Stephen King is a literary icon, a status he’s achieved by a) defining a genre; b) writing brilliantly; and c) being prolific. In other words, not only has Stephen King written some genius novels (and short stories, novellas, essays, and works of criticism), but he’s written a lot of them—51 novels to date, in fact, with number 52 coming up shortly.
Note, however, the use of the word “some” up there. While we’d argue that King has never written a bad novel, there’s certainly a spread between the good and the great and the best of the best. Of course, we don’t just love to read King’s books—we also love to reread them, and debate their merits, and compare them to one another. So without further ado, here’s how we see the novels of Stephen King—starting with the ones we respect, and ending with the ones we adore. (Note: we’ve ranked King’s short story collections separately; find that list here.)
To Be Determined: The Institute
King’s next novel is due out in September 2019, but it sounds like it has the potential to rank very highly on this list. We know it involves a strange and sinister institution where “special” children—children with extra-normal abilities like telepathy and telekinesis—are experimented upon like rats, and one such boy, Luke Ellis, who winds up a prisoner there after his parents are murdered. The children are watched over by the cruel, exacting director Mrs. Sigsby, who is eager to learn the secret behind harnessing the children’s gifts. Life at the Institute is hard, but nothing compared to the fear the kids feel at the idea they will one day “graduate” into the experiment’s “Back Half,” from which no one has ever returned. It sounds like this one brings back everything we loved about King’s ’80s hits Firestarter and It. In short, we can’t wait to visit The Institute.
King has been open about his past drug abuse and other issues, and admits he wrote this book while high as a kite. It shows. Oh lord, does it show. Somewhere under the heart-pounding, jittery self-loathing, there’s a fascinating germ of an idea—alien artifacts (including an entire spaceship) are compulsively unearthed by folks in a small town, with disastrous results—but the only term that really fits the final product is “hot mess.” Though an immanently readable hot mess.
There’s a term for a writer’s early work: juvenilia. This novel was King’s first, and was later published under the Bachman pseudonym. The story of a teenager who murders two teachers and takes a classroom of students hostage, it’s quite simply not very good in comparison to what followed, filled with the sort of overheated writing that young authors often engage in while thinking they’re being provocative. After a rash of shootings at schools, King pulled this book from distribution, and it’s hard to find these days—and not worth chasing down, save out of curiosity or super-fandom.
49. Rose Madder
This messy novel reads like two separate stories merged together uncomfortably. In one, you have a realistic and brutal tale of an abused woman. In the other, there’s a magic painting that serves as a portal to another world. Even after the abused woman steps into said painting to flee her attacker, they never stop feeling like two separate stories.
We won’t say King phoned this one in (because that would be a bad pun), but it does almost read as a parody of his vintage work. From the flimsy premise—a mysterious pulse turns anyone caught speaking on a cell phone into a hungry, aggressive zombie—to the stiff dialogue, there’s not much to recommend here beyond some admittedly visceral thrills and the veiled references to The Dark Tower.
47. The Regulators
The mirror novel to Desperation is entertaining and has some moments of fantastic, chilling horror, but the premise (an autistic boy, assisted by the same evil entity that orchestrates the horrors of Desperation, gains the ability to alter reality in his neighborhood) wears thin by the end. What’s more, without the interesting parallels to its sister novel, The Regulators is much less interesting still.
King wrote this alien invasion story shortly after he survived his famous accident, and it reads like a journal kept by a man in immense pain (and on a lot of painkillers). It’s the sort of body horror that can be—and frequently is— effectively creepy, but the verisimilitude actually goes too far, until you feel like you’re reading King’s private pain journal. On top of that, the self-consciously gross and hilariously-named monsters (literally called “sh*t-weasels”) come off as silly rather than scary. The less said about the ill-advised film adaptation, the better.
45. Bag of Bones
This isn’t a bad novel—in fact, it’s pretty darn good. If another writer had published it, we’d look on it more fondly. But since it was written by King, you can’t help but notice that it’s in just about every way a retread of themes, motifs, and tics he’s explored before—and usually better. A good novel? Yep. A mediocre Stephen King novel? Double yep.
