There’s an old joke that Stephen King could probably publish his grocery list at this point, and another that goes further and suggests he’s basically been doing that for a decade (or two). The man has produced a ton of works that run the full gamut from really horrible (Dreamcatchers was positively Dean Koontz-ish) to quite good. If you’ve never been exposed to Stephen King k it can be pretty daunting to decide which of his works to read first, and if you pick up one of his lesser books you can easily be turned off of King entirely. Which would be a shame, as he actually has written quite a few very engaging books. We’ve ranked his fifteen best books here (not including short story collections, although most are definitely worth checking out), and we feel pretty confident that an average reader could pick up any of these fifteen works and be entertained. We’ve tried to minimize spoilers as much as possible, but making this article completely spoiler free probably isn’t possible, so tread lightly!
You know a book is a success when the story enters the collective consciousness, and Carrie certainly qualifies for that. The book is now 36 years old, but the tale of an awkward high school girl who has telekinetic powers is still referenced frequently in pop culture. King wrote this book while living in a trailer but his life changed pretty quickly when he sold the paperback rights to Carrie for $400,000, an astronomical sum for the mid-70’s and especially so for a first time novel. The deal paid off for New American Library; the paperback sold over 1 million copies in its first year of publication.
14. Needful Things
One thing that King has been quite good at in the past is managing large casts of characters, and this is very much on display in Needful Things. King often has used a fictional Maine town called Castle Rock in his works, and Needful Things, while ostensibly about a weird store opening in Castle Rock, is really about the town’s inhabitants and their interactions with each other. In a way it’s about small towns in general, a topic on which King has an especially firm handle.
Stephen King has a few tropes he returns to time and time again. Psychic retards, children with special powers, magical negroes … it’s a long list, and it’s one of his bigger faults. One of his less annoying crutches concerns the professions of most of his lead characters, namely they are usually going to be writers. The old saying goes “write what you know” and Stephen King obviously took that to heart.
However, in Misery King actually has something to say about the process of being a writer, and a writer’s relationship with their most ardent fans, made especially interesting by King’s unusually massive fame for a writer. He has a unique perspective on artistry and art’s consumers that not many other writers share. Like many of King’s best works, Misery could plausibly have actually taken place in the real world, there’s no fantastical elements here and because of that I’d say Misery is arguably the King book that readers should pick up if they think of themselves as the sort of readers that would never read Stephen King.
12. Bag of Bones
Quite possibly the most literary of King’s work, Bag of Bones is a classic ghost story that delves (once again) into the writing process and mourning the death of a spouse. Unlike many King works Bag of Bones was critically acclaimed, winning the Bram Stoker Award for Best Novel in 1998 and the British Fantasy Award in 1999. Critics were especially kind to this book, and while I think critics have become kinder to King over the years, this probably wasn’t true at the time Bag of Bones was published.
11. The Green Mile
One interesting thing about King is that he’s willing to use his position of power to do some interesting things when it comes to publishing. He released a novella called “The Plant” in ebook installments back in 2000, asking readers to pay what they felt it was worth for each installment. It might not seem revolutionary now, but ten years ago this was seen as a milestone event and was quite a bit ahead of it’s time.
That wasn’t the first time King had experimented with serial fiction of course. The Green Mile was published in 1996 in six installments, all 92-96 pages in length, and cheaply priced. While the book centers around a magical negro, one of King’s biggest weaknesses, it manages to overcome its handicap. The Green Mile is possibly one of the better pieces of fiction concerning Death Row you’ll ever read. And it made for a decent movie also, a rarity when it comes to King’s work.
10. The Running Man
There was a time when publishing houses apparently thought authors could only be successful releasing one book a year, forcing King to briefly publish some works under the pseudonym Richard Bachman. He was eventually found out, but some of the work he did as Bachman remains some of the best King has ever done, including this book, The Running Man. Forget about the unintentionally hilarious Arnold Schwarzenegger movie adaptation and go straight for the book. Published in 1982 the book is shockingly relevant today, as it foresaw all sorts of developments in modern life, including reality television. I recently read this list of best dystopian books of all time and while The Running Man wasn’t included it quite possibly should have been. One last note on The Running Man: King often suffers from weak endings, but that’s definitely not a problem here.
9. Pet Sematary
I first read this book as a teenager, and I found it to be a pretty good read, but nothing particularly earth shattering. I read it again recently as an adult and found it to be one of the most horrific things I’ve ever read. The difference wasn’t maturity or age, it was that I’ve had children. Horror usually involves the supernatural as it’s usually understood, vampires, zombies, etc. (and there is some of that of course in Pet Sematary) but Stephen King understands that the truly horrible things in life are the things that can actually happen, and this understanding is used to devastating effect in Pet Sematary. If you have young children I’m not sure I’d recommend reading this one.
8. The Talisman
Perhaps this inclusion is cheating a little since it’s a collaboration with Peter Straub, but I think not including The Talisman would be a shame. In The Talisman, much like he does with Carrie and other works, King does a great job imparting the feel of being an adolescent. The book concerns a 12 year old boy named Jack Sawyer and his journey across the country, in our world, and in a twin world called the Territories. The book in a way is a series of stories with Jack’s trip as the setting, and while it lags a bit towards the end it’s a compelling read overall, and one of King’s most memorable books.
