Killer clowns, vicious vampires, deranged dogs, murderous monsters and psychotic stalkers. These are the characters we associate with Stephen King. And, fair enough. He is, after all, the King of horror.
To paint all of his work with this blood-covered brush is something only the uninitiated do. In doing so you miss coming-of-age stories, the underdogs-seeking-redemption tales, the hard-boiled-detective books, and the historical-fiction-cum-time-travel novel.
The recent release of IT means that King is in our collective thoughts again. If I’m being honest about the film, I thought it was underwhelming. Don’t get me wrong, I loved the casting – each actor/character felt like they truly belonged in that world – and the
cinematography was excellent; I just wasn’t scared.
Fortunately, IT was never one of my favourite King tales so it didn’t ruin anything for me. Likewise, I’ve grown accustomed to the fact that he doesn’t often translate well to the big screen anyway. Note that I said ‘often’ – there are some major exceptions.
Anyway, for anyone who has a new-found interest in reading King’s books (whether that interest stems from watching IT or 2016’s 11.22.63 Hulu series, or from somewhere else) it can be quite daunting choosing where to start. A prolific writer, Stephen King has written 56 novels, 5 non-fiction books and nearly 200 short stories collected in 10 anthologies. And it’s all connected…
I’m a huge fan of his work and his books dominate my bookshelf but I’m not going to pretend I’ve read all that King has produced. If that information taints this recommendation then so be it, but here’s my 13 favourite Stephen King books (not in order because that proved too difficult).
The Green Mile
I can actually remember when this came out. It was the year I turned 16 and the novel was released in six parts; one small book a month for six months. The Green Mile was also turned into a successful film and is one of those tales people can’t believe was written by Stephen King. It’s most memorable character is a giant black man on death row who shows incredible empathy and the ability to inexplicably heal people (and a mouse).
A vampire older than Christ relocates to a rural American town and begins turning everyone into bloodsucking monsters. Stephen King has said in a couple of interviews that this is his favourite book. At one point he was planning a full-blown sequel but that never eventuated. Instead, he simply returned to that setting in two of the short stories collected in Night Shift.
All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy. Redrum. Redrum.
The story of an alcoholic writer who ‘house sits’ a haunted hotel with his wife and telepathic son. This is the first book that actually gave me the heebie-jeebies. The woman in room 237 was particularly freaky.
King actually wrote a sequel called Doctor Sleep which didn’t hit the same heights but was still very entertaining.
This! 823 pages of good vs evil. Apparently the original manuscript was so big that the printing presses of the time literally couldn’t handle it so King had to cull it. He later released an ‘uncut’ version that came in at 1152 pages. It is an epic in every sense of the word.
If you don’t like horror, this is the King book for you. Well, half of it is. This isn’t a novel but 4 novellas. Two of these have been converted into films regularly listed among people’s favourites – The Shawshank Redemption and Stand By Me. One of the remaining two is Apt Pupil which is a disturbingly realistic story of a teenage boy who finds a Nazi war criminal in his neighbourhood. The final story is bat-shit crazy and features a pregnant woman who is involved in a car crash while in labour.
If you ask me what my favourite Stephen King book is, this is your answer. Then I think about it and change my mind about a half a dozen times. More often than not, I still come back to Needful Things. The premise is quite simple; an elderly shop owner sells goods for misdeeds… and their souls. It’s the last novel set in Castle Rock.
The Dark Half
I don’t like birds and “the sparrows are flying again”. This novel features an author who is haunted by the pen-name he tried to kill off (but it doesn’t want to stay dead). I was freaked out by this book when I first read it. It probably didn’t help that I used to live in a house surrounded by a national forest and often found myself to be the only one at home – it’s actually really surprising that horror is a genre I love, I was constantly creeping myself out while growing up.
Part autobiography, part how-to book. I love this candid look at King’s life and craft.
Yet another Stephen King novel where the protagonist is an author. It often feels like King puts himself into his books and this makes it seem like the nightmares are all his. Here an obsessive fan helps her favourite author recover after a car crash until her obsession takes a dark turn. Kathy Bates won an Oscar for her portrayal of the psychotic nurse.
This is one of many collaborations Stephen King has worked on, this one with Peter Straub. Set in America and an alternate dimension, this is the story of a young boy who wants to cure his mum’s cancer.
I struggled to pick a short story collection to fit in this list and Everything’s Eventual narrowly beat out the other anthologies. These are probably a great place to start as they allow a glimpse into King’s work in accessible bite-sized chunks. The titular story is excellent, so is “The Road Virus Heads North”. “1408” was turned into a decent film and “The Man in the Black Suit” was also a riveting tale (about a boy who meets the Devil).
This is the first non-fiction book of King’s that I ever read. It’s a history of horror, an appreciation of the genre, and a blend of academic insight and personal reflection. It’s a fantastic read.
Cycle of the Werewolf
This illustrated short novel tells of werewolf attacks in a small town. It is told in 12 chapters that are set in each month of a calendar year. Aside from the unique structure, I also enjoyed the fact that the protagonist is a wheelchair-bound adolescent.
Hmmm, all of this reminiscing has made me keen to read some King again. Fortunately, he’s just released one book (Sleeping Beauties, co-written by his son Owen King) and is releasing another before Christmas (Gwendy’s Button Box, co-written by Richard Chizmar).