Stephen King is one of the most famous writers in the world, an artist who has been so successful—commercially, artistically, pop culturally—for so many years, he has become a genre unto himself. Very few writers live to see other writers analyzed against their output, but it’s so common to call a writer “like Stephen King” or “a new Stephen King” it almost feels rote (and makes us think of this quote from The Wire: “You come at the king, you best not miss”).
But with the upcoming release of King’s newest book, the highly anticipated The Institute, it’s a perfect time to consider the question: which writers working today really are the inheritors of King’s legacy? Here are ten candidates we’d shelve beside the King.
Like King, Beukes understands that one of the most terrifying things is the unpredictability of violence. Anyone who has been in a tense situation and just kept their heads down, hoping not to be noticed, understands that power. No matter what horror or other speculative aspects they bring to a story, King and Beukes comprehend that the most terrifying thing in the universe is being selected for torture and terror for reasons you can’t possibly understand—or no reason at all.
Check out: The Shining Girls, a time-hopping thriller about a serial killer moving through time and seeking out women he perceives to have a special property—it’s chilling, it’s horrifying, and it’s genius.
LaValle understands something that King does, too: for horror to work, for any story to work, there have to be stakes. You can’t pull punches. You can’t just soak your story in blood and screams from page one—not until you’ve set up the stakes. For LaValle, like King, that means letting people die. Even innocents. Even children. Couple that with LaValle’s willingness to interrogate his own influences and favorites—much like King interrogated old vampire legends and other pulpy horror standards—and you have a clear successor.
Check out: The Ballad of Black Tom. LaValle explores the dark pleasures of Lovecraftian terror with his eyes wide open to Lovecraft’s flaws, mixing up something incredible and new.
Few writers can play pop culture the way King does, weaving it into his narratives in ways both natural and consequential; King doesn’t name drop songs or products as shortcuts to verisimilitude, he does so carefully, shaping his fictional world much the way the real one is shaped, via the products we use and the culture we consume. Cantero gets this, and he celebrates the darker side of pop culture in smart and surprising ways that are scary, funny, and above all interesting, similar to the ways King’s best work interrogates the very culture he’s using as a prop.
Check out: Meddling Kids, which wears its pop culture sources with ferocious pride while exploring a trope King mastered—the childhood that comes back to haunt.
Like King, Barron is branching out into genres beyond horror, but horror remains what he’s most associated with—and he’s one of the most effective writers working in the genre today. He manages to weave his terror into the flesh and blood of real life. His stories have weight and mass, they make it feel like someone is sitting across from you in a darkened room, firelight distorting their faces as they whisper their tale to you. That sense of the possible is tough to master. King did it fifty years ago and hasn’t looked back. Barron is doing it right now.
Check out: The Croning, one of Barron’s best.
Cox’s work has the flavor of classic late 1970s and ’80s King. His stories don’t necessarily scare you with gore and violence, jump scares or scenes that would cost billions to film if they were a movie; like many of King’s best, their terror comes from the sense of reality being perverted, distorted, changed in ways you neither understand nor approve of. His novel The Boys of Summer is practically a love letter to King’s It, the story of a group of kids who go through a terrifying experience that lingers with them as they grow up, eventually circling back to close the loop. While his other work drifts more explicitly into sci-fi than King ever did, the vibe is remarkably consistent.
Check out: The Boys of Summer, of course.
When you hear the term “magical realism,” you might not think of horror, or Stephen King. Oyeyemi trades in it, crafting horror stories that are just as much dark fables as straight-up scary. Like King, she finds terror in the unreliability of the world, the way reality will skew and deform right in front of your eyes. Her literary approach to horror and other speculative genres mirrors later King, when the master widened his view and took some unusual approaches to storytelling.
Check out: White is for Witching. Like King, Oyeyemi takes the barebones structure of a traditional scary story—in this case the haunted house—and finds all the oddball corners where things don’t join the way they should, and transforms it into a postmodern nightmare.
C. J. Tudor
Much of King’s success rests in his ability to dive into the inner lives of his characters in both macro and micro ways. Like King, Tudor communicates the fundamentals of the characters in just a few lines, then spends the rest of the book sinking deeper and deeper into them, finding all the ways our flaws turn fatal and horrifying. Tudor’s debut novel, The Chalk Man, is set in England, but the tiny village and kid-centric first half—involving secret codes, a dismembered body, and the sort of insulated children’s universe King excels in—all echo the King playbook, though Tudor then energetically twists things in a unique way, winding up not with a duplication of King’s style or plotting but rather a reinvention of the tropes.
Check out: The Chalk Man.
King once tweeted that Tremblay’s novel A Head Full of Ghosts scared him, which is pretty high praise. Tremblay specializes in something King used to great effect in his work: the sudden intrusion of threat into an otherwise peaceful existence. Tremblay wants to scare you, and he understands that in order to do so he must first convince you he’s not there to scare you. He offers a soothing world of order and fair play—and then sets it on fire with you trapped inside.
Check out: The Cabin at The End of the World, which opens with an idyllic vacation, head-fakes you with an ominous arrival that then seems to be just fine, and only then goes for your jugular.
Auerbach famously erupted onto the scene via Reddit, posting creepypasta stories, a series of which evolved into his debut novel Penpal. King came up through the ranks, too; there was no Internet in the early 1970s, but King toiled away publishing stories in sketchy men’s magazines, building his reputation through the impact of his work as well. If you’ve ever checked out the r/nosleep subreddit (if you check it out do yourself a favor and read the sidebar before you do anything) you know that many of the stories posted there are legitimately terrifying, and Auerbach’s stood out amidst stiff competition—the man writes scary. More importantly, he writes stories that explore the peculiar helplessness we often feel in childhood, and the sheer terror that follows when we realize that becoming an adult doesn’t magically cure that helplessness—we just get better at ignoring it.
Check out: Bad Man, Auerbach’s second novel, which promises to be a doozy.
One of the aspects of King’s writing that makes it so effective is how well he understands—and conveys—the concept that what you see is not always what you get. King’s worlds are full of secrets, and tension is often sourced from the unspoken grievances we carry inside us against our neighbors, our friends, even our families. Pyper gets this. He gets this so hard it’s white-knuckle time. In his novel Damned, for example, he tells the story of a brother and sister who die as kids; the brother comes back, the sister—who seemed perfect and loving and sweet—does not. As the brother becomes famous for his tales of the heaven he glimpsed while dead, he reveals that his sister has never left him—and is certainly not in heaven.
Check out: The Damned