Stephen King is one of the world’s most prolific writers. He has written over eighty novels and shows no sign of slowing down. Born in Maine in 1947, many attribute his fascination with the horror genre to a tragic incident in his childhood when he witnessed a friend get killed by a train. He graduated with a Bachelor of Arts in English from the University of Maine in 1970 and later accepted a teaching job while he worked on his writing. He published his first novel Carrie in 1973, and since then King has been publishing regularly, becoming one of the most famous modern authors around the globe with his work frequently adapted for film and television. King has dabbled in many genres but sticks primarily to fantasy and horror, with his most recent novel The Institute encapsulating both. The following list discusses 13 of the very best of the wonderfully dark world of Stephen King.
1. The Green Mile
King published The Green Mile in 1996. Only three years later it was turned into a film starring Tom Hanks and Michael Clarke Duncan and was nominated for four Oscars. The novel follows Paul Edgecombe in 1932, a prison officer for E Block at Cold Mountain Penitentiary, otherwise known as death row. Paul takes pride in his work, ensuring the prisoners make it to “Old Sparky,” the electric chair, as comfortably as possible. This changes when John Coffey comes to E Block, a man convicted of the rape and murder of two young girls but who appears completely harmless and incapable of such atrocities. Suddenly Paul becomes extremely uncomfortable with his role as chaperone to Coffey’s death. This novel combines everything that makes King a great writer—it uses seamless elements of magical realism so effectively that the reader begins to believe there is such a thing as a greater power, one beyond explanation. It is a devastating novel but puts forth an emotional clarity that can sometimes be missing from his other work.
Misery is one of King’s best horror novels. Published in 1987, it won the Bram Stoker Award (specifically for the horror genre) and its adaptation for film starring Kathy Bates and James Caan is the only King adaptation to ever win an Oscar. Writer Paul Sheldon has just finished his last book in the Misery series. He’s excited to move on from the fictional character he has grown to detest when he gets into a car accident and is saved by Annie Wilkes, his number one fan. What at first appears to be a happy coincidence quickly turns sinister when Paul realises the Misery series is Annie’s favourite, and she’s not ready to let go of it… or Paul. This novel provides unbearable suspense—it is the definition of unputdownable. King’s writing is sharp and the characters jump from the page, which is terrifying in the case of Annie Wilkes. Where some of King’s novels don’t know when to end, Misery is the perfect length and justifies King as the “King of Horror.”
King published 11/22/63 in 2011, a mammoth of a novel sitting at nearly one thousand pages. Jake Epping is a newly divorced teacher who discovers a time portal behind his friend Al’s burger shop. It transports him back to 1958 for an hour. Upon his return to the present, Al informs Jake of a mission he’s been undertaking for years, a mission to stop the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. With no real ties to the present, Jake accepts the mission and, using Al’s research, begins a new life in 1958, waiting for 1963 to come around. The sheer amount of research that went into writing this is admirable, and King even admitted it was a challenge for him. The novel quickly became a number one bestseller despite its size; The New York Times selected it as one of its top five fiction novels of the year.
Nothing quite lives up to the magic of Stephen King’s first novel Carrie. Carrie White is a teenage girl who is the constant target of ridicule from her peers. She has no friends or social life and her God-fearing mother keeps her strictly locked away. But Carrie is different; there’s something inside her that even her mother can’t control and it’s about to be unleashed. Carrie is the epitome of a teen slasher novel, but it’s also so much more than that. It speaks openly and honestly about high school politics as well as sexual tension and frustration amongst teenagers. It highlights the difficulty of growing up and navigating puberty, all through a compelling tale of misery and self-deprecation. Carrie has been adapted for the screen and stage and has become a popular reference in the modern world, despite its publication almost 50 years ago. Novels such as Carrie prove the horror genre has much more to offer than just gratuitous violence.
A warning for dog lovers everywhere, Cujo will make you deeply uncomfortable. What happens when the murderous villain of a story was once the beloved pet to a 10-year-old boy? Cujo is a lovable St. Bernard who falls victim to a bat bite and finds his gentle sensibilities slowly begin to shift. Although he tries to resist, Cujo slowly succumbs to rabies and loses control around any living thing that comes his way. This novel depicts themes of family breakdown, not just for the Cambers (Cujo’s family), but also for the Trentons, a family of three suffering from the revelation of a bad secret. This novel is bloody and dark—though reviews were largely favourable, some have criticised it for its bleak undertones. It was also censored in many libraries and schools for explicit sex scenes and viciousness, but perhaps earns its cult following because it turns something lovable into something terrifying.
