Top 10 Best Stephen King Books Of All Time
Stephen King is easily one of the best known (and most prolific) writers of our lifetime. Most people from the Western World will have either read at least one Stephen King book or have seen a televised or film version of one of his stories. Although he writes mostly horror or supernatural fiction style books he does, occasionally, come out with something very different indeed.
He has written over 50 books (some under different names) and, although he is often accused of being verbose, nearly 200 beautifully crafted short stories. He is so highly regarded that new books can expect to debut extremely high on the bestseller lists. Although he is approaching 70 and once retired from writing (following a painful and very nasty car accident in 1999) Stephen King continues to produce books which are read and loved by millions.
Of course there are many official lists cataloguing what readers or critics believe to be the ‘best’ of the Stephen King novels but lists are very subjective! With that in mind here is our list of the very best of Stephen King’s books – the ones you absolutely have to read!
Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption was one of four novellas published in 1982 in the book Different Seasons. One of the other stories in the book, The Body was made into the popular film Stand By Me.
The novella tells the story of Andy Dufresne a banker who is given a life sentence in the Shawshank Penitentiary for murdering his wife and her lover. He gets to know ‘Red’ a prisoner who is able to smuggle items into the jail and who gets him a rock shaping tool and a poster of Rita Hayworth. Periodically Andy requests newer posters to hang in his cell.
Andy makes himself useful to the prison guards who protect him from the prison rapists and allow him to have his own cell. Andy is given a position in the penitentiary library which he campaigns hard to expand and from which he helps numerous prisoners gain qualifications. He also helps the prison governor to launder money he gains through bribes.
Andy overhears another prisoner bragging about committing the murder of his wife and her lover and hopes that he can use this evidence to call a re-trial. When, however, he brings the information to the governor the other man is sent to another penitentiary as Andy is too valuable to the guards to ever allow him to be released. He tells Red that he had managed to hide all his assets under a pseudonym and that he has the necessary identity documents to start life again and one morning he simply disappears from his cell. It turns out that he had used the tools Red got for him to tunnel his way to freedom.
After Red is released he finds the place where Andy hid the ID documents and in the hiding place there is a letter addressed to him and funds to enable him to join Andy in his new life over the border in Mexico.
The novella may not be traditional King supernatural horror but the situation Andy finds himself in is horrifying and you are rooting for him all the way
Stephen King often uses authors as characters in his book – none is left in a worse plight than poor Paul Sheldon in Misery. Paul Sheldon has made a name for himself with his series of novels featuring Misery Chastain but, wanting to become known for something different, kills off his main character. He is in a car accident and rescued by his ‘number one fan’ Annie Wilkes who nurses him in her guest room. She does not set his legs properly leaving him disabled and proceeds to abuse him when she reads his new manuscript and disagrees with the content.
Paul is forced to burn his new manuscript and then, using an old typewriter given to him by Annie, is made to write a new ‘Misery’ novel. He is able to explore the house while Annie is out and discovers that she is a serial killer. He is abused even more violently before engaging in a final confrontation with Annie who seems almost impossible to kill. After he is discovered by police his manuscript, Misery’s Return becomes his best ever selling book.
Stephen King has said that Annie was an allegory for his drug problem at the time and the book was inspired by his feeling of being shackled to the horror genre through the feelings of his fans.
The Dead Zone was published in 1979 and is one of Stephen King’s more unusual books. It tells the story of Jonny Smith who wakes up from a 5 year coma with a particularly unusual talent – he can see the past and future of people just by touching them.
Left alone (his fiancée married while he was in a coma) and unable to continue his teaching job because of the media profile generated by his extraordinary talent Jonny becomes a private tutor and begins to be interested in politics. When he touches the hand of a political candidate he sees a vision of the man, Stillson, causing a nuclear war. After struggling with his conscience he decides to shoot Stillson at the next political rally. He misses but during the attack Stillson is photographed using a child as a human shield. This destroys his political future and when a dying Jonny touches Stillson he realizes that the future is safe.
The book was well received as a fresh take on the ‘kill Hitler’ debate and has since been made into both a film and a television series. It is one of Stephen King’s own favorite books and leaves the reader with many disturbing questions to contemplate including whether murder is ever permissible and why we root for Jonny when many similarly mentally disturbed killers that we condemn all too easily truly believe they are doing the right thing.
The Green Mile was originally published as a serialized story and is yet another of King’s books that has been turned into a hugely successful and much loved film.
