Although dismissed by critics for much of his career—one New York Times review called him “a writer of fairly engaging and preposterous claptrap” — Stephen King is by any measure one of the greatest horror writers of all time. The author of fifty novels, nearly two hundred short stories and nine collections of short fiction, he is as productive as he is versatile. With so much fiction to choose from, it can be difficult to decide where to begin.
Happily, help is at hand thanks to the online book community Goodreads. As of July this book lovers’ heaven had an incredible 20 million members, the vast majority of whom spend huge amounts of time reading and reviewing. One author who understandably gets lots of attention is Stephen King. Here’s his ten greatest horror hits according to the Goodreads five star rating system.
1. The Stand – score: 4.3
The Stand might not be the first novel you think of when you contemplate horror, but this post-apocalyptic horror/fantasy, an expansion of King’s earlier short story “Night Surf”, is Goodreads’s top choice. First published in 1978 and later re-released in 1990 as The Stand: The Complete & Uncut Edition, it’s a genuine King masterpiece.
Goodreads top review says: “You know what’s really scary? Getting sick while you’re reading the first part of The Stand. Just try running a fever, going through a box of tissues and guzzling the better part of a bottle of Theraflu while Stephen King describes the grisly deaths of almost everyone on Earth from a superflu. On top of feeling like crap, you’ll be terrified. Bonus!”
2. It – score: 4.06
Published in 1986, It is a horror novel in every sense of the word. Moving back and forth between 1958 and 1985, the story tells of seven children in a small Maine town who discover the source of a series of horrifying murders. Having conquered the evil force once, they are summoned together 27 years later when the cycle begins again. The novel is famed for starring one of the scariest clowns in literature.
Goodreads top review says: “This is a brilliant novel, beautifully told in crisp, clear prose, with truly unforgettable characters and situations. It is the essence of good fiction; the truth inside the lie. King knows his way around the corners; and has that undefinable look in the eye, the dreamy look of a child.”
3. The Shining – score: 4.03
This 1977 classic follows Jack Torrance, a recovering alcoholic and writer, and his family, through a terrifying winter as they care for a deserted Colorado hotel whose history is anything but bucolic. The title was apparently inspired by the John Lennon song “Instant Karma!”, which contained the line “We all shine on…” Originally conceived as a five-act tragedy play, the story evolved into a five-act novel that also included many of King’s own personal demons. In 1980, Stanley Kubrick’s film version became an instant cult classic.
Goodreads top review says : “While reading “The Shining,” I revisited my kid fears– as if walking through a bell-bottomed-shaped portal into the shag carpet of the seventies. King evoked my vulnerability and reminded me of what it felt like to be a powerless child in a universe where everybody is stronger and more experienced than I.”
4. Misery – score. 3.99
Published in 1988, the novel focuses on Paul Sheldon, a writer famous for Victorian-era romance novels involving the character of Misery Chastain. After an automobile accident, Paul meets his biggest fan, Annie Wilkes. His nurse-and captor, she wants Paul to write his greatest work just for her, and she will do whatever it takes to make this happen. Of the inspiration behind Annie, King once said, “There was never any question. Annie was my drug problem, and she was my number-one fan. God, she never wanted to leave.”
Goodreads top review says: “I first read Misery when I was seventeen years old. I started it about eight o’clock that evening, and finished it about four in the morning. Heart pounding, bleary eyed and afraid to open my closet door lest Annie Wilkes was waiting there for me with an axe or chainsaw raised over her head.”
5. Salem’s Lot – score. 3.91
Published in 1975, Salem’s Lot follows a writer named Ben Mears as he returns to the town where he lived as a boy, Jerusalem’s Lot, or ‘Salem’s Lot for short. To his dismay he discovers that the residents are all becoming vampires. The title King originally chose for the book was Second Coming, but he later decided on Jerusalem’s Lot, because his wife, novelist Tabitha King, thought the original title sounded too much like a “bad sex story”. In 1987 he told Phil Konstantin in The Highway Patrolman magazine: “In a way it is my favorite story, mostly because of what it says about small towns. They are kind of a dying organism right now. The story seems sort of down home to me. I have a special cold spot in my heart for it!”
