Before You See IT: 25 Essential Stephen King Books
I grew up with an open-minded Mother who owned a bookstore. This gave me the rare childhood advantage of having any book I wanted, free of charge. Yes, it was a sweet deal and a great way to grow up, but wouldn’t you know, I was obsessed with Stephen King even as a child, and would always gravitate towards his books.
My Mom is cool and open-minded so she was just happy her 12-year-old son was reading 400-page books, but the impact those Stephen King books had on me is far-reaching. Hell, I am a writer now who loves to write horror so really, the man changed my life. That, and the simple fact that his new It adaptation will be hitting theaters this month got me thinking. Why don’t I re-tread on the best Stephen King books of all time, and put those suckers in list form for the masses? Let’s be honest here, horror literature doesn’t get much better than Stephen King, real talk.
And that, my faithful readers, is what brings us here today. Again, keep in mind, there are all held in high regard and this list is in no particular numeric order despite being numbered. And don’t worry, WE ALL FLOAT DOWN HERE…
Let’s get on with the best Stephen King novels that should be on your bookshelves (or Kindle or whatever).
Best Stephen King books everyone needs to read
1) On Writing
I bet you are shocked to see this on an inclusion of Stephen King books because you expected ALL HORROR, but the thing is, outside of Ray Bradbury, Stephen King has the BEST BOOK ABOUT WRITING FOR WRITERS EVER MADE!
I read this and am now a writer for a living. If that doesn’t stand as a burning testimonial to the power of this book, nothing will.
It is also super cool because it gives you full insight into how he writes, why he writes the way he does, and what he uses for inspiration and drive.
Another King story that is about to be both a movie AND a TV show (movie is a kind of sequel to the books for those who don’t know, rumor is TV show will be the material from the actual books.)
Regardless, King has done the insane with this series. Melded old-west gunslinger mythology with fantasy, steampunk, and horror elements, and the end result is a wild ride and a universe that King says he is most proud of as a writer.
Basically what you have here is a precursor to the Hunger Games, except it is just boys and instead of arrow fighting they have to do “The Long Walk” which is a sort of contest where boys walk for miles and miles for days, while maintaining a constant 4 MPH walk rate (or they are shot dead).
It is a scary glimpse into a future that, once you read, will have your feet sore for days afterward.
You will be getting MANY Stephen King anthology books on this list as some of his short form work is EASILY his best (The Jaunt, anyone?). Full Dark, No Stars is another collection of King’s shorter stories but some of the gems in this book just should not be missed.
What is great about King’s short story collections is, there is a story in each of those that cover every fear. From the simple idea of grieving the loss of a loved one to the boogeyman himself, King is a master at shorter tales that hit just as hard as the long ones, if not harder due to their concise precision.
5) Pet Sematary
We all know this story because of the (really good) film adaptation of the King novel. A large book in terms of horror literature, Pet Sematary is also a damn scary book. Dealing with grief in a way most wouldn’t think of, this book is Stephen King’s version of the classic The Monkey’s Paw, and the man actually ups the scares and makes the classic horror tale into a modern horror masterpiece that is ALSO a masterclass on guilt and mourning.
And please, don’t even get me started on the Zelda character. Still haunts me, and she was just an ill family member. That is just a small part of what makes Pet Sematary so memorable in so many ways.
Another strange Stephen King book to find on here, let me take a second to explain.
Danse Macabre is Stephen King talking straight to us as himself about all things horror, from other horror writer’s work to the impact certain scary films have had on his writing. It gives us great insight into a man obsessed with (and a master of) horror.
Plus, if YOU like horror in all forms like King and I do, it is just a great read. Like a horror fan spouting over horror, you can’t beat that with a stick.
7) Doctor Sleep
Yes, this is that sequel to The Shining which you all heard about and may have rolled your eyes over. But really, if you read it and don’t compare, you will find Doctor Sleep is an absolutely absorbing read.
Danny from the first novel is now grown up and uses his Shining to help the dying, but then some “psychic vampires” show up, and the whole thing goes typically batshit insane, but in some spectacular ways that will keep you turning the page.
