.

Instead, try “Salem’s Lot” (1975), his second novel and first true scary book. This riff on Bram Stroker’s “Dracula” sees a novelist return to the small town he lived in long ago at the same time as an ancient vampire and his human companion. It contains many of the most recognizable King elements: a writer protagonist, a Maine town full of idiosyncratic blue-collar characters, echoes of genre fiction standards and memorably creepy set pieces (the school bus, God, the school bus).

Few writers have spoken so damningly for so long about an adaptation of their work as King did about Stanley Kubrick’s “The Shining.” Despite the fact that it is regarded as one of the greatest of horror films, King appears to have been genuinely affronted by the changes that occurred from book to screen.

That’s likely because “The Shining” (1977) is particularly personal for the author. Jack Torrance is a down-on-his-luck alcoholic writer who finds one last job as the winter caretaker for the Overlook Hotel, a resort high in the Rockies. Accompanying him are his wife, Wendy, and his young son, Danny, whose psychic abilities make him vulnerable to the evil spirits that haunt the Overlook.

For King, Jack was a sliding doors version of himself, what he might have become had “Carrie” not been a success — an addict and wannabe novelist who can’t even cut it as a high school teacher and resents (sometimes violently) his family. Where the film’s version (Jack Nicholson in what remains one of his most memorable roles) is a psycho from the jump, the Jack of the novel feels human. He loves his wife and child. We want them all to make it out alive. The book is scary because, as King has said, “You don’t get scared of monsters; you get scared for people.”

It’s fine not to like scary things! That doesn’t mean you can’t read some Stephen King. Though he’s most famous for his horror novels and stories, at this point, he has written a significant amount outside of the genre. Early in his career, less than a decade after the publication of “Carrie,” King released “Different Seasons” (1982), a collection of four novellas.

Three have nothing to do with the supernatural. Two were adapted into top-tier King movies: “Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption” became, well, you know, and “The Body” was filmed as “Stand By Me.” Both are set in Maine in the early 1960s, and both give a sense of how lovingly King can draw his characters.

Relax! No one said you were. “It” is probably King’s purest horror book, but it’s also one of his biggest and most dense and … the ending has some problems. Let’s call that one part of your graduate study. This starter guide will instead go with “Pet Sematary” (1983).

There’s something elemental about its simplicity: A young family moves into a new house, and terrible things happen after they discover an ancient burial ground deep in the woods. Contrary to what you might think of King’s novels, given the mode in which he typically works, many of them do end with a sense of hard-won victory and optimism. Not this one. It’s as grim as he’s ever gotten.

Part memoir and part writing manual, “On Writing” (1999) is a bit of an odd duck. Somehow, it has become the fashion to pick one of King’s only nonfiction books as one of his best. (I myself am guilty of this.) And that it is, but it shouldn’t be read without having tackled several of the other titles on this list first. The work gives the life greater meaning.

Written mostly before the 1999 accident that almost killed King, “On Writing” is cleareyed in its account of what it was like to be a pop-culture-obsessed boy in the 1950s, how it felt to be a nearly broke young writer having to support a family, how addiction can quickly imprison you. But the most memorable part might be the 20-page postscript, written after the accident, in which King recalls lying in a ditch on the side of the road, his body pulverized after being hit by a van. The driver of the van sits on a rock looking down at one of the world’s most famous writers. “Like his face, his voice is cheery, only mildly interested,” King writes. Later on it strikes him that “I have nearly been killed by a character right out of one of my own novels. It’s almost funny.”

King has referred to “The Stand” as his attempt to do an American version of “The Lord of the Rings.” But his seven-book “Dark Tower” series (an eighth book was published after the story proper concluded) is King’s truest Tolkien analogue.

Indeed, it’s one of the great American genre series — an epic in multiple modes (horror, sci-fi, fantasy, Western) about a gunslinger-knight who is trying to save his world and ours from complete destruction by his foe, the Man in Black. Published over the course of 20 years, the series has become the center of a King extended universe, with multiple novels and stories connecting to its characters and locations. The first volume, “The Gunslinger” (1982) is the shortest, and it will give you a tiny taste of how weird and inventive the series gets.

A decent percentage of King’s work features writers as main characters, from “‘Salem’s Lot” and “The Shining” to “The Tommyknockers” and “The Dark Half” to “Bag of Bones” and “Lisey’s Story.”

Paul Sheldon, the protagonist of “Misery” (1987) is yet another writer, one who finds himself in a particularly horrifying situation — held captive, post-car accident, by an obsessed fan who wants him to write a book just for her. The subtext is clear: Sometimes, fame can feel like a trap. And King, a recovering addict, has talked about the sub-subtext, saying: “Annie was my drug problem, and she was my No. 1 fan. God, she never wanted to leave.”

But none of that matters much when you’re deep into this novel and Paul sleeps a little too long and wakes up and you realize what’s going to happen and your stomach just plummets.

For King, a prime baby boomer, the assassination of John F. Kennedy was one of the nation’s great pivot points: If Lee Harvey Oswald hadn’t fired those three bullets (as King believes he did), what would the next decade have looked like?

In “11/22/63” (2011) King imagines a scenario in which the Maine schoolteacher Jake Epping finds he can travel back to the year 1958 through the pantry in a local diner, eventually using that ability to try to prevent Kennedy’s death.

A big part of the book’s pleasures (and at over 800 pages, there are many) comes from the procedural-like manner in which Jake must establish a new identity in a new era and live in real time without revealing his mission. By the book’s back half, when he begins to cross paths with real historical figures and events, you’ve become fully invested in Jake’s task. It’s one secret of King’s success — that we can so easily put ourselves in the place of an ordinary person experiencing the most extraordinary circumstances.

If you haven’t seen the HBO series based on “The Outsider” (2018) — the novelist Richard Price was the showrunner and Dennis Lehane wrote a couple of episodes — then the twists of this supernatural detective story will remain intact for you. It’s an irresistible setup. In a small Oklahoma town, a teacher and Little League coach is charged with the brutal murder of a young boy. The evidence against him is overwhelming. Until, that is, unequivocal evidence comes to light also placing him in a completely different town at the exact same time.

One of the book’s main characters, Holly Gibney, doesn’t show up until halfway through; and while she’s a character in a prior series of King crime novels (the Mr. Mercedes trilogy), it’s not necessary to have read them beforehand, though you might want to after finishing this one.

This tale of a group of Pennsylvania state troopers and the odd car they keep hidden in a shed has always felt as if it got mysteriously lost. Released the year before King finished his “Dark Tower” epic in a three-book, two-year rush, “From a Buick 8” (2002) is an often contemplative novel that also happens to feature the gnarly dissection of an inter-dimensional bat.

While gross beings make several appearances here, resulting in some of King’s most unsettling descriptions, this is ultimately a book about how events often have no true resolution and life is ultimately inexplicable.

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