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Top 10 Stephen King Books Ranked

Are you in the mood to be terrified beyond the capacity for rational thought? Curl up with one of the ten best books by horror's undisputed master.
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