Stephen King is a master of horror; there’s no doubt about that. But after almost 40 years, 50 novels and nearly 200 short stories it’s time to pick out the cream of the crop. We can start with:
10. Bag of Bones – 1998
Winner of the Bram Stoker Award, the British Fantasy Award and recently turned into an AMC miniseries, Bag of Bones is one of the best ghost stories of all time. What drives the novel for me though isn’t any of the supernatural events, but the expertly crafted characters. Mike Noonan is an author suffering from writer’s block, and still recovering from the death of his pregnant wife. He travels to a lake house known as “Sara Laughs” and becomes intertwined in the lives of a young widow named Mattie Devore and her daughter Kyra.
The relationship that slowly forms between the three is both wondrous and heartbreaking. In a story full of ghosts, death and hatred, watching Mattie slowly bring Mike back from the dead (figuratively speaking) is beautiful and it shows just how talented King can be when he focuses on the non-supernatural aspects of his stories.
9. Different Seasons – 1982
Different Seasons isn’t a single novel, but rather a collection of four novellas, and contains of some of King’s most recognized works that a lot of people don’t even know are his. For example, Different Seasons brought us The Shawshank Redemption, although the novella is titled Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption. This book also brought the world one of my favorite movies of all time, Stand By Me otherwise known as The Body. These famous stories are coupled with Apt Pupil (also made into a movie) and The Breathing Method.
With the exception of The Breathing Method, these stories have no supernatural elements in them and I consistently recommend them to people who are put off by King’s usually horrific tendencies. Both Shawshank and Stand By Me are such huge pieces of pop culture that I would find it hard to believe if someone was ignorant of the basic plots, but just to be safe I’ll include four little synopses here.
Shawshank tells the story of a man named Andy who is sentenced to life in prison, and his determination to be free again. Apt Pupil is a disturbing story of a young man who tracks down a Nazi war criminal and slowly falls under his spell. The Body is about four friends who go off on a quest to find the body of a boy killed by a train with the goal of becoming local heroes by discovering it. Finally, The Breathing Method is a rather forgettable story about a pregnant mother, a car accident and an unlikely birth. Honestly, if you do pick up Different Seasons, you wouldn’t be missing too much if you skip the last section.
These stories are the perfect example of how well King can write “ordinary” fiction. As I mentioned above, he’s a master of character development and the first three novellas in this book are exemplary. King consciously uses the symbolism of the four seasons, assigning a different theme to each novella while still tying them together into a cohesive arc. Hope, corruption, and the death of innocence are powerful themes throughout all literature and King is no exception.
Originally published in a serial format from March through August of ’96, The Green Mile was a unique experiment for King. It paid off pretty well because it won the Bram Stoker Award, and was also nominated for the British Fantasy Award and the Locus Award. Not only that but it was adapted into a film by Frank Darabont (who also did the Shawshank film) and starred Tom Hanks, Michael Clarke Duncan, and Sam Rockwell.
The Green Mile is another prison story, focusing on convicted murder John Coffey and the miraculous things he can do. Again, it’s a King tale that focuses very little on horror and instead simply uses brushes with the supernatural. What really drives the story is the relationship between Coffey and the block supervisor, Paul Edgecombe. The cast of supporting characters is also pretty wonderful considering that they’re all death row inmates.
King managed combines magical realism with a gripping murder mystery to fashion something unique and captivating. The symbolism can be a bit heavy handed at times, the main characters initials for example, but overall it does very little to detract from the quality of the writing.
7. Pet Sematary – 1983
Nominated for a World Fantasy Award, Pet Sematary is one of the creepiest, most disturbing pieces of horror fiction of all time. Death is one of humanities greatest fears, especially the death of a young child, and the idea that there could be a way to come back from that abyss is ever so tempting. What would you be willing to do to bring a loved one back from the grave?
King originally found the novel too disturbing to publish and actually set the novel aside after its completion and only submitted it to his publisher after they insisted on a final novel to fulfill his contract. As you can imagine, it’s dark as hell.
Pet Sematary follows the Creeds: Louis, Rachel, Ellie and Gage as they move into a small town in Maine. On Thanksgiving the family cat is killed by a car and under the advice of a neighbor, Jud Crandall, Louis buries the cat in an ancient Micmac burial ground. The next day the cat comes back, only it’s a bit different. It’s meaner, smells funny and just acts strange. A few months later, young Gage is killed by a truck, and Louis is distraught enough to bury his son in the Micmac grounds. He comes back too.
Pet Sematary takes the classic “be careful what you wish for” trope and turns it into a bloodcurdling tale of terror.
6. Needful Things – 1991
Needful Things is one of King’s longer works; utilizing an entire town for its cast of characters. King introduces us to Leland Gaunt, a man that has whatever you may need. But of course, such things come at a price.
