Stephen King is the most recommended author on this website, with his books coming up time and time again. Having interviewed some amazing authors from the world of horror, I decided to set to discover the best books by Stephen King, according to some his peers (and I think they won’t mind me saying, admirers). Stephen King has published over 50 novels, over 200 short stories and has sold over 350 million copies worldwide. He is hands down the king of the horror and suspense genre, but more than that – he is one of the most successful authors to walk the planet. Many of his tales have been turned into films, TV shows and more, with perhaps most notably one of his short stories being the basis for what’s regarded as one of the best films of all time, The Shawshank Redemption. I was excited to see which Stephen King books would be nominated. There are some classics, and there are some surprises. But before we can enjoy this reading list of the best books by Stephen King, let’s first meet our panel of authors from the world of spooks and scares.
Kristi DeMeester is the author of Beneath, a novel published by Word Horde, and the author of Everything That’s Underneath, a short fiction collection. Kristi DeMeester’s short fiction has appeared in publications such as Ellen Datlow’s The Best Horror of the Year Volume 9. Known for creating unforgettably creepy tales of heartbreak, pain, and loss, Kristi DeMeester is making a mark on the horror genre.
Lamar Giles is an author, speaker, and founding member of We Need Diverse Books, a non-profit dedicated to changing the face of publishing. He was honoured with a fellowship from the Virginia Commission of the Arts, and was a Top 10 finalist in the ScifiNow/TorUK International War of the Words Competition. His debut novel, Fake ID, since its publication in 2014 has gained national acclaim.
Alison Littlewood is an author whose latest novel is The Crow Garden, a tale of obsession set amidst Victorian asylums and séance rooms. Her work has been selected for the Richard and Judy Book Club and described as ‘perfect reading for a dark winter’s night. Alison’s short stories have been picked for Best British Horror, The Best Horror of the Year and The Year’s Best Dark Fantasy and Horror anthologies.
Ramsey Campbell is an English horror fiction writer, editor and critic who has been writing for well over fifty years. S. T. Joshi commented on Ramsey, “future generations will regard him as the leading horror writer of our generation”. Ramsey Campbell has continued his prolific output, publishing an average of a novel a year, plus standalone novellas, since 2000; three of the novels have won major awards for best novel.
Now, let’s discover the best books by Stephen King…
With its main character, Trisha, wandering from the path like Little Red Riding Hood, this is Stephen King meets fairy tales. Unlike Little Red, often portrayed as a thoughtless girl punished for disobedience, Trisha survives on her wits, and indeed demonstrates more maturity than her own mother. She faces the wilderness alone, along with its big bad wolf – the God of the Lost – and transforms her situation using the power of imagination. Although we follow a single character for most of the book it remains utterly riveting, conveying a sense of awe and wonder at the primal landscape as well as fear.
Some of Steve’s most effective and memorable work is in shorter forms, and I can’t do without one of his collections (or indeed all of them). My problem is that all contain favourites – “Children of the Corn” in Night Shift, “Crouch End” (which holds a special place in my heart, since I originally anthologised it) in Nightmares and Dreamscapes, “1408” in Everything’s Eventual… And there are his several books of four novellas, all of them substantial. If I go for Just After Sunset, it’s especially for the first appearance of “N.”, which is both a tribute to Arthur Machen’s “The Great God Pan” and a dauntingly original tale of psychological terror that reaches for the cosmic. We disagree over Machen’s greatest achievement – I’d say “The White People” – but “N.” demonstrates King’s membership of the great tradition of our field as well as how he takes it onwards. As a whole Just After Sunset showcases his considerable range as a writer, but it seems especially concerned with notions of the afterlife. It comes to us all.
I first read “Jersualem’s Lot” in a tattered copy of Night Shift, and immediately rushed out and bought the novel as an audiobook. I was driving a lot at the time and desperate for anything to make my commute less painful, but so far had found very little that truly distracted me. Salem’s Lot absolutely captivated me. In the early morning dark on silent roads, I waited for the shadows in the woods to move and for Barlow to emerge, or to take a wrong turn in my distraction and come upon the Marsten house, with its owner, Hubie, still dangling from the rafters. Vampires have frightened me since childhood, and Salem’s Lot was a reminder that even as an adult, there are creatures that can still leave me shuddering.