6. The Outsider
Unlike some of King’s novels, The Outsider shocks from the first page. When a young boy is brutalised and murdered, the case seems open and shut; several witnesses tell Detective Ralph Anderson that they saw beloved baseball coach Terry Maitland leaving the scene of the crime. In his anger, Anderson arrests Maitland publicly, only to discover evidence that clears the coach of his charges. King comes to life when writing about the supernatural, and with his style of prose, it is easy to believe that these evil entities are possible. Unlike many novels in the horror genre, King dives deep into a character just to slaughter them mercilessly, making the reader grieve for the unlucky soul who falls victim to one of his beasts.
7. The Institute
King’s most recent novel follows Luke Ellis, a boy genius who is kidnapped one night at his family home. He’s brought to The Institute, a school/laboratory that experiments on gifted children or rather, children who have supernatural abilities. One thing becomes clear—Luke needs to escape and take as many kids with him as possible, but no one gets out of The Institute alive. The New York Times called this King’s “scariest novel yet.” King was inspired to write this because of the large statistic of missing children who are never found, and this novel certainly creates a difficult hypothetical.
8. The Shining
The Shining became a worldwide phenomenon in 1977. Jack Torrance moves his family to The Overlook Hotel to work part-time as the caretaker while he works on his novel. He suffers from alcoholism and is hoping to make a fresh start with his wife Wendy and son Danny, but unbeknownst to him, there are dark forces at play. The Shining is arguably one of the most famous horror novels. The film adaptation starring Jack Nicholson is a classic for anyone who appreciates a good scare, and the storyline continues to haunt and inspire literature to this day. Although it is easy to get lost in the plot—elements of the supernatural are sometimes convoluted—this novel is a must-read for any King fan. He is especially close to this novel as he used his own paranormal experiences and his struggles with alcohol to fuel his story-telling.
9. Doctor Sleep
Doctor Sleep, the much-anticipated sequel to The Shining, is a masterpiece. In 2019 it was made into a film starring Ewan McGregor playing Danny Torrance as an adult, many years after he escaped the Overlook Hotel with his mother. Danny has not escaped his demons however; his gift or “the shining” continues to haunt him into adulthood. Eventually he comes to grips with the gift but soon encounters another child named Abra who has a higher affinity for the shining than him. But with such gifts come people intent on exploiting them, and Danny may be the only one who can protect Abra.
10. Dolores Claiborne
This novel is not one of King’s most famous, however it is a wonderfully original tale of desperation. The police interview Dolores Claiborne with regards to the death of her employer Vera Donovan. She claims she didn’t kill her, but she is adamant that she does have a confession to make, and the police are going to hear it. The voice of Dolores is strong throughout the novel—she’s funny and colloquial and goes about telling her life story authentically. This first-person narration helps bond the reader to Dolores, and King never sounds as though he doesn’t know what he’s talking about. He writes well from the female perspective which some male writers struggle to do. Although it doesn’t have elements of horror or the supernatural, Dolores Claiborne proves that King is a master of his craft.
It is arguably King’s most famous novel. Pennywise the Clown has become something of a Halloween icon and whether you’ve read the book or not, you’ve certainly heard of It. In the small town of Derry, Maine, children are getting killed. Six-year old George Denbrough is brutally murdered in 1957, sending shockwaves through the town. His brother Bill is determined to find out what happened to him before it happens to someone else. He becomes friends with six other children who want to achieve the same, but such a group only becomes a beacon for the hungry Pennywise, whose prey is primarily children. It is over a thousand pages but unlike 11/22/63, It drags on too long. This is a novel that could have been divided into a trilogy with the amount of backstory it provides for each character, and it is to the novel’s weakness that it was bound up into one book. Still, it remains one of the most iconic horror stories and for any fan of Stephen King, It is a must-read.
12. Pet Sematary
As with many classic horrors, this novel opens with a new family in town. Their lives seem perfect and their arrival is a good move for the whole family. But also like many classic horrors, there’s something lurking in the nearby woods, and it’s going to make the Creed family wish they had never set eyes on their beautiful new home. Pet Sematary came out in 1983 and was successful—by this stage King was well known for his terrifying tales. He was inspired to write this after renting a house opposite a busy road where animals were frequently killed. When his daughter’s cat was killed in this same manner, King morbidly wondered how horrible it would be if the cat suddenly came back to life. He admitted of all his works, the idea behind Pet Sematary frightens him the most.
13. The Stand
The Stand was published in 1978. Focusing on a worldwide pandemic, the novel depicts the end of life as we know it. When 99% of the population is wiped out, the remaining survivors are left to rebuild a broken society. But when the world is left with only destruction, how will they fare in recreating what they once had? The Stand is King’s longest work and has received the most praise from big platforms such as BBC, Rolling Stone, and Amazon.