Gaunt sets up shop in Castle Rock, a town that should be familiar to King fans, and begins to peddle his merchandise to the townsfolk. In true Faustian style, his stock doesn’t cost money; instead all Gaunt asks for is a small favor in return for handing a person the one object they most covet. These tiny favors are catalysts that spark up violent attacks and blind hatred across the town, tearing it apart. In the midst of all of it is Sheriff Alan Pangborn, who slowly becomes the last man standing between Castle Rock and certain damnation.
What’s most intriguing about the novel is not the hidden darkness that lurks inside of people’s hearts, but rather the quaint and innocent seeds of want and nostalgia that fester and transform into corrupted lusts. Every “needful thing” is something that’s all but worthless to anyone except the person who sees it. A fox tail that reminds a man of better days. A fishing rod that brings back memories of a lost parent. A baseball card that a young boy needs to complete his collection. These aren’t the typical objects of desire that would require a deal with the devil, and that’s what makes the story so compelling.
Needful Things is an outstanding tale of small town relationships, manipulation and desire. Despite being close to 700 pages, every time I pick this book up I can’t set it down until I finish it and it has lead to some blurry eyed mornings.
5. ‘Salem’s Lot – 1975
Nominated for the World Fantasy Award and the Locus Award, ‘Salem’s Lot was King’s second novel and by far one of his most entertaining. Inspired by Stoker’s Dracula, King had wondered what would happen if the infamous vampire lord had arrived in 20th century America. At the time he joked that he “would probably be hit by a taxi.” His wife, Tabitha, suggested a rural setting and from there King created a gripping modern vampire novel.
In the novel, Ben Mears moves to the quiet town of Salem’s Lot and begins writing a book about the Marsten House, an abandoned mansion with a sordid past. He learns that a mysterious man by the name of Barlow has purchased the mansion, and soon after the townsfolk begin to fall prey to vampiric forces.
One of the main themes of the novel is the loss of faith, and King explores it through the fantastic character of Father Callahan. What truly makes the story unique is that Callahan is not the white knight who triumphs over evil with nary a missed a step, but instead he finds his faith broken and he is cast out into exile for it. He does later find redemption, but as a supporting character in King’s epic Dark Tower series.
Vampires are so prevalent in pop culture nowadays and garbage like Twilight has all but de-fanged them, but there are still stories in the world where vampires are brutal killing machines, rather than sparkly teenagers. ‘Salem’s Lot is one of the best.
4. The Shining – 1977
Perhaps one of King’s best known works, The Shining has come to epitomize the horror genre, specifically because of the film. It seems that nearly everyone has seen, or at least heard of, the god-awful Kubrick adaptation (yeah, I said god-awful), and the movie has been parodied and referenced countless times in all varieties of media. If you’ve seen the film and have not read the book, then shame on you. King himself disliked Kubrick’s version so much that he later re-made the film into a television mini-series.
At any rate, I’m not here to bash Kubrick (even though he is guilty of some of the worst adaptations of all time), I’m here to talk about the King novel. The Shining is King’s third novel, and when he submitted it to his publisher, he received a warning that after Carrie and ‘Salem’s Lot, The Shining would forever associate his name with horror. King considered that a fine compliment and sent the novel on through. What I find interesting is that The Shining almost combines King’s previous two novels thematically and structurally. It takes the psychic abilities and broken family life from Carrie, and combines them with the external, malevolent supernatural force and small group dynamics of ‘Salem’s Lot.
Quite simply, it is one the most chilling books I’ve ever read. King takes a simple case of cabin fever and transforms it into a murderous rampage. Jack Torrance’s slow descent into madness is incredibly disturbing, and the themes of alcoholism and the disintegration of the family, as well as the supernatural terrors dwelling within the hotel, form a horrific gestalt that is mind-blowing.
3. The Stand – 1978 (1990)
Nominated for a World Fantasy Award, and adapted into a television mini-series as well as a graphic novel, The Stand is arguably the most beloved King book by his fans. Re-released in 1990 in a “Complete and Uncut” version, the long form of the novel spans over 1,150 pages and is the longest work King has ever written (not counting the seven separate Dark Tower novels). The Stand is one the grandest novels I have ever read, both in scope and content. It follows the outbreak of a biologically engineered virus that decimates mankind, and the lives of numerous survivors of the plague as they work to rebuild society.
King once again tackles the idea of good versus evil, only this time the scale is so much larger. The Stand documents the final battle for the future of mankind. Love, loss, faith, hope and redemption are all swirled together to create a literary masterpiece.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, King is a master of character building. The Stand has about a dozen main characters and just as many, if not more, supporting characters. King completely creates a world from the ground up, and not only manages to paint a vivid and harrowing picture of post-apocalyptic America, but he populates it with realistic and believable people. Nick Andros and Tom Cullen are a hilarious and endearing throwback to Of Mice and Men, and Stu and Frannie’s relationship is the perfect amount of sappy romance grounded in harsh reality. When King pulls characters from his head and plops them into a novel, they refuse to stay on the page and instead set up shop in the minds of his readers. I’ve read The Stand at least a dozen times now, and no matter how often I do, it never gets old.
The Stand is certainly an investment, not only of time but of shelf space, but it is completely worth it.