This is the story of a girl who gets lost in the woods with nothing but her portable radio, tuned to the Red Sox game. That’s it. As exposure and dehydration worsen her physically, she hallucinates a pretty horrific scenario, leading to a battle with the God of the Lost in which the terrifying creatures and events mirror the reality of her struggle to survive. It’s a slight story that now also suffers from being a bit dated—after all, Tom Gordon isn’t exactly a household name any more.
43. From A Buick 8
Use a high concept (a 1953 Buick Roadmaster abandoned at a gas station is not, in fact, a 1953 Buick Roadmaster, but some kind of doorway to another dimension that occasionally disgorges bizarre alien items or creatures) to tell a series of stories about it in a campfire/ghost story structure, and the result should be something great. While the individual stories are interesting, and the overall concept creepy, the lack of a definitive ending to it all undercuts the success of the novel.
Another story as flimsy as it is pleasant, Joyland is basically a toothless coming-of-age narrative with just a hint of a mystery. It’s an enjoyable read, but doesn’t really stick with you, good or bad. It just is.
Cujo has some great ideas, but is among the weakest of King’s earlier novels. While it sports his usual skill at depicting characters and setting, ultimately it’s a story trying to wring horror and tension from a rabid dog; while it’s well worth reading, it never quite leaps off the page the way some of King’s more successful books have.
Blaze is a tough one to rank. It’s well-written and often engaging, but ultimately, the story of a brain-damaged con artist who kidnaps a wealthy man’s baby for ransom then bonds with the child is kind of weightless. There’s nothing “wrong” with it, it’s just a story you forget almost immediately, which is something you can’t usually say about King’s work.
Your mileage will vary on this one. Some fans rank it much higher. Told as a long, rambling monologue by the title character, it’s impressive that King can maintain such a unique voice for so many pages, but rock-solid technique aside, the story—while not uninteresting—is slow as molasses. Some readers thrill to the immersive experience and the slow-burn mystery, but others find it hard rowing.
38. Doctor Sleep
To say there was some excitement among King fans when a sequel to The Shining was announced would be an understatement. The book is actually less a sequel and more an update on the character of Danny Torrance—which is fine. Danny is more interesting as a supernaturally gifted adult than he was as a kid, but the antagonists are, in a word, weak. You might read “spiritual vampires” and think otherwise. You would be wrong.
37. Finders Keepers
The middle novel of King’s Mr. Mercedes trilogy is a pretty good procedural yarn that ties into the first novel in interesting ways, but then sets up the third book in a clunky, heavy-handed fashion. Te reason it’s not a few ticks higher on this list is mostly because King engages in some rare lazy plot work, making a few things happen simply because he needs them to in order for the plot to hang together. King almost never cheats, so it really hurts this one.
36. Duma Key
The story of an artist who loses an arm and gains the ability to affect events through his paintings, there is much to love in this lush and often frightening novel. But it’s also rambling and a bit overlong. A tighter edit would push it up this ranking.
35. The Colorado Kid
When you’ve written as much as King, experiments are inevitable and laudable. This straightforward crime novel is an experiment that takes a decent if not particularly riveting story and ruins it, because it’s a mystery that is never resolved. According to King (and we believe him) that was the whole point, but while we give him credit for the artistic ambition, it renders the book frustrating.
Each chapter in this illustrated novel is a self-contained story that links with all the others to form the narrative. It’s a pretty straightforward werewolf story about a small town terrorized by one of the creatures, whose true identity is worked out by a wheelchair-bound boy—but it’s very well handled, and the unusual structure elevates it.
A truly underrated novel, and one of the few full-length novels King wrote that has absolutely zero supernatural or horror ingredients. It’s the story of a broken man served with an eminent domain buyout from the city, which intends to build a highway through his neighborhood, and his increasingly violent efforts to resist. It’s pretty intense novel, with a gut-punch of an epilogue, and has actually become more relevant as time has marched on.
32. Lisey’s Story
There is some great stuff in this novel, centered on the widow of a brilliant novelist as she reflects on their relationship and private and unique language while dealing with the emergence of repressed memories and the very real threat of a super-fan stalker who goes from threatening to violent. While King’s rumination on the inner workings of a relationship is interesting, there’s far too much of it in here, and the supernatural aspects feel tacked on. That said, at its core, this is a very good story, and certainly one of the most unusual in King’s oeuvre.