Goodreads top review says: “Vampire stories have been around for a long time – But leave it to Stephen King to turn the terror up a notch, add a whole new layer to it. How? In addition to showing us the monsters of the night, he also brings into the picture the monsters and the darkness that are already with us, that live in the deep dark recesses of everyone’s soul.”
6. Duma Key – score. 3.87
The newest book on the list, Duma Key was published in 2008 and reached #1 on the New York Times Bestseller List. In the book, a construction site accident takes Edgar Freemantle’s right arm and scrambles his memory and his mind, leaving him enraged as he begins his rehabilitation in a beach house on Duma Key in Florida.
Goodreads top review says: “Duma Key is not just a novel for the fans, but a cathartic response from King over his near-death accident in 1999; no doubt he relived his agonizing recovery while writing about Freemantle, and yet it is because of this firsthand experience, that Duma Key feels much more personal and empathetic.”
7. The Dead Zone – score. 3.83
Dedicated to his son Owen, the Dead Zone features Johnny Smith, a young boy who is injured in an accident and enters a coma for nearly five years. When he emerges, he can see horrifying secrets but cannot identify all the details in his “dead zone”, an area of his brain that suffered permanent damage as the result of his accident.
Goodreads review says: “I have been really surprised, especially as I read The Dead Zone, this isn’t more of a popular read, especially with King readers. Johnny Smith’s character and his ability were done very well. I really liked all of the characters, especially Johnny and his parents.”
8. Carrie – score 3.82
King’s first published novel, released in 1974, it revolves around “Carrie N. White”, a shy high school girl who uses her newly discovered telekinetic powers to exact revenge on those who tease her, causing one of the worst disasters in American history in the process. It is one of the most frequently banned books in US schools.
Goodreads review says: “This is one of those books where you’re just like, dude, how did you even come up with these thoughts? I mean, I think we take it all for granted now but honestly, this book is amazing. This novel was insane and fearless and obviously written by someone who had this story in him that needed to gush out like Carrie’s menstrual blood and crazy telekinetic angst. This is one of the books I think of when I get depressed about the idea of workshopped writing and the internal observing critic and all the rest of that limiting quality-control type stuff.”
9. Bag of Bones – score 3.79
Bag of Bones, published in 1998, focuses on an author who suffers severe writer’s block and delusions at an isolated lake house four years after the death of his wife. It’s a tale of grief and lost love’s enduring bonds, which went on to win the Bram Stoker Award for Best Novel.
Goodreads top review says “Don’t get me wrong, I love IT and The Stand and the Gunslinger septulogy, all the crazy outlandish horror and fantasy that is SK’s bread and butter. But I adore Bag of Bones and think it is one of his absolute best. It’s very intimate, very down to earth, with the supernatural downplayed.”
10. Pet Sematary – score – 3.77
Released in 1983, it was later made into a film of the same name. The original idea came in 1978 when King was teaching at the University of Maine at Orono, and his family rented a house on a busy road in Orrington. The road claimed the lives of a number of pets, and the neighborhood children created a pet cemetery in a field near the Kings’ home. King wrote the novel based on their experiences, but feeling he had gone too far with the subject matter of the book, it became the first novel he “put away”.
Goodreads top review says “The painful, hard thing about Stephen King’s writing is that so often, he takes something real, something that people can experience in the real world, and builds the supernatural stuff onto that. In The Shining, there’s Jack’s alcoholism; in The Talisman, there’s Jack/Jason’s mother’s cancer; The Stand plays on our fears of something, somewhere, in one of those labs, getting out of control; in Pet Sematary, it’s the death of a child. So much of the book is completely real and believable.”
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As with lots of King novels Bag of bones was great, until the last 15%. I also thought Duma Key was awesome novel, but not a great horror novel.
King is one of my favorite authors and I believe his books to be good overall but my favorite book of his was Desperation. That was an awesome book that I had a hard time putting down. Least favorite book thus far is The Tommyknockers.
Desperation is the best! Regulators is another good Bachman one if you haven’t read it already.
A great novel, that picks up quickly is Cell.
Pretty good list. Not a novel, but I loved The Mist- very lovecraftian.
I was surprised by how dark Pet Sematary surprised was. It’s a great read, but can be pretty hard on you if you own a cat.
