Stephen King, one of the masters of American horror fiction, has an oeuvre of close to 100 books. Of these, we will highlight the five best books which include some of the most genre-defining, best-selling titles in all of literature.
From nightmare clowns to pussycats rising from the grave, Stephen King has captivated readers with his penchant for imaginative yet believable plots, colourful and three-dimensional characters, and images that sear into the minds and leave our psyches shell-shocked. From his first novel, Carrie, way back in 1974, he has consistently found ways to unnerve us while still practically forcing us to turn the page.
Here are Stephen King’s 5 best books of all time. We chose them because they best represent Stephen King’s body of work in that they are terrifying, page-turning, other-worldly, horror gems.
Book number 1 in our top 5; Misery
Thanks in part to Kathy Bates’s Oscar-winning turn as Annie Wilkes in Rob Reiner’s 1990 film adaptation, Misery is easily one of King’s best-known and most widely read stories.
Novelist Paul Sheldon suffers a car accident on a snowy road, and is rescued by a former nurse named Annie Wilkes, who just happens to be the absolute biggest fan of Sheldon’s romance novels. Unfortunately for Annie, Paul has grown bored of his protagonist Misery Chastain, and has killed her off in the most recent book.
Unfortunately for Paul, Annie doesn’t care for that ending. She will do everything in her power to make sure Paul writes a better one. Originally intended as a Bachman book, Misery finds Stephen King unpacking toxic fandom decades before Twitter would allow Annie Wilkes the world over to vent their frustrations around the clock. Stephen King has since said that Misery is not just about the expectations of his fans, but about cocaine’s hold over him throughout much of the ‘80s.
Our conclusion on Misery
The novel is perhaps the best example of Stephen King’s ability to ratchet up the tension with nary a ghost or goblin insight, as Wilkes proves plenty terrifying in her all-too-human form. If you thought Jack Nicholson hefted the most iconic ax in Stephen King’s history, you haven’t read Misery yet.
Salem’s Lot as our number 2
Carrie was an unexpected start, but Stephen King’s second published novel best forecasted what to expect from the horror genre’s most outstanding author.
Salem’s Lot brought the vampire myth into the backyards of semi-rural Americans. And it found Stephen King at his most ruthless with the characters in this book. Amusingly, the novel also features the first of King’s many writer protagonists. Stephen King sold Salem’s Lot for notable sum by today’s standards, nevermind the mid-70’s. And this streak continues; last year’s The Outsider even touches upon some of the same themes, to chilling effect.
The third on our list is The Shining
For most modern readers, the movie adaptation of The Shining by legendary director Stanley Kubrick looms large over Stephen King’s original novel. Nearly all of the moments lodged in the public consciousness are only in the film: the elevator of blood, the ghoulish twin girls in the hallway, the typewriter and the iconic;
Pushing past these iconic bits of pop culture reveals one of King’s greatest accomplishments, a hauntingly compelling story of a troubled man’s descent into madness.
Stephen King’s novel is more sympathetic than the movie toward Jack Torrance, a recovering-alcoholic writer. He tries to improve his family’s life by taking a job as a caretaker of a remote off-season resort with a barely concealed violent history.
The house wants Danny, Jack’s gifted young son, and puts the Torrance family through hell to get to him. King infamously hates Kubrick’s adaptation. And though it’s hard to debate the film’s quality or place in the horror movie pantheon, the novel is the more nuanced and, arguably, more disturbing version of the story.
Our fourth position in the list of best books by Stephen King is IT (1986)
Of all the Stephen King books revolving around plucky kids, these might be the pluckiest, most iconic, and possibly the most annoying. The protagonists are a collection of fairly broad stereotypes. There is the geek, the fat kid, the sickly kid, “the girl,” just to name a few. They are painted in an all-encompassing pastiche of ’50s American life, but in the end, Stephen King remains, as always, obsessed with the turbulent years of early adolescence.
The titular “IT,” on the other hand, is probably King’s most enduring and iconic monster. An interdimensional being of pure malevolence and alien mindset that seems so much simpler on the surface. An evil clown that kills kids? That could at least be dealt with in ways accessible to adults.
Fighting the actual evil of It is a much trickier proposition, one that depends upon a perfect blend of mysticism and childhood faith necessary to overcome Its greatest weapons: fear and entropy, and the ability to make an entire town forget about the atrocities it commits and allows.
The ending of It is occasionally cited as its weak point, but it’s a big, fat novel that is far more about a journey, both in the ’50s and ’80s, and the horrifying visions suffered along the way.
Last but not least of the best of Stephen King; The Stand
Stephen King’s magnum opus nearly didn’t make Paste’s Best Horror Novels of All Time countdown. It is said to fit more neatly into the post-apocalyptic fiction or fantasy genre.
At over 800 pages (more, if you are reading the uncut edition), The Stand includes as much horror as any of Stephen King’s other novels. Spurred by a viral outbreak that kills off 99.4% of the population. Apocalyptic scenarios were on everyone’s minds in the ’70s and ’80s, as global tensions escalated and means of mass destruction proliferated.
Stephen King isn’t content to simply explore a post-pandemic wasteland, though; The Stand is his most epic standoff between good and evil. The latter concept embodied by Randall Flagg, a recurring antagonist of Stephen King’s. Randall Flagg later becomes essential to King’s Dark Tower saga.
Knowledge of that series isn’t necessary to undertake The Stand. All you need is only a month or so of dedicated reading, and a hearty resistance to nightmares. If you like our list of best books by Stephen King, also check out the best books by James Patterson.