With over 60 titles to his credit, Stephen King is one of the world’s most prolific authors—and he has been terrifying and captivating us with his prose for nearly half a century. The scariest part? He seems to get better at it as the years go by. What many King newcomers are surprised to find, however, is that he’s no one-trick pony—King’s writing can and does detour from his familiar grisly stomping grounds. It can be said that his true subject matter is the darker side of human nature. However, he provides a strong counterweight to the darkness by showing us the humor, levity, and innocence in even the most dastardly of his characters. In addition, King’s career has been, in many ways, a love letter to his home state of Maine—you can’t get through a King novel without wanting to visit. In this way, King’s books transcend genre and appeal to all lovers of the written word. So forget what you’ve seen in the movies—whether you’re new to Stephen King’s oeuvre, or you’re working on indoctrinating a friend, reading the following 10 books is nonnegotiable. (If you’re looking for a more complete list, check out our ranking of every single one of Stephen King’s novels to date—49 of them so far!)
King’s first published work is the story of a shy, good-natured teenager who wants what all high school kids want: to have friends and to be “normal.” Not that Carrie has any idea what normal really is, since she has spent the whole of her young life being harangued by her abusive religious zealot of a mother, and tormented by the cruel kids at school. The thing is, Carrie isn’t, strictly speaking, “normal.” She has a supernatural gift those who mistreat her could only dream about. She will have to choose whether to call on this power when the going gets tough.
9. The Shining
Did we say forget what you’ve seen in the movies? Because nowhere in King’s work is that sentiment more necessary than with respect to The Shining. Yes, we all love Jack Nicholson, and yes, the movie was great. It was just a very, very different story from the book. Jack Torrance jumps at the opportunity to become the caretaker for the majestic yet unsettling Overlook Hotel, with wife Wendy and son Danny along for the ride. Things get darker and more horrifying from there, with the hotel coming to vivid life around the family, and turning what was supposed to be a respite from the outside world into a terrorizing intrapsychic nightmare. In addition to much stronger, more well-rounded characters, get ready for lots of hotel fixtures you won’t recall from the movie, including the world’s scariest shrubbery and a boiler room that will make you fear your basement for life. As a bonus, check out recently released sequel Doctor Sleep.
8. Pet Sematary
One word sums up this King favorite: underrated. The novel is classic King—it starts with a happy family in a small town. All is well, until a heavy dose of tragedy and a generous sprinkling of the paranormal rip this story right off the rails. This book is best known for its scary subject matter (King was way ahead of the curve on the whole “creepy kids” trend Hollywood became very fond of a few years later). However, it’s the depth of the familial bond and all the love and grief that comes along with it that truly make this story one to remember.
7. The Dead Zone
If you’re looking for that quintessential King novel that will ensure you spend many evening hours glued to its pages when you should be sleeping, this is it. Johnny Smith is a teacher who has fallen into a coma after a tragic accident. Upon waking, he is shocked to learn that he has psychic abilities. As time passes, Johnny struggles to navigate the world with his new gifts, and is faced with a stomach-turning choice about whether to do the wrong thing for the right reasons. This is one of King’s most masterfully paced books, and it will keep you riveted until the final curtain falls.
Don’t understand why some people are terrified of clowns? After you read It, you will. It’s 1958 in Derry, Maine, and seven teenagers are bonded forever when they come together to combat a mysterious and heart-stoppingly evil force. Despite their best efforts to put the past behind them, they’re once again summoned to protect their town when, 30 years later, the evil stirs again. This book is one of King’s most frightening, without a doubt—and it’s the love King instills in us for the characters and the community that truly makes us fear for and root for them with all our hearts.
For all those who think King’s stories have to rely on the supernatural to raise the hairs on readers’ necks, Misery is one notable exception. There are no aliens, evil spirits, or Native American burial grounds in sight. The story begins when a celebrated but jaded author loses control of his car on his way through a treacherous mountain pass. Alone and unconscious, our hero seems all but lost when, miraculously, a local good Samaritan happens by and comes to his rescue. Imagine his relief when he awakens and discovers his savior is not only a trained nurse, but his number one fan. What follows is a chilling treatise on obsession, celebrity culture, and the fathomless depths of the human will to survive.
4. Salem’s Lot
After he debuted with Carrie, many wondered if King would be able to match that novel’s success a second time. Salem’s Lot proved King was more than a literary flash in the pan. Set once again in his beloved Maine, the tale blends King’s customary love for small-town life with a classic horror theme: vampires. When a schoolteacher and his girlfriend fight back against a town full of bloodsuckers, it’s anyone’s guess who will come out on top. Be warned: sleeping with the lights on and a garlic necklace may or may not make you feel any safer after reading this book.
3. The Green Mile
The Green Mile is one of the greatest triumphs of King’s career. Originally released in six installments, the story took the publishing world by storm when all six concurrently ended up on the New York Times bestseller list—and with good reason. John Coffey is a black man in the wrong place at the wrong time. The place is the general vicinity of a murder of two little white girls, and the place is rural 1930s Louisiana. Given those circumstances, it doesn’t take long for John to be sentenced to death via “Old Sparky,” the electric chair waiting at the end of the long green-tiled prison hallway, or the Green Mile. As he waits to be executed, John touches many lives—but can he do enough good to earn his own redemption? With this novel, King turns his unflinching gaze on the racism that permeates America’s history, and brings it hurtling into the reader’s present with supernatural force.
Speaking of American history, few events have had more impact on American culture than the assassination of John Fitzgerald Kennedy. In this novel, King envisions a world where an average guy could go back in time and stop that horrific tragedy. One part historical fiction, one part mystery, and one part action novel, 11/22/63 could only have been written by a gifted author who witnessed and mourned the death of JFK alongside the rest of the nation. In true King fashion, healthy doses of wit, romance, and laughter keep the story vital and fresh until the very end.
1. The Stand
The Stand is widely hailed as King’s crowning achievement. When a subject breaks out of a secure biological testing facility, he exposes humankind to a deadly strain of flu that will wipe out 99 percent of the population in a matter of mere weeks. With the impending apocalypse looming large, those who strive for survival are desperate for a leader. Two would-be leaders emerge, but it will be up to the people to decide which of them to follow. What unfolds is an epic battle: a last stand between good and evil that readers will never forget.