Stephen King departs from his more usual horror territory with this hard-boiled detective novel. It’s just as suspenseful as his horror novels and beautifully written, with incredibly skilful use of foreshadowing. Sticking to strictly non-supernatural territory, we have a murderer taunting a recently retired detective who becomes determined to solve the case. With our killer determined to strike again the plot ratchets up the tension, though don’t hate me if I say the part I found almost unbearably suspenseful was the threat to the dog. That particular thread kept me turning the pages into the small hours.
Remember that time you realized Movie Annie’s sledgehammer was actually preferable to Book Annie’s, er, tools of choice? That’s just me? Well, then…this novel (from 80’s Book Factory King) could be the textbook in a workshop on plot escalation. Isolated setting, incapacitated protagonist, a volcanic psycho whose motivations were a dark mirror for Uncle Stevie’s average Constant Reader. Misery was meta before I knew what meta was, and Paul Sheldon was the strongest of the Stephen King heroes. He had no fiery superpowers, no guidance from an inter-dimensional turtle, no friends watching his back while he faced down the monster. He had his wits and a typewriter. What he came up with was killer. As I said, meta.
This collection of short stories and a novella spans seventeen years of King’s writing. Several tales are about being trapped: in The Mist, characters take refuge in a supermarket when monsters emerge from an unearthly mist. The human threat is as suspenseful as that of the monsters, with paranoia and religious fervour holding sway. On a smaller scale, The Raft has its characters in another hopeless situation, this time on a raft on a lake with a mysterious creature picking them off one by one. It’s high on suspense and hugely enjoyable. More lyrical and elegiac is my favourite story in the collection, The Reach. Stella Flanders has never left her small island off the coast of Maine. Crossing the water to the mainland also represents crossing the barrier between life and death, and when she sees her dead husband waiting for her on the ice, we know her time has come.
Skeleton Crew is not a novel, so I may be breaking the rules here. Still, its not-novel status is what makes it such a steal for King Constant Readers. The novella “The Mist”—adapted to Film and Television twice now—is worth the sticker price alone. BUT THERE’S MORE!!! (Shouted in TV Infomercial Voice, extra exclamation points nearly visible as they fly off the lips). There are 20+ offerings in this collection, not counting the intro and author’s notes, stretched across many genres. There’s futuristic commuting in “The Jaunt”, a tale that wouldn’t feel out of place on the popular Netflix series Black Mirror. There’s a body horror story in “Survivor Type” that would appeal to fans of the Saw franchise. And my favorite story (adapted as an episode of 1985’s Twilight Zone reboot) the creepy, creepy “Gramma”, about a young boy given the task of tending to his family’s sick matriarch for a day. There are still 16 stories to go. This collection is like one of those classic albums that you can skip around, or play straight through, and know, every time, you’re getting some of the best that artist has to offer.
Only three books! I must restrain myself. 11.22.63 must stand for the extensive body of his work that isn’t horror fiction, even by my capacious definition (or, in this book and in my view, isn’t mostly horror). It’s a huge and hugely compelling book built around the notion of travelling back in time to abort an event – the title tells you which one. Some may find the length daunting, but I wouldn’t be without a word. The idea of retroactively altering an event isn’t new, of course – Alfred Bester’s “The Men Who Murdered Mohammed” is a characteristically quirky take on it – but 11.22.63 sees the theme reinvented by another master. The chapter that shows us an alternative future is surely horror, certainly my kind, but like all King’s best books, this novel has great emotional and indeed thematic scope. It’s literature.
After many years of reading other Stephen King novels, I finally found a copy of this novel in my used book store but didn’t read it immediately. Bachman? I thought and wondered how different from King’s voice it would be. How distant or strange? And so I let it linger on my nightstand until one night when I was battling insomnia. Once I picked it up, I couldn’t put it down. Compulsively readable and frightening in its reality (for spectators and participants), and that final sentence….it shattered me.