31. The Running Man
An early novel published under the Bachman pseudonym, The Running Man depicts a dystopia centered on an insane gameshow—this time having the contestant hunted by professional assassins on live television. It’s one of the most action-packed of all King’s novels, more of a thriller with a fantastic premise than anything else—but it’s a tightly written, gripping sci-fi story that has aged very well.
King’s most recent novel tells the story of Castle Rock resident Scott Carey’s struggle against a mysterious affliction that sees him losing weight—but not mass—no matter what he does. The best of King’s work is deeply rooted in our common experiences as human beings, and this one puts a Bradbury-esque flair on the inevitible experience of aging and the necessity of accepting our ultimate, shared fate. It’s a character-focused work that lets King flex his storytelling strengths: well-drawn characters, settings so well-observed you feel like you can smell the air. It’s also possible the most hopeful book he’s ever written, which seems an odd thing to say about the master of horror.
29. Under the Dome
King fans argue about this one a lot, but in many ways, it’s classic King. The premise is elevator pitch-ready (a town discovers that an impenetrable, invisible dome has suddenly appeared, cutting it off from the rest of the world), the characters are vividly imagined and (mostly) realistically drawn, and the payoff is one of the more clever and imaginative ones he’s ever engineered.
Another of King’s ambitious experiments was the simultaneous publication of Desperation (under his own name) and The Regulators (under the Bachman pseudonym), with the books telling stories set in parallel universes that share characters and other elements. Of the two, we rank Desperation much higher: the tight, claustrophobic atmosphere of its premise—people traveling a lonely highway are pulled over and kidnapped by a possessed police officer and imprisoned—is a creepy and effective.
27. End of Watch
The final book in the Mr. Mercedes trilogy nudges the story into the supernatural, as the serial killer Mr. Mercedes has acquired some limited mental abilities that allow him to manipulate people and objects from his coma-like state. It’s a genius move, elevating the story beyond its need to wrap up the story and tie off the loose ends.
26. Mr. Mercedes
King’s efforts to evolve as a writer have produced some great work. While Mr. Mercedes, the first of a trilogy of crime novels, isn’t perfect (some of the characterizations are a bit thin and clichéd, as if King were aping other crime novels or TV shows) it’s tense, pivoting on a serial killer (who opens the story by running down innocent people in a Mercedes, hence his moniker) who taunts a retired police detective with his plans to kill again and again.
25. The Dark Half
Some of the best stories have very simple concepts. This one is razor-sharp: a writer finds that the pseudonym he’s been writing under has become much more real—and independent—than should be possible. And his dark half is doing terrible things. The psychological richness of this idea, especially considering King’s own history with pseudonyms, combined with the tightness of the writing put this one in the middle of the pack.
24. The Outsider
It’s only a slight exaggeration to suggest King can write an effective horror story in his sleep. His 50th novel is a good one, bolstered by his effortless characterization and world-building as he tells the story of small town Detective Ralph Anderson, who in the opening scenes arrests a popular little league coach named Terry Maitland for the horrifying murder of an 11-year old boy by Ralph Anderson. The evidence seems to prove the culprit is guilty beyond any doubt—but then, incontrovertible evidence arises that also seems to prove Maitland’s innocence. What starts as a mystery slow-burns into a classic King horror joint, spun up with some seriously surreal violence. It’s a wonderful fusion of King’s ’80s aesthetic with his twenty-teens police procedural phase. At yet, the monster at the center of it all, while horrifying, doesn’t match up to the best of King’s supernatural baddies.
23. Black House
When King and Straub wrote The Talisman, King’s multiverse was still more of a notion than a firm concept. Its sequel, however, ties Jack’s story of parallel universes firmly to King’s Dark Tower saga, as an adult Jack whose memories of his earlier adventures have been repressed slowly realizes a serial killer plaguing a small town is actually an agent of the Crimson King. Jack retains his rare ability to flip between universes, and must reluctantly take on the task of saving not just his own, but all of them. It’s a rare example of a sequel that updates and matures its characters, themes, and universe in equal measure.
Revival is one of King’s best recent efforts—a chilling and unique work of horror that hits all the right buttons. A beloved minister loses his faith and pursues experiments in “secret electricity” that enable him to heal almost any affliction (with terrible side effects). He creates an experiment in order to communicate with the afterlife—and comes to the awful realization that the afterlife is a hell in which enormous, ancient monsters enslave and torture all humans, no matter what kind of lives they led. It’s bleak, depressing, and a fantastic read.
