To say that readers love Stephen King is a huge understatement. The most recent count of his total sales came to a whopping 350 million and his affable online presence, no-nonsense attitude to transphobia and right-wing politics, and extremely generous charitable donations have only made him more popular – especially among the younger end of the social media generation.
In his near-half century career King has written over 60 novels, 200 short stories and five non-fiction books, including the peerless memoir On Writing which has inspired a generation of authors. But what keeps his readers coming back are his ideas. He’s mastered several genres with accessible writing and has a nasty, brilliant mind. Yet his concepts are deceptively simple. For that very reason, his work has been adapted almost constantly for the screen.
During the early part of his career, King had to face his own demons. While his childhood fears inspired his writing, drugs and alcohol became intertwined with his working practise. During the 1980s, drugs took over to the point that his wife, Tabitha, staged an intervention with his family and friends in 1987. King has been sober ever since.
The influence of substance abuse on his work is especially evident in books like 1987’s The Tommyknockers. He told Rolling Stone, “The book is about 700 pages long, and I’m thinking, ‘There’s probably a good 350-page novel in there’”, while in On Writing he said he had no memory of writing 1981’s Cujo.
But with so many novels on offer, where do you begin? We’ve picked eight of the best Stephen King books for you to get started – one of which is a series, a cheat we hope you’ll let slide.
To make a fair playing field we focused on fiction, and on novels specifically. We were looking not only for King’s best ideas, but his best writing – and a story that pulled you in, irrespective of genre.
You can trust our independent reviews. We may earn commission from some of the retailers, but we never allow this to influence selections, which are formed from real-world testing and expert advice. This revenue helps to fund journalism across The Independent.
‘11/22/63’ by Stephen King, published by Hodder & Stoughton
King’s later work, while no less ingenious than his horror, focuses more on thrillers and the detective genre, and this 2011 novel (which, surprise surprise, has also spawned a TV adaptation) is utterly electrifying – and a massive task. He had the idea of a time traveller who has the chance to prevent the assassination of John F. Kennedy before he’d even written 1974’s Carrie, but decided he needed more experience and talent to take on the scope he had envisaged for the book.
The immaculate period detail of the late 1950s and 1960s, and the brilliant idea that each time you travel back to the present time from 1958, any changes you made to that timeline are wiped clean – make this more than worth the wait and a delightful read.
‘The Shining’ by Stephen King, published by Hodder & Stoughton
King famously disliked Stanley Kubrick’s iconic adaption of his book, finding the depiction of Wendy Torrance shrill and ridiculous, and her husband Jack – a recovering alcoholic struggling to overcome writer’s block in an isolated mountain hotel while descending into madness – reduced to a monster.
But the novel itself features horror on multiple levels. Their son, Danny, possesses psychic powers, a theme that features throughout King’s work, which allow him to see ghosts of the “Overlook Hotel”, who then unleash terror on the Torrance family. We also found the claustrophobic quality and nod to family relationships and the impact of alcoholism (which King knew first-hand from his own addictions) made this read all the more compelling.
‘Misery’ by Stephen King, published by Hodder & Stoughton
While King’s physical depictions of his female characters have endured criticism from readers over the years, Misery brings us one of his best-drawn women – and easily the most terrifying. Annie Wilkes is all-too human, but her obsession with author Paul Sheldon, and specifically the romance novels that he is trying to move away from, has horrific consequences when she captures him and keeps him prisoner.
King drew inspiration from his own life for Wilkes; being similarly hobbled by the cocaine addiction he was trying to wean himself off from, and having been widely criticised by fans for trying to move away from horror with one of his fantasy novels. One dreads to think what further chaos Wilkes might have wrought with access to social media, but this claustrophobic and utterly terrifying thriller will easily have you ignoring your apps until you’ve reached the last page.
‘IT’ by Stephen King, published by Hodder & Stoughton
One of King’s most notorious books, IT taps into a fear arguably every adult had as a child: clowns. An otherworldly being settles in a town in Maine, and using fear to feed on children, sets out on a murder spree every 27 years.
While the ghastly image of Pennywise the Dancing Clown, teeth and all, rather sticks in the brain, the enormous novel has some nasty extra tricks up its sleeve. Be glad that the screen adaptations didn’t bother with trying to get the screen rights to Jaws to replicate one of the more terrifying encounters written here. In 2017, King told Vulture drily: “It’s fascinating to me that there has been so much comment about that single sex scene and so little about the multiple child murders. That must mean something, but I’m not sure what.”
‘Salem’s Lot’ by Stephen King, published by Hodder & Stoughton
Vanity Fair described King’s second novel as “Our Town with razor-sharp teeth and claws”, which is spot-on. King’s perfectly simple idea was this; what if Dracula came back to modern America? The answer is a nastier version of Lost Boys, and a creepy bit of magic that holds its own as one of literature’s foremost vampire novels.
While vampire fiction has been overtaken by the sexy (True Blood) and the sparkly (Twilight), Salem’s Lot is so compelling because it puts all that aside and goes straight for pure evil. If Buffy had gone to high school in Salem, it would have made for very depressing television, but for horror lovers looking for something altogether nastier in their vampires, this is just the sort of delicious read to appeal.
‘The Dark Tower’ by Stephen King, published by Bloomsbury, 8-book boxed set
We’re recommending the eight-book box set here, as we’ve found that once you start the series, it becomes extremely moreish, though you can start out with book one, Gunslinger. But be warned: this epic fantasy is not user-friendly to the King beginner. The Dark Tower is where King makes it clear exactly how much of his work co-exists in the same universe, as he weaves characters and events from his other books into a central plot inspired by spaghetti Westerns and epic poetry.
As well as telling a compelling new story, King brings back old favourites for unofficial sequels (Salem’s Lot fans will find a lot to enjoy). The Shining might be our pick for the King book of note, but as a series, The Dark Tower has his fans’ heart.
‘The Stand’ by Stephen King, published by Hodder & Stoughton
King’s 1978 post-apocalyptic novel almost serves as a precursor toThe Dark Tower, with a shared villain and a similarly roaming style, inspired by King’s desire to write a contemporary American take on Lord of the Rings. Four hundred new pages were added into a new 1990 edition, and King went on to adapt his own book for the 1994 miniseries.
He’s reappraised it again for this year’s new television adaptation and has reworked the ending. While you might not be in the mood for a story about a pandemic that wipes out almost the entire world’s population right now, this utterly absorbing novel is rightly hailed as one of King’s finest novels, and, the villainous character of “Dark Man” aside, it ends on a note of hope.
‘The Green Mile’ by Stephen King, published by Orion Publishing Co
Fans of The Green Mile film adaptation are often surprised to learn that King wrote its source material, which was originally published in six monthly volumes. It’s not horror in the traditional sense – there is no otherworldly being to blame for what tragedy happens at a Louisiana prison during the Great Depression of the 1930s. Instead, the horror comes from people.
John Coffey is a gentle man, tall, powerful, and gifted with remarkable powers of healing. He is on death row in prison for the rapes and murders of two young girls, and he is doomed because it is 1932, and he is a black man – a detail King added to ensure his innocence wouldn’t affect the outcome.
The verdict: Stephen King books
11/22/63 and IT are King’s two favourite books, and we have to agree, but the former just about takes the winning title for us. And should you manage to zoom through King’s extensive backlist, you won’t have to look for a follow-up, as his son Joe Hill is also a successful horror writer.
If we’ve given you a taste for heart-racing fiction, read our rundown of the best crime and thriller novels of 2020
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