Seriously, don’t write this off as cheap follow-up cash grab for The Shining. It has it’s own legs to stand on and some great ideas as well.
Here is another one of King’s short story collections from earlier in his career but there are some chunks of gold in this book.
The Mist, Jaunt, The Raft, and Gramma are just some of the classics contained in this volume, and if nothing else, read THE JAUNT if you never have and get ready to have a super short story f*ck with your head for the rest of your life.
Really, many consider the Jaunt to be King’s scariest work.
9) Night Shift
What? Another volume of Stephen King short stories right after listing a book about his short stories? Yes, and here is why:
Jerusalem’s Lot (precursor to the amazing Salem’s Lot), Night Surf (one of my fave King stories), Trucks, The Ledge, Lawnmower Man, Children of the Corn AND Quitter INC. (which is the BEST story about trying to quit cigarettes ever written).
This is a tome of King cult classics.
10) The Regulators
Remember that one episode of The Twilight Zone where the kid could control fate and all the adults around him had to do what he said or he would kill them or turn them into dolls and shit like that? Well, that episode of TZ fucked King up as a child enough that he kinda decided to stretch the idea into a full book.
On concept alone, this one is worth a read, and has some insane moments you will not forget.
This one is super controversial and if I was a shitty journalist, I would not be telling you to read a book that King himself had pulled from circulation, and I especially wouldn’t include the audiobook, as I did above.
So why did he pull it, you wonder? Stephen King being a man who holds back for no one and nothing?
Because it is about a young man who kills two teachers and takes over a classroom. Written long before Columbine and other such massacres, it gives truly chilling insight into the mindset of why someone may do that, and King was scared it would influence future shooters, so he had it pulled.
But if you can get your hands on it, give it a read. This may be a scary story, but it is also our world now.
Misery was the ONE out of all the Stephen King books I read in ONE SITTING. 7 hours, and it was because I was at in-school suspension (that is when my old school would suspend you but make you stay silent in one room for eight hours in the school rather than actually suspending you and letting you have fun and play video games at home).
I would sit there the whole time and just read. In this case, we all know this book well because of the great film that it spawned, but believe it or not, the book is WAY more messed up.
Put it this way, she does not break his foot in the book. That is “cake” compared to what she does to him in the book for trying to escape.
Read it, trust me, impossible to put down.
I had to include Different Seasons in this list for one simple reason:
The Stephen King story that went on to become the movie Stand By Me, which went on to define my childhood. The Body is a simple coming-of-age tale about some close childhood friends (who won’t always remain that way, as we all know) going on an adventure to find the dead body of classmate rumored to be in the woods.
Is it bleak, yes, but it is also one of the most honest reads about young men ever published. They are imperfect and flawed and fragile, and we feel that with every turning page. We think it is a story about some kids and a dead body but really, it is requiem on the loss of innocence and that is what makes it so powerful and ageless.
Of all the horror characters King has created, none have stuck with the masses quite the way Pennywise the clown from It has. Maybe it has to do with Tim Curry’s whacky 90’s performance. Maybe it has to do with the fact that coulrophobia (fear of clowns) is at an all-time high, but either way, the relentlessness of Pennywise in It and the fact that no child is safe from the reaches of his evil is truly unsettling.
Plus, there is a kid-orgy in this book that it’s safe to say won’t make it to the final movie. That and a cosmic turtle. No really, go read this shIT if you haven’t. It is scary and unforgettable in every way.
Let’s hope this new movie can do it the justice the silly mini-series could not.
15) The Stand
Listen, we all know the world will probably end due to some outbreak eventually (possibly as the result of warfare), so The Stand makes a great read to kind of set you up for what a plague may do to us one day.
But man, break up with your significant other and quit your job because this book takes so long to read it is not so much reading as it is a three-month lifestyle choice you have to commit to.
Worth it, though.
The story ended up coming out as the movie Silver Bullet (a REALLY decent werewolf movie, actually) but it has a crazy backstory. This wasn’t even going to be a book. It had twelve pieces of art and was supposed to be a calendar (of the same name) with a chapter and piece of art going with each month as opposed to a page with dates.
