Ranking the Master of Horror…
Stephen King has published 58 novels. Of that number, I have read 27 of them. The remaining books are made up of the Gunslinger series, various crime novels and King’s work under the pen name of Richard Bachman. This list is an attempt to rank the best novels that King has produced in the horror genre.
The only rule here is that the books have to be written solely by Stephen King, and they have to be full novels. That means no The Body (later to be adapted as Stand By Me) or Shawshank Redemption (both are novellas that feature in the Different Seasons collection).
Let us begin…
10. Needful Things (1991)
Many of Stephen King’s novels take place in Maine, in a fictional landscape dominated by three made-up towns in the shape of Castle Rock, Derry and Jerusalems’s Lot. Needful Things is, to date, the final novel to be fully set in Castle Rock (the others being The Dead Zone, Cujo and The Dark Half as well as a variety of short stories).
When a shop opens in the town of Castle Rock, the store and it’s mysterious proprietor Leland Gaunt become the subject of small town gossip and suspicion. Needful Things gives the customer what they want, but at what cost?
9. The Shining (1977)
One of the rare examples of a film eclipsing its source materail (much to King’s annoyance), The Shining suffers in comparison to the superior film adaptation but it is still a compelling read in its own right.
One of King’s main gripes about Kubrick’s film is that it veers so wildly away from the source material. The good news from a readers point of view is that you can enjoy both the film and the novel without feeling the same dull grind of repetition that made Jack such a dull boy.
8. Pet Sematary (1983)
Stephen King’s tenth novel serves as a cautionary tale, warning against the age old desire to bring the dead back to life. This dark fable is due to have it’s second film adaptation drop in 2019.
Initially considered too bleak to publish, King eventually relented to fulfil his contract with Doubleday Publishing and the result is a dark and nihilistic novel that is difficult to read in places. If you can make it through the horrific opening however, one of the King’s best novels awaits.
7. The Long Walk (1979)
Stephen King started writing under the nom de plume Richard Bachman in order to increase his output without diluting the ‘King’ brand. While his work as Bachman is definitely not as acclaimed as his ‘proper’ novels, it did give us The Long Walk, perhaps the most underrated Stephen King work.
Set in a dystopian future, the plot revolves around a gruelling walking contest that is reminiscent of The Hunger Games and Battle Royale. Despite numerous attempts by Shawshank director Frank Darabont, a film adaptation of The Long Walk is yet to get beyond the planning stage which is a shame as it is one of King’s most unsettling and effective novels. I loved it.
6. Carrie (1974)
The story behind the writing of Stephen King’s first published novel Carrie is almost as well known as the book itself. King wrote the first few chapters but hated it so much that he threw it in the trash. His wife Tabitha King fished it out and demanded he finish it. The rest is history.
Carrie works as a fantastic companion piece to the, also brilliant, Brian de Palma film. Told in mostly epistolary fashion, the book is brutal and unflinching in its portrayal of high school bullies and fundamentalist Christians.
King’s first published novel still holds up today and the story behind it has no doubt inspired many budding novelists.
5. Cujo (1981)
Written during a ‘cocaine binge’, King claims he can’t remember anything about the process of creating Cujo, yet it stands out as one of his most memorable and readable books.
On the surface, the story of a mother’s attempt to save her child from a rabid dog is a simple one, but there are many layers to Cujo and it is still one of King’s best attempts to create a real, lived in world for his characters.
Cujo is a novel that I have read many times but it still bites all those years later.
4. The Stand (1978)
Widely regarded as King’s magnum opus, The Stand is a sprawling 823 page horror fantasy that remains his best take on dystopian America. Despite being one of his oldest and most well thought of works, The Stand was actually the last Stephen King book I read. I loved it obviously.
While there has been one small screen adaptation, it certainly didn’t do justice to the source material. Alas, a potential second crack at recreating The Stand for television is currently in development hell. After the utter failure of the Dark Tower adaptation we may have to wait a little while longer for The Stand to reach a wider audience but in the meantime we always have the book. Thank God for that. Or maybe Satan…
3. Misery (1987)
Horror is absolutely my favourite genre, certainly in terms of cinema and books (not so much TV as genuinely good horror television is incredibly rare). That means I have a strong stomach when it comes to the darker side of life. Even taking that into account I found the description of recovering from a car crash difficult to get through in Misery. King reportedly interviewed numerous real life car crash survivors for inspiration and his attention to detail pays off in grisly fashion.
The fact that it is such a tough read makes Misery all the more powerful and crazed fan Annie Wilkes, immortalised by Kathy Bates in the 1990 film adaptation, is the perfect metaphor for the cocaine addiction that King was still addled with when writing the book.
2. Desperation (1996)
Perhaps the most controversial entry on this list, Desperation is one of the least celebrated Stephen King novels but in Sheriff Entragian it contains one of his most iconic characters.
Desperation is incredibly dark, genuinely unsettling and totally unique. Another book that I have read many, many times, there is something new to discover in Desperation every time and, again, it is surely ripe for another film adaptation after the disappointing TV movie from 2006.
1. IT (1986)
I can’t remember if IT was the first Stephen King book I read, but reading it was definitely the moment when King grabbed hold of my imagination with clawed hands and closed the door forever on Goosebumps and Point Horror books.
Beautifully written, fantastically realised and shit-your-pants scary, IT is probably the greatest horror novel ever written. I still remember devouring every word as a teenager and, if books are supposed to be an escape, I never felt further away from Doncaster than when I was riding along with Bill Denbrough and the rest of the Losers Club on the streets of Derry.
And there we have it. Apologies to the small number of King horror novels I haven’t got round to reading yet and here are some honourable mentions for those that didn’t quite make it…
For a list of the top 10 Stephen King film adaptations, click here.
The Dark Half