Stephen King is one of the load-bearing walls of horror. His stories, articles, books, comics, movies, hell even his merch all play an enormous role in the genre. We know many of you are largely movie and TV fans, but his books are truly the foundation of his magic.
He has an overwhelmingly large bibliography, so here are 10 books that highlight the best of his work and serve as your starting blocks. The proceed in order of importance to your education. Think of it this way, if you only read one book, it better be number one. If you want to go further down the path, add number two to the mix and so on.
Shall we begin?
10. It (1986)
I couldn’t create a list such as this without including the book that started it all for me. It is a very long book, but it won’t feel that way. This story grips you from start to finish. It contains many of the elements and themes that make King books great. It has deep philosophical ideas about life, fear, gender, small towns, kids vs adults and mortality. It also has an iconic supernatural monster out for blood. More than any of this, though, It speaks right into our being. Each character represents different aspects of ourselves and they are each full and robustly portrayed. Humor, fear, bravery, trauma, it’s all there. These kids are grounded, real and you will see yourself in them.
9. Misery (1987)
King is the master of doing much with little. He has books that take place entirely on a single walk or in a single room. He is famous for creating rich, full stories within very limited space. Misery is the ultimate example of this. Ninety percent of this book takes place in the spare bedroom of a total nutbag named Annie. Part of how King does much with little is by going deep rather than wide. The voice of the victim here is so authentic and King delves far into his mind as he is imprisoned by the sunny, sweet clutches of a smiling, doting monster.
8. Lisey’s Story (2006)
Another common theme in King’s books is obsession. His characters get fixated on something and can’t seem to let go. Here we get a heaping tablespoon of obsession from both protagonist and antagonist. Lisey is the recently widowed wife of a famous writer. She learns he may have held a very dark secret, one she’s wanted to unravel throughout their relationship. Now that he’s gone, she’s gone from interested to obsessed. Problem is, she’s not the only one. A mega-fan is also fixated and will stop at nothing to have his questions answered, even if it means resorting to murder.
7. The Running Man (1982)
Though written decades ago, this book could not be more relevant. King has a knack for getting right to the root of a matter. Be that our innermost fears in It, the price of fame and obsession in Misery and Lisey’s Story, or the depth of depravity a reality TV culture can inflict like in The Running Man, he knows how to strike right at the nerve. In the distant future of 2025, the world has become obsessed with screens and entertainment. Nothing is bigger than The Running Man show, in which people agree to be hunted. If they survive, they get a load of cash. If they don’t, well, they don’t. When written in the early 1980’s it was deemed too cynical and far fetched. King only published it under a pen name, Richard Bachman, and now the book feels so realistic it is bone-chilling. The commentary on a consumer culture has never been more on point.
6. The Green Mile (1996)
Not all King’s works are horror. His ability to see through right to the heart of his characters and portray them as full, realized humans, fits the dramatic as well. There are many good examples, but the best of them is The Green Mile. This is not even a thriller. It does have supernatural elements, but they are tangential. Still, you will be gripped from the first page to the last. The drama here is human and emotional in nature. Few books have moved me like this one.
5. Different Seasons (1982)
When Stephen King pitched the idea of putting several novellas together into one collection, he unknowingly sparked the horror anthology movement now a mainstay. All four novellas were adapted into feature films, three of them received Academy Award nominations and two are considered cinema classics. Imagine being able to write a collection of stories and be able to say that! The two classics are Stand by Me and The Shawshank Redemption. If you’re a fan of those, like most of humanity, this is definitely worth your time.
4. Salem’s Lot (1975)
If there is one thing King knows well, it’s how to scare the shit out of the suburbs. Think about how many great horror shows and movies, from Halloween to Stranger Things, are set in the suburbs of middle-America? Books like Salem’s Lot are a great example of why it’s an enduring approach. An elder vampire has taken up residence in small town America. No one knows this, until local kids figure it out. Like with most things, the adults don’t believe them and it’s up to this unlikely crew to take this evil head on. Anyone who grew up in streets like those of Jerusalem’s Lot will instantly relate and it’s just the sort of tale to suck you in.
3. Desperation (1996)
This is another novel that tackles very heavy subjects. Here, the subject matter is religious in nature. King is fantastic at digging into deep subjects and uses a shapeshifter to dig into religious dogma. Who can we trust? Who is who they really say they are? Can we trust those in authority in our lives? What does it say about the bible if someone or something from another dimension suddenly shows up in our sleepy, pious town? Desperation tackles it all in a story chock full of terror.
2. The Shining (1977)
If you’re going to become a Stephen King expert, you simply must be able to pull a ‘the movie is nothing like the book’ on your friends. This is truer for The Shining than any other book in his bibliography. The iconic Kubrick film is so different, in fact, Stephen King full-on hated it. Too bad, Stephen, it’s a damn classic. Still, the book is utterly fantastic, as is the sequel, Doctor Sleep, that came out recently and is a sequel to the book, not the film. If you’re going to dig into King, you simply must take a trip to the Overlook Hotel.
1. The Gunslinger (1982)
If you ask Stephen King what he’s most proud of, his answer will be The Dark Tower series. It is simply a masterwork. King wrote the series throughout his career. He started with The Gunslinger in 1982 at the very start of his writing career. The final book published was put out in 2012. What’s more, King would not plan the books, but just start writing and see where it took him. So, what you get with The Dark Tower series is a look into the style, skill and work of Stephen King over the course of decades and get to see a story grow and develop organically. Not only is this astounding, it’s also incredibly rare. The journey starts with the incredible The Gunslinger.
Secure your horror cred by nailing down the essential Stephen King books. Let us know your favorites over on Twitter, Reddit, and in our Facebook Group – and have fun traveling into the mind of the King!