The master of horror, author Stephen King, has a canon of more than 88 books which includes some of the most genre-defining, best-selling titles in all of literature. From nightmare clowns to pussycats rising from the grave, King has captivated readers with his penchant for imaginative yet believable plots, colorful and three-dimensional characters, and images that sear into our minds and leave our psyches shell-shocked.
Here are King’s best books— and by best we mean the most concentrated in their Stephen King-ness. i.e. terrifying, page-turning, other-worldly, horror gems. Why 13? King and much of the world has triskaidekaphobia; an irrational fear toward this number, so it seemed suiting.
Go ahead, argue with us about #1, just don’t sledgehammer our ankles until we amend the article.
13. Cujo (1981)
Think Jaws, but with a 200-pound Saint Bernard. After the 1970s high of King’s greatest work, Cujo came out of the 80s and holds great characters and character development, but is overall a touch cartoonish. After all, it’s about a quiet Maine town terrorized by a rabid dog. I have no shame in saying, don’t waste your time on this book unless it’s the only one you can find on this list.
12. Salem’s Lot (1975)
New England vampires. Written during what many consider the height of King’s literary prowess, Salem’s Lot includes many of King’s favorite topics: A writer protagonist, a haunted mansion, hometown horror, and murder. But it’s also a vampire story, which is somewhat out of character for the supernatural storyteller. The novel’s slow start is hard to persevere through, and the layout is a bit outlandish and can feel like a soap opera, but at the heart this book is about the evil of humanity, and this reality keeps us gripped. Amazing storytelling, trope characters turned into real three-dimensional people (or vampires) lands Salem’s Lot in the top 13, but far from the head of the list.
11. The Dead Zone (1979)
You wake up from a five-year coma and can see people’s past and how they die in the future. That’s the story of Johnny Smith, The Dead Zone hero, or forced hero as he sees it, shunning this new supernatural ability as a curse. One of many #1 national bestseller’s from King, The Dead Zone is a timeless thriller that still feels relevant 40 years since its publication. An easy, more approachable, read for its straight-forward language, The Dead Zone is the perfect entry-level King novel for readers who say they hate genre work. Is the book life-altering? No. Nor is it his scariest.
10. Full Dark, No Stars (2010)
Like most authors, King started out writing short stories and novellas. And damn, does he know how to pack a punch in a few pages. Full Dark, No Stars is a compilation of four novellas that focus on the darkness of human nature and retribution. It’s easier to approach shorter stories cemented in the real world, especially if you’re new to horror and sci-fi, so be prepared to go full-fledged King fanatic after this read. The titles include 1922 (about a man who murdered his wife), Big Driver (a drive home went really, really bad), Fair Extension (a man makes a deal with the actual devil), and A Good Marriage (I’ll let your imagination do the guessing). Each story compiles page-turning violence and gruesome situations that make you say, “how does this guy even come up with this?” Another short story compilation, The Bazaar of Bad Dreams, came out later in 2016 and included 21 of his iconic short stories, but that wasn’t anything super-duper new. It is, however, a good book showcasing his shorts.
9. Carrie (1974)
Carrie White is a teenage girl picked on by her schoolmates. Lucky for her (or unlucky for them) she has telekinetic powers that leads to a prom-night massacre. Carrie was King’s first big success and he wrote the story in a closet in his trailer. It’s 100-percent classic King and a quick read with a finely woven narrative. King’s later book, Firestarter, used a similar concept of a young girl who can start fires with her mind, but Carrie is the OG.
8. The Dark Tower: The Gunslinger (1982)
The Dark Tower Series turned out to be a major hit for King, who wrote the first book in the 80s. By this time, King had mastered the art of writing sentences that readers ate up quick and left them starving for more. King’s inspiration for this novel actually came from stitching together five short stories, melding them together with inspiration from the poem, “Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came.” It took more than 12 years to finish this novel, which follows The Gunslinger, Roland of Gilead, in his quest to catch the man in black and get to The Dark Tower. All you need to know is many consider this series some of King’s best work ever, and the futuristic old west apocalyptic sci-fi universe is fresh, cool, and mind-expanding.