The story is told, in flashback, by Paul Edgecombe, a warden on Death Row. Amongst other prisoners he is responsible for John Coffey, a large black man convicted of the rape and murder of two little white girls. During his time ‘on the mile’ and in his interactions with other prisoners John Coffey is shown to be extremely gentle and that he has the ability to heal people. One evening John is smuggled out to meet with Melinda, the wife of the prison warden who is suffering from a brain tumor. John heals the woman and passes the disease to Percy, a vindictive and cruel guard who enjoys tormenting the prisoners and sabotaging executions so that prisoners die a very painful death. Percy goes mad and shoots Wharton one of the other prisoners.
Paul discovers that he is right in his belief that John Coffey is innocent, Wharton was the real rapist and murderer and Coffey had been trying to revive the girls when he was caught. Paul is forced to participate in John’s execution by the electric chair but it is the last one he does. The end of the film shows him, aged 104, having lived the unnaturally long life that has been granted to those who interacted with John.
The Green mile is very different to many of Stephen King’s books but does contain, at its core, a heart of supernaturalism. Like the Shawshank Redemption the prisoners become real and rounded people but this time there is no happy ending.
The Shining was the third of Stephen King’s books to be published and arguably the one that established him as a much loved writer. The book’s protagonist (another author character) is Jack Torrence who takes his wife and young son to the isolated Overlook Hotel where Jack has a job as winter caretaker. He hopes that the isolation of the hotel will help him improve his relationship with his family and write a play. Meanwhile Danny, the young boy, possesses supernatural abilities which are called ‘the shining’.
Danny’s supernatural abilities cause him to see ghosts. He does not tell his parents so as not to worry them but soon realizes that his abilities are amplifying the activity and causing things to come to life. Because Danny is difficult for the malign spirit of the hotel to possess it starts to infect Jack and he becomes increasingly unstable until the hotel is able to control him. Danny and his mother fight Jack while Danny sends psychic calls for help. Jack recovers from his possession long enough to tell Danny how much he loves him then dies trying to prevent the hotel boiler from exploding.
The book was inspired by Stephen King’s own experiences staying in an empty hotel in Colorado. Stephen King was not a fan of Kubrick’s film adaptation claiming that it took away a lot of the love that existed in the relationship between father and son. He wrote the screenplay for a miniseries based on the book. In 2013 he published Doctor Sleep, the sequel to the Shining that follows the experiences of a now adult Danny.
Salem’s Lot was published in 1975, the second of Stephen King’s books. Like many of his other successful books the central character is an author, Ben Mears, who discovers that the residents of the town, Jerusalem’s Lot, that he once lived in and has now returned to are turning into vampires. These days vampire stories are very common and incredibly popular but back in 1975 this was a completely fresh and original story.
Shortly after his arrival Ben learns that a house in which he had a troubling childhood experience has been bought by an Austrian known as Kurt Barlow, he is never seen in public and all his dealings are done by his colleague Richard Straker. Around the same time a young boy, Danny, becomes a vampire and starts infecting other members of the town including Mears’ girlfriend Susan who is turned into a vampire and whom he has to kill with a stake. Mears eventually manages to kill the chief vampire, Barlow but not before he breaks the faith of the local priest Father Callahan and forces him to drink his blood. Mears and a friend escape the town only to return a year later and burn it to the ground to prevent any further infection.
Stephen King had originally intended to write a sequel but instead draws the story to a close in his books Wolves of the Calla and Song of Susanna which feature Father Callahan the priest. He was inspired to write the book by a story of a town where all the residents disappeared, Marie Celeste style, never to be seen again.
From Stephen King’s early works we turn to IT – possibly one of the most frightening of all his novels. Published in 1986 It tells the story of an entity that is able to shapeshift in order to attract its victims. It particularly likes to terrorize young children and often appears in the form of a clown known as Pennywise.
IT first appears in the 1950s when a group of young misfits who call themselves the Loser’s Club. All of the children have encountered IT in one form or another and think they know how to defeat it. After some horrendous experiences they do manage to defeat IT and promise to come back to the town if IT ever resurfaces.
In 1984 the nightmare becomes real again when IT comes back to town and murders a young gay man. Although they cannot remember what happened, having blocked out the memories of their confrontation with IT, all bar one of the Losers club agree to return (the one who refused to return remembers the events of the 1950s and commits suicide out of fear). They manage to kill IT once and for all and destroy IT’s nest of eggs which are about to hatch.
The story is a commentary on the enduring power of friendship and loyalty showing traumatized children banding together to fight great evil and then coming together once again, as adults to do the job all over again. Pennywise, the creepy clown was inspired by real life serial killer John Wayne Gacy who killed more than 30 boys and had an alter ego known as Pogo the clown.