Yes, The Stand ( in Italian” L’ombra dello Scoprione” ) is the best novel of King, but I never seen a good movie about this book
Not a huge King fan, The Shining gave me nightmares, The Stand was great, but I felt the ending didn’t quite rise to the level of the rest of the story, however I am always surprised that The Long Walk doesn’t get mentioned more often. I read it once in one sitting 20 years ago and the damned thing is still with me. Truly harrowing and my favorite Stephen King novel.
Ever since I read ‘Carrie,’ back in 1975, when I was 16, I have been a fan of Steven King. I have always loved horror, whether in book or movie. Some of my fondest memories, as a teenager, are of having one or two of my cousins sleep over, on Friday & Saturday, & us on the bed to my parent’s pull out couch, eating popcorn & watching EVERY horror movie that we could find!!! We could NEVER get enough of them!! When I read, ‘Carrie,’ I was ALSO a teenager, in High School, just like most of the characters in the book. I could SO relate to SO many of the feeling that some of the teens, in the story, were experiencing. Steven King was GREAT at describing, everyday happenings & feelings, in a way that the reader COULD really relate to, & then……came the twist….the supernatural…..THE HORROR………to SCARE the life out of you!!! I LOVED IT!!!!!!………The most recent, of his novels, that I have read, are ‘Dreamcatcher,’ & ‘Cell,’ &…… I DID NOT like either one…..I actually had to force myself to finish them…because you just MUST finish a book…even IF you didn’t like it…because…it just MIGHT get better! When I’ve started reading a book, that’s REALLY bad,…I HAVE let myself jump to the end…because, ALSO, you MUST know how it ends!!…….After my disappointment in those two books…I felt like I was losing a dear friend…& wondered, “Was it me…now that I’m in my 50s…….or was it perhaps, Steven….maybe he wasn’t the same writer after that HORRIBLE car accident he was in? I FELT SAD!!!………After reading some of these replies……I’m beginning to have HOPE again…& I think I just MIGHT read…’Duma Key’…..the reviews are good……but MOST of all…I believe, that just maybe, I can RELATE……BECAUSE……I moved from New Jersey to Florida, back in 1993………:)
I’ve read most of the popular King novels. Just finished Lisey’s Story – found it hard to get started. Anybody else have problems with the book?
The beginning feels like its dragging but once in you realise everything makes sense. Its a book worth spending time on…
I love Lisey’s story best and think its his best work. After reading reading it, I had a hard time looking into mirrors and sleeping alone in a room with mirrors. Besides who would ant a Booya moon of their own…
The characters and the tragedy of their childrood was heart rending but so well crafted. I just love the book.
I loved it too. I’m surprised most people don’t see to mention it. King really knows how to dig into a character’s head, and with that one, I could just see not just who Lisey was, but the lake, etc.
And you’re right, who wouldn’t want a Booya moon? (But without that creature thing 🙂
Guys i can not believe how INSOMNIA never gets mentioned out of all stephen kings books.That book was the one who made me a huge stephen king fan,thanks to that book i learned who stephen king is and learned about all of his works.That book is truly amazing and i do not understand how nobody never mentions it.You should read it
I really loved Needful Things … It just felt unique in some way
I’m looking for stephen king novels that is ebooks for my kindle where can I get them at? Thanks in advance!!!!!
I have a torrent file that I believe has them on their. I know I have at least 60-70 books of his from that torrent that I use on my iBooks. I would be more than glad to share that file with if you like. Some gave it to me and that’s really when I became such a huge Stephen King fan
I didn’t really care for the dead zone. But one of my top 5 of his is Doctor Sleep, simply because it’s a great idea for a book as it being the sequel to The Shining. They just got the rights to turn it into a movie and hopefully with the right director it can be a really good film. And you can’t dispute how great Different Seasons was. I mean Rita Hayword and The Shawshank Redemption might be one of the greatest stories to ever be written.
What you wrote about ‘Bag of Bones’ indeed is fascinating. A minimalism of the supernatural instead of the cheap-effects so many others unleash.
Right now I am focused on reading ‘survivor type’, but I will put bag of bones into consideration due your words here.