Co-written with his son Owen, this 2017 novel supports a high-concept premise (women begin falling into a supernatural-like sleep, becoming cocooned in a gauzy material, and react violently to attempts to wake them) with a rock-solidly realistic world to support it. The key to many of King’s best ideas is the futility of fighting against forces you have no control over; in this case, the women’s efforts to stay awake indefinitely has that rough-edge of pure terror that propels this novel into the top-half of King’s work.
If you stop to think about it, it’s remarkable King could take a hoary old premise like “haunted car goes on killing spree” and somehow generate a thoughtfully scary novel from it—but Christine is so much more than the sum of its parts. Tapping into the excruciating pain of being gross and unpopular in high school, King transforms adolescent rage into a universally horrifying experience.
19. Needful Things
The first part of this story (billed a bit presumptuously as “the last Castle Rock story“) is just King gleefully turning the crank, bringing the tension to an almost unbearable level before unleashing hell. A simple concept—a magical store where your darkest desires can be acquired, for a hidden and terrifying price—is elevated into a commentary on humanity, society, and the craven nature of people’s inner lives. When it’s casually parodied on Rick and Morty, you know you’ve written an all-time classic.
18. Gerald’s Game
Another choice that will likely spark some arguments, Gerald’s Game is one of King’s least supernatural horror stories, finding its terror in helplessness. The genius comes in the levels of helplessness King explores, ranging from the helpless sense of being trapped in a relationship, to the helplessness experienced by victims of child abuse, to the literal helplessness of being tied to a bed in a remote, deserted location. There’s a reason this book inspired one of the best King film adaptations of all time.
Another Bachman Book, the premise for this thriller is so sharp and simple you can sum it up in one elevator pitch-ready sentence: a selfish, overweight man kills a gypsy woman and escapes justice, but is cursed by her father to grow ever thinner, no matter how much he eats. That’s it. It’s that simple. As the man steadily loses weight, his desperation grows to frightening levels. The richness of this plot, full of dark symbolism for modern-day America, remains powerful—and the blackly comic ending still packs a punch.
King himself regards the novel as something of a failure, but there are two reasons we rank this one, which is about a man who loses the ability to sleep and starts experiencing strange visions that might be more than simple hallucinations, so highly. One, Insomnia is inextricably linked to The Dark Tower series, and could even be regarded as an essential part of it, in a sense—it features the first mention of the Crimson King, in fact. Two, it’s a daring and ambitious story, exploring some of King’s most stunning concepts with a real emotional punch, and a classic King premise involving a character who loses control of their own body.
15. The Long Walk
You know your writing career is going well when you’re forced to invent a secret identity in order to publish all the books you’re writing. The Long Walk, another one of the infamous Bachman Books, was The Hunger Games before The Hunger Games, except reduced to its most brutal basics—a group of young people are forced to walk until all but one of them is dead. It remains a surprisingly effective dystopian thriller.
While King is still often described as a “horror writer,” he’s been exploring other types of stories throughout his career. In this fantasy, King shows that he can craft a devious plot using any tropes at hand, and displays the same sort of worldbuilding prowess that has made The Dark Tower books so powerful.
13. The Talisman
Another transporting fantasy entry. Many of King’s stories involve children; the limited agency and mystification with adult concerns enhances the terror of his bogeymen and grants a level of verisimilitude to some of his more fanciful concepts. Co-written with Peter Straub, this story of parallel universes, which can be traversed if your twin in the other universe has died, centers on 12 year-old Jack. Jack seeks to cure his mother’s terminal cancer by locating a magical talisman, leading him through several dark and dangerous adventures that add up to one of King’s most satisfying stories, though the blatant homophobia throughout does dull its sheen, three decades on.
Ultimately, many of King’s best stories deal with primal forces, forces that are so terrifying in part because we can’t control them. Nothing is more primal than a child’s simple view of the world, when coupled with her immature impulse control—especially when that child has the power to set just about anything on fire with her mind. This one gets overlooked even by long-time fans, but a reread will remind you of its unadorned storytelling genius.
11. Pet Sematary
One of King’s greatest strengths as a writer is his ability to zero in on fundamental human experiences—like the loss of a beloved pet, the powerful yearning we all experience when we lose any creature that we care for, the state of fear parents live in for their children’s safety. What would you do to bring something—or someone—back? King asks that question and then offers a story that could have been kind of silly, but makes it absolutely terrifying when the magical titular spot does indeed bring the dead back to life—except different.