7. On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft (2000)
Ever wonder how Stephen King comes up with all this wild shit? He tells you in his own words how he builds the architecture of each story, the details of every characters, and psychology of the perfect sentence. On Writing is a bible for anyone who wants to write and is a field-guide for King fans who get a filling history of the author’s upbringing and how he came to be, well, The King. Yep, he used to be poor and got so many rejection letters they couldn’t fit on his wall. A brilliant book about a brilliant mind.
6. The Stand (1978)
It’s a good ol’ end-of-the-world story. After an error by the Defense Department laboratory wipes out 99-percent of the population with a super flu, survivors go (understandably) berserk. Many readers (King fan or not) have called The Stand the best post-apocalyptic book ever (debatable). Needless to say, it did help define the genre and turn a ton of skeptics into sci-fi lovers. The common sentiment before reading this book is, “I didn’t think I’ll like it,” and it’s the best books that hit us over the head and make us believers. To really reap the full effect, crack open this book when you’re sick and have a couple down days to binge read. Preferably in an isolated cabin away from society.
5. It (1986)
King both shot himself in the foot and separated the true believers from the phonies when he decided to make It 1,138 pages. I’m sorry, Steve, but that’s too long. If you did manage to get through 1,000 pages of terrifying clown nightmare scenes, you probably fell in love with the book. (Stockholm syndrome perhaps.) It has become a cultural phenomenon and is one of those “my favorite books of all time!” novels people brag about reading 20 times. That’s because it’s relatable. We all have fears floating in the back of our consciousness that need to be confronted.
4. Misery (1987)
Expect A+ gore, blood, and psychopaths worthy of sleepless nights and paper cuts. A #1 national bestseller, Misery is amazing and just go read it now. Famed novelist Paul Sheldon is taken in by his number-one fan after getting into a car accident in the middle of nowhere. She holds him hostage, forcing him to write another novel that brings the main character back to life. She motivates him by through torture. You’ll be both terrified and captivated by the “bad guy,” the delusional Annie Wilkes.
3. Pet Sematary (1983)
*Sings The Ramones “I don’t wanna be buried, in a pet sematary” – a song originally written for the movie made from this book. Ok, only Stephen King could be able to write this. In theory, it’s about not wanting your beloved pet to die. Thanks to King’s hand, this #1 New York Times bestseller is artfully disturbing and yet relatable. A classic in the King cannon and a must-read for fans and non-believers alike, Pet Sematary has been called “convincing”… as in when people read this book about raising animals from the grave they believe it. That takes skill, people. Many King fans consider this in their top three favorites, saying it literally gives them nightmares. Better still, it’s a quick read that shoots straight to the nervous system.
2. The Green Mile (1996)
John Coffey arrives at penitentiary “Green Mile” on death row after being charged with murdering two girls. An intense journey of sadism, injustice, empathy, and racial bigotry follows and leads you on the verge of tears. The Green Mile was first released much like an HBO serial in six installments, spaced apart by six months. All six installments ended up on the New York Times bestsellers list and now the book is largely sold as one novel that is rich, beautiful, and truly sad, but also filled with those soul-inflating moments of pure human goodness. Every character has an edge and you really (really) hate the bad guys.
1. The Shining (1977)
If you don’t know this story, shame on you. And if you’ve only seen the film, double shame. Jack Torrance takes his wife and kid to the Overlook Hotel where he will work as the off-season caretaker. It’s winter, desolate, and surprise, surprise, the hotel is haunted. Wildly imaginative yet somehow realistic, we never question the bizarrities in this novel which is a major feat. King came out with the sequel sort of, Doctor Sleep, that follows the little boy Danny when he’s an adult with supernatural abilities. Cut to the heart of King and begin here.