The recent release of the second feature-film adaptation of Stephen King’s Pet Sematary has reminded both hardcore and casual fans of the author’s work that, yep, it’s still the scariest novel he’s ever written.
Whether you think the new film delivers the scares better than the so-so 1989 version, the source material still stands as the single piece of writing King’s oeuvre that scares its own author the most—upon finishing it, he reportedly found the book so disturbing he stuffed the manuscript into a drawer, intending never to release it. It was his wife Tabitha King who suggested he resurrect it, and it went on to become one of his foundational works, proving that, at least in this case, sometimes dead isn’t better.
King’s voluminous catalog of books isn’t all horror and scares. He’s written fantasy, a trilogy of crime novels, plenty of nonfiction essays and books, and even some humor. But if you want full-bore heebie-jeebies similar to the bleak shocks Pet Sematary delivers, you have plenty to choose from. Here are seven Stephen King books almost as terrifying as Pet Sematary.
King’s second collection, published back in 1985, contains several all-time terrifying short stories from early in his career. There’s “The Mist,” the trapped-in-a-supermarket-by-Eldritch-horrors story that inspired both a film and TV series adaptation, and the very gruesome “Survivor Type,” which introduced fans to the concept of auto-cannibalism. But the tale that might stick with you the most is “The Jaunt,” a nasty little piece of science fiction about an overly curious kid and the perils of interstellar teleportation that originally appeared in Twilight Zone Magazine.
1978’s epic story of an apocalypse by superflu virus and what happens after was the first to show what King could do with a huge cast of characters and a spine-busting number of pages. It’s memorable not only for its high body count, but for introducing creepy recurring “Walking Dude” villain Randall Flagg, and for a nightmarish set piece in which two characters must travel through the Lincoln Tunnel, which happens to be full of corpses. The extended edition of the novel (which is now the only one available) adds texture, a whole new supporting character, and a coda that gives the ending a darker spin.
Your mileage may vary on whether the sequel to The Shining is scarier than its predecessor, but the story of a grown-up Danny Torrance dealing with a supernatural force of psychic vampires has a lot going for it, all of it horrifying. Rose the Hat and her gang of True Knot RV travelers, who prey on kids with “the Shine,” are as violent and repellent as any of the vampires in ‘Salem’s Lot, or any of King’s other works.
Full Dark, No Stars
Perhaps King’s bleakest collection of shorter works, this one is preoccupied throughout with death. “1922” is a brutal story of rural revenge and marital betrayal. “Big Driver” is the rare Stephen King rape-revenge story. “Fair Extension” contemplates the nastiness of human nature and schadenfreude. And “A Good Marriage” is about a woman who discovers she was unwittingly married to a serial murderer, one inspired, in King’s writing, by the real-life BTK Killer.
Under the Dome
The unfortunate TV series adaptation got bogged down in weird character turns and goofy special effects, but the novel is a lengthy, detailed look at how everything falls apart in a small town in a pressure cooker, cut off from the rest of the world by a mysterious, impenetrable dome. Once things start going wrong, King doesn’t let up on the accelerator, sparing few of his lovable (or not so lovable) townies along the road to a bloody finale. These 1,000+ pages are littered with some of the author’s most squirm-inducing death scenes.
Not all of King’s scariest books need a supernatural hook to spook readers. Annie Wilkes, the obsessive fan who cares for author/car-crash victim Paul Sheldon in Misery, is equal parts fussy, compassionate nurse, and, let’s say, overly persnickety fan of his bodice-ripper book series. It doesn’t take long for Paul to realize that the woman in whose care he has found himself is unhinged, to say the least, and that she’s not going to care for what happens to her favorite fictional character in his latest book. The horror in this one comes from the plausibility of the setup, and how realistically King portrays Annie’s bipolar disorder, Paul’s disabling addiction to painkillers, and the necessary mental escape Paul finds in writing.
One of King’s lesser-acclaimed books, this 2014 novel involves a small-town minister named Charles Jacobs who suffers a tremendous loss and then spends the rest of his life on a mission to harness electricity toward questionable ends. The story is told through the eyes of Jamie, who befriended Jacobs as a small boy, and who becomes linked to the former preacher’s obsession. There are plenty of light moments throughout the narrative, including an entertaining section about Jamie’s days as a rock musician, before drug addiction sidelines him. But the horrifying ending, which gives us a visceral idea of King’s vision of Hell, is one of the darkest turns in any of his fiction. Like Pet Sematary, this one that will stick with you.
What’s your pick for Stephen King’s scariest work?