10. The Green Mile
One of the most successful of a string of King “publishing experiments,” The Green Mile was originally released as a “serial novel” in six installments. It’s the story of a mountainous, simple-minded black man named John Coffey, who in 1932 arrives on death row at a penitentiary nicknamed the Green Mile, having been convicted of murdering two white girls. King masterfully mixes issues of race, sadism, and mercy into the story as Coffey’s innocence becomes clear in parallel to the realization among some of the more compassionate guards that he has incredible empathetic and healing powers.
9. ‘Salem’s Lot
King is the consummate artist who respects what came before and builds on it. Raised on old-school vampire stories, his take on the story incorporates all the classic tropes, from the slightly insane vampire’s assistant to all the old rules involving sunlight, permission to enter, and seduction—and gives them all a modern twist that still feels fresh and frightening, even four decades after its publication.
King’s career is so long, he’s been through several phases, like any artist. 11/22/63 is part of a late-career surge (still ongoing) of particularly strong, character-focused work. Time travel has been done so often in sci-fi it’s difficult to find a fresh angle, but King managed it using one of his trademark techniques: the inexplicable Mystery Spot located in a nondescript location. Tied to the Kennedy Assassination (still one of the most seismic events in U.S. history), the story morphs into a tragedy so subtly the reader barely understands why they find the ending so powerful.
King’s first huge success is a relatively simple story that touches every reader in a universal sore spot: the hell of adolescence. King shows his talent for identifying pain points and exaggerating them just enough to make them terrifying, from Carrie’s humorlessly religious mother to her effortlessly cruel peers, building up to that classic moment when a suffering girl with strange powers makes everyone regret how they’ve treated her.
6. The Stand
The sheer scope of The Stand meant it was either going to be a tremendous success or a messy failure; not only does King offer up dozens of characters and settings, he tells an apocalyptic tale that starts off as a plague story and transforms into a biblical battle between good and evil. Even after he released the expanded version, replacing much of the material excised during the original editorial process, the story still hangs together perfectly, setting a multi-genre bar for success few writers could ever hope to clear.
If there’s a King novel that’s familiar to folks who don’t read King on the regular, it’s Misery, the story of a popular but conflicted writer who winds up in the clutches of his highly unstable biggest fan. Here, King perfected his technique of wringing true terror from scenarios that have nothing to do with vampires, ghosts, or ill-defined alien technologies—and everything to do with the fact that hell is other people. Crazed reader Annie Wilkes may be the most compelling villain he’s ever created, and that’s saying something.
King is at his strongest when his characters and story are rooted in a realistic world populated by regular folks—regular folks who just happen to be dealing with incredible circumstances. The Dead Zone, in which an unwilling psychic sees a terrifying vision involving an unstable politician, is the Platonic ideal of such books. As a bonus, it’s a surprisingly current book for the political present.
The eight novels that make up King’s multi-dimensional science fantasy epic vary a bit in quality, displaying a sag in the middle that’s surprisingly common for multi-book SFF series. But few would argue that the first three or four are mesmerizing, and the final book brings everything back to such a high level that the averaged score for the series, which tells the circular quest of the world’s last Gunslinger on a quest to reach the titular Dark Tower, the axis on which all worlds (including those depicted in many other Stephen King books) turn, puts it near the tippy-top of his massive oeuvre.
It can be surprisingly divisive, partially due to its epic length and partially due to a specific scene that was pointedly left out of the film and television adaptations (and thank goodness, because: gross). For our money, though, It is King tapping into the collective childhood terrors that we all share and generating a literary nightmare that finally made the world face it’s chief threat: clowns. That, and memorable characters and a palpable sense of place have made it a book that endures, and will continue to do so.
1. The Shining
The Stephen King Top Ten could be argued up and down, but there’s little doubt that The Shining—his most parodied, most famous, twice-adapted novel—is always going to be a contender for the top slot. We rank it number one because it’s in many ways the ideal King novel, the novel scientists would create if they sought to grow a King novel in the lab. Every theme, flat-out terrifying moment, and character is 100% Stephen King working at the height of his powers.
What’s your number one King?