Carrie is the novel that started it all, the very first of Stephen King’s books to be published and one that is still capable of sending chills down the spine today. It is also an excellent fictional account of the psychological trauma experienced by bullying victims. .
Carrie is a young girl badly oppressed by her religious fanatic mother who sees sex as a sin and refuses to teach her daughter anything about being a woman. One day, after a sports lesson, a terrified Carrie gets her first period, her classmates tease her and throw sanitary products at her. One of the teachers, Miss Desjardin is initially unsympathetic but helps Carrie clean herself up and explain what is happening to her, she also tries to get the bullies suspended from school.
Carrie discovers that she has both telepathic and telekinetic powers which she starts to practice. One of the other girls, Sue, disgusted with her own bullying behavior encourages her boyfriend Tommy to take Carrie to the prom. Carrie agrees to go to the prom and looks forward to a new start. On the day, however, one of the original bullies and her boyfriend arrange to drench Carrie and Tommy in blood and poor Tommy is killed by a falling bucket. Everyone in the room starts to laugh at Carrie and she storms out using her powers to lock the doors and start the sprinklers. This causes the electrical equipment to short which kills a few people; Carrie subsequently starts a fire burning down the whole town.
Her mother tries to kill her but only succeeds in wounding her. Sue finds a dying Carrie and they comfort each other before Carrie dies.
The book, which is one of the most frequently banned works of fiction in American High Schools was actually the fourth book Stephen King wrote (although the first to be published) and arose out of a challenge set by a woman who said he could not write about women’s problems.
The Dark Half is a book about an author, Thad who has more success with the books written under his pseudonym ‘George Stark’. When the link between the two authors is discovered Thad and his wife stage a mock death and burial. George, however, seems to come alive after the burial and goes on a killing spree. He has the same finger prints as Thad who is under suspicion for the murders despite the fact he has good alibis for them.
Thad discovers that he absorbed his unborn brother in utero and the remnants were removed from his brain when he was a child. Thad beats George but his wife is appalled that he is responsible for his creation in the first place.
The Dark Half was written by Stephen King as a result of the outing of his own pseudonym, Richard Bachman and indeed is dedicated to his alter ego. The book itself is poorly written and came at a time when King was struggling to get his life back on track and recover from an addiction while simultaneously worrying that the addiction fueled his talent. Of course it is a work of fiction but it is difficult to separate out the Thad/George dynamic from the King/Bachman one and the reason the book makes the list is that it is a fascinating look into King’s own psyche and process of writing. Once you get over the poor writing at the start of the book it is a genuinely terrifying read.
The Stand is probably the pinnacle of Stephen King’s work. It was originally published in 1978 but had to be cut significantly from the original manuscript length as the publishers did not believe that the public would want to buy a 1152 page book. It was re-released in 1990 at its full length to great acclaim.
The book follows the fortunes of a handful of survivors after the population of the US, (and later the rest of the world), are decimated following the accidental release of a super-flu virus. The survivors gradually begin to make sense of their new lives but most of them have disturbing dreams about a sinister ‘Walking Dude’. Later some dream about an old woman called ‘Mother Abigail’. The Walking Dude is a manifestation of evil, a devil of some form and was the first time that Randall Flagg (the main antagonist in many King books) appears. Mother Abigail is a divine prophet guided by god. Her people gather in Boulder Colorado while Flagg’s followers move to Las Vegas. The scene is set for a confrontation between the two camps and the Boulder group send some men to make a ‘Stand’ against evil. Flagg’s empire is defeated when he brings forth a ball of energy to silence someone and it transforms into the ‘hand of god’ detonating a nuclear bomb. Flagg wakes up in a new place and time ready to start recruiting disciples once more.
Stephen King got his inspiration for the Stand from the events surrounding the kidnapping of Patti Hearst and a story about a chemical spill close to Salt Lake City that could have caused untold devastation had the wind been blowing the other way. The novel was designed as a Lord of the Rings style epic set in the contemporary USA.
So there you have our list of the top 10 Stephen King Books of all time. From traumatized menstruating telekinetic girls to vampires, a crazed fan to a spooky hotel Stephen King has something for everyone. His characters are as diverse as gentle giants, wrongly imprisoned financial geniuses and political assassins with a conscience. We all have our own personal demons, something that terrifies us even if we are able to put it to the back of our minds in our day to day lives. The chances are that Stephen King has taken your demon, put it on paper and made big money out of it. Enjoy your next read!