The calendar idea did not work out and he released it is sort of a book/graphic novel hybrid that is a freaking stellar werewolf tale (with a nice little twist) and the art in the book is jaw-dropping.
While I will admit that Four Past Midnight is not as good as his other horror collections, this one (featuring four stories as a follow-up to the prior mentioned Four Seasons) still has some really strong writing and gives King a little more freedom to get weird with his work.
Just please, for all that is sacred, NEVER WATCH THE TV ADAPTATION INCLUDED ABOVE OF THE LANGOLIERS FROM THIS BOOK.
While not many Stephen King fans would expect this book to be on this list, that is exactly why it is on this list.
Eyes of the Dragon was King’s first real attempt at writing full-on Game of Thrones style fantasy, and you know, it may not be Thrones level of intrigue, but it makes for an easy read and tells exactly what you would want from a fantasy novel. Dragons and shit, you know?
If nothing else, read it to really understand how versatile this man’s writing truly is. He can do anything. This and Shawshank and Hearts in Atlantis prove that.
This one may draw some heat from diehards, but the opening scene in The Cell book is one of King’s strongest openings EVER. Think of every zombie nightmare you have ever had, up that times ten, and you have the stellar opening to the book about a signal that goes through people’s cell phones and makes them into utter, unstoppable psychos.
It is actually a rumination on how technology and our cell phones are making us all into zombies who cannot think for ourselves, but this is Stephen King so you know he drives those messages home in a very unique (and often bloody) way.
The movie sucks, though, even though the cast was fantastic. Stick with the book.
The next two entries will be recent short story collections from the Master of Horror. I will start with Bazaar for one reason:
Batman and Robin Have An Altercation.
Yes, that is the name of the story and it deals with Alzheimer’s (an issue hitting my family hard right now) in a very poignant way and doles out a very powerful ending. The book itself is not his best short story work (that we will see directly below) but it is worth a read for that story alone.
Although King-heads will say his older short story collections are his best work, I would argue that Everything’s Eventual is up there. First of all, it was the first time he made a sort of “Director’s Cut” of one of his books. This means there are notes at the beginning and end of the stories that tell you why he wrote them orwhat inspiredd him. Very cool touch that connects you to the work more.
Speaking of the work, Everything’s Eventual has SO MANY great modern King classics:
Autopsy Room Four, The Man in the Black Suit, the Road Virus Heads North, 1408, and Lunch at Gotham Cafe (another Batman shout out, but this time in name alone).
Those above stories are as good as anything the man has ever written. Read them and tell me I am wrong.
22) Salem’s Lot
The best vampire book ever written (and the original is the scariest TV movie ever made).
I don’t even need to say more than that. This book ruined me as a kid. Hell, it is still just as scary a read. Fuck sparkling vampires, Salem’s Lot is how vampires need to be thought of.
23) The Running Man
You know the movie, and the movie was a pretty decent adaptation to this story he wrote under the Richard Bachman pseudonym.
A sort of live-or-die game show run by the elite, the movie was good but the story obviously delves MUCH deeper than the film did, expanding that concept greatly.
Another short story collection but one that is sizably larger than those that came before it, N&D contains 24 new King tales that all balance out to create what is essentially the book form of a dope mixtape.
A couple highlights include:
You Know They Got A Hell Of a Band (one of my favorite high-concept King stories), Crouch End (which is VERY H.P Lovecraft), and The Night Flier. A story about a vampire who flies an old Red Baron style plane.
Crazy shit, but that doesn’t make it any less enjoyable to read. Speaking of crazy, need to end this list right…..
25) The Shining
Perhaps Stephen King’s best book ever, even if you have seen Kubrick’s Shining AND you’ve seen King’s own TV remake, you STILL NEED TO READ THIS BOOK. It is so much more than either adaption offers.
We get so much insight into Jack Torrence and his past and where he is going mentally, but you also get something crucial you don’t really see in either version, which is Jack fighting his downward spiral for the sake of his son and wife.
He is a man becoming a monster and fighting it but not winning, and that is what makes The Shining so profound, and ultimately, Stephen King’s masterwork.
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