7. ‘Salem’s Lot
Vampires are quite the trendy thing nowadays, and it’s widely acknowledged that this is partially because they’ve lost their bite. In books like Twilight vampires are non-threatening creatures, playthings to attract teenage girls.
These are not the vampires of ‘Salem’s Lot. This is the most unnerving vampire book I’ve ever read … which might not be saying much come to think of it, but it really is quite good. The entire read is an intensely claustrophobic experience, and easily one of the scarier things Stephen King has ever written.
It has been described as Stephen King’s magnum opus, and I think that’s fair to say. It also serves as a bit of a dividing line, pre-It King was more likely to be consistently strong, post-It he began repeating himself a little bit, and was a lot more hit and miss.
Like many of King’s other best works, It does a fantastic job of describing adolescence. The book is a sprawling epic that spans almost thirty years (or hundreds depending on how you look at it), and its heft reflects that. This is a massive book, but it’s so well done that it doesn’t really feel overlong. The end is a bit messy, but King has a lot to say here and so it’s a small complaint. This is another King work (like Carrie, Cujo, Christine and others) that has entered the pop culture lexicon. It’s become a cute and sort of weirdly trendy thing to claim a fear of clowns, often those who are serious probably date their fears to the 1990 television adaptation. Side note for those who’ve already read the book: Pennywise’s cycle would be coming around again in the next 2-3 years. Anyone wonder if King has thought about that?
5. Different Seasons
Somewhat like The Talisman, this entry is cheating a bit, but not because of collaboration but instead because Different Seasons is a collection of novellas. While I didn’t want to include short stories, Different Seasons four works are long enough that I feel comfortable including it on the list.
Different Seasons is really an astonishing work. Two of the four novellas are some of the finest things King has ever written. Three of the four have been adapted into movies. That’s a pretty high hit percentage.
The best stories in the book are Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption (adapted into Shawshank Redemption, currently the #1 user rated movie at IMDB) and The Body (adapted into Stand By Me, one of the best movies made in the 80’s, and also solidly in the IMDB top 250). Apt Pupil is a ridiculously creepy title, and only really pales in comparison because Rita Hayworth and the Body are so good. The last title in the book, The Breathing Method, is a bit more workmanlike, but it has an interesting concept and is also worth a read.
4. The Stand
I actually think a lot of Stephen King fans would call The Stand King’s best book of all time. That argument could definitely be made, but while I love The Stand a weak final act keeps it from being higher than fourth on my list. King does a fantastic job with the premise and execution of the concept in The Stand, setting loose a Super Flu that kills over 99% of human beings, leaving only a few stragglers alive. These survivors then choose sides in a good vs. evil showdown that eventually features a lot of hand waving and deux ex machina to resolve things. And yet I still wholeheartedly recommend the book, because the rest of it is epic and awesome.
3. The Dark Tower Series
There’s kind of a standard opinion I think when it comes to The Dark Tower series, that the first three (some say four) books are incredible, and the quality drastically slides from there on. It’s true that King rushed to finish the series after a near death experience, and it does show in some odd choices that he makes with the narrative late in the game, but for me the series had a satisfying conclusion. Stephen King has only occasionally dabbled in fantasy, and it’s a shame because he’s excellent when it comes to world building and creating memorable characters, what I consider to be the most important things when it comes to fantasy. The gunslinger Roland is one of the most memorable characters in King’s oeuvre and you owe it to yourself to at least check out the first few books – at the least.
2. The Long Walk
I actually am not someone that needs their favorite books to be made into movies. If The Dark Tower never gets made into a television series or movie I’m fine with that. Too often a movie adaption is simply something to ignore, to do otherwise would be to diminish the enjoyment of the original.
But I would watch the hell out of a Long Walk movie. It seems perfectly written to be adapted, with a dead simple and yet completely gripping premise. It’s the future, America has gone totalitarian, and there exists one sporting event above all others, The Long Walk, an event that takes 100 contestants, puts them on a road and forces them to walk. Fall below 4 MPH and you’re shot dead. Walk until one person remains. If you haven’t read it yet then you’re missing out.
1. The Shining
The Shining is an iconic work. Nearly everyone has seen Jack Nicholson’s maniacal grinning face at some point from the Stanley Kubrick film version, even if they haven’t seen the actual film. Quotes from the book have entered the cultural lexicon (All work and no play …). It might be King’s most well known work, a crazy assertion when you remember that this was King’s third published novel, and he’s gone on to publish 70 more.
There’s good reason for all of this, namely the fact that The Shining is creepy as hell. Stephen King seems to have been born to churn words, I think the man writes whether or not he particularly has something interesting to say, and I think that’s been reflected in the latter half of his career, with more misses than hits. But The Shining takes you back to a time when King was fresh and new and on the top of his game, and while there’s competition I don’t think he’s ever done anything better. If you’re going to read one Stephen King book make it The Shining.