2. IT – 1986
Winner of the British Fantasy Award, nominated for the Locus and World Fantasy Awards, and adapted into a terrifying television mini-series starring Tim Curry, IT is hands down the greatest horror novel of all time. IT is also the first King novel I ever read.
IT is divided into two halves of the same story, divided by 30 years. The first half takes place in 1950 and follows the Losers Club, a group of unlikely misfits that band together to battle a shape-shifting monster that feeds on children. The second half occurs in 1980 and the Losers, now all grown up and separated, must reunite to destroy the timeless evil once and for all.
Another weighty tome (about 1,140 pages) IT is one of King’s longer novels, comparable to The Stand in its complexity and character driven plot. IT takes place in Derry, another of King’s fictional locales, and goes into so much detail about the sleepy little town that it would probably be possible to create a model of it just from his descriptions. King went so far as to write a history for the town that stretches back hundreds of years. Not only that, but every location in IT is a marvel of creativity. King comes up with the spookiest places. The Kitchener Iron Works, the Stand Pipe, the Morlock Tunnels, the Barrens, the basement of the house on Neibolt Street; every one of these fictional places is in my mind without even having to pick up the book. I can close my eyes and replay scenes from this novel even if I haven’t read it in years. It’s just that good.
It’s also absolutely terrifying. Anyone who’s seen the mini-series can attest to Tim Curry as Pennywise the Dancing Clown giving them nightmares for a week. At least. And that’s just the stuff they can show on TV. The book delves so much further into the black depths of horror that there is no way it can ever completely cross the divide into visual media. There is some flat out disturbing shit in this book. King reaches down into the atavistic fear center of our brains and rips out everything that we thought we had left behind when we stopped sleeping with a light on, bringing it out onto the page in a shockingly visceral way.
Pennywise coming out of a drain with razor blades for teeth will forever be in my memories. But don’t assume that he’s the only villain in the story. What truly makes IT stand out above the rest of the horror genre is that King takes it one step further and transforms the ordinary citizens of Derry into violent monsters. The Losers Club doesn’t just have to worry about being killed by a monster; they have to worry about being attacked by their parents and their peers. IT is a complicated metaphor for the fears and anxieties of growing up and coming to terms with adulthood, and it handles the concept of how isolated and afraid young people can feel extraordinarily well. It’s inspiring and thrilling and frightening all at the same time.
This book got me into horror. It inspired me to write. The Losers Club isn’t just a group of fictional people in an almost 30 year old horror novel. They’re good friends of mine, and they mean the world to me.
1. Wizard and Glass – 1997
While IT is the best horror novel ever written, it isn’t the best King book. That honor belongs solely to Wizard and Glass, the fourth book in King’s Dark Tower series.
For the uninitiated, The Dark Tower is a series of seven books (8 counting the most recent Wind Through the Keyhole) that King wrote over the course of two decades, from 1982-2004. The books tell the story of Roland Deschain, a gunslinger, and his quest to find the Dark Tower that binds together all of creation. The series is a whirlwind combination of fantasy, science fiction, spaghetti western and, of course, horror.
Wizard and Glass is a story within a story as Roland recounts a tale of his childhood, his first love, and one of his first missions as a gunslinger. It is far above and beyond anything else King has done. I have never read a love story as captivating or heartbreaking as Roland and Susan’s, and to make it even more impressive, King wraps the idyllic romance inside a western story that would make Clint Eastwood green with envy.
Wizard and Glass has all the classic trappings of a good Western story: the young, cocky heroes that arrive in a town full of scheming evil-doers, the beautiful damsel in distress, the experienced and cold-hearted mercenaries; even a budding revolution. King is never content to tell a story that’s already been told though, and adds his own touch to things including a witch, mutants, magical glass orbs and a rip in the fabric of reality all wrapped up in a post-apocalyptic world that may or not be ours.
As for the romance I mentioned, Roland and Susan’s love reads as though it’s straight from a fairy tale. Their courtship is both awkward and graceful; star-crossed yet destined. It plays out in a manner that rivals the great tragedies of old, and to this day every time I read it I can’t help but think: “If only…” To me that’s the mark of a truly great tragedy. It should be a literary Rube Goldberg machine where tiny little events are set in motion, and if only a single one was interrupted then maybe all would be well, but you can only look on in dawning horror and sorrow as they combine into a grand finale that rips your heart out. That’s how I felt my first time reading through Wizard and Glass, and that’s how I still feel every time Susan cries out: “Roland, I love thee!”
King is not well known for adventure novels, in fact I can’t really think of another of his books that’s similar to Wizard and Glass (possibly 11/22/61, but it’s a different sort of adventure) but W&G is just more proof that King is consistently underrated and unfairly viewed as solely a horror author. He may consider such a thing a compliment, and in all honesty I would as well, but he sells himself short. Wizard and Glass is the kind of book I would die to write, and most likely never will. It’s the kind of book that haunts your dreams past the point where you’ve awakened. It’s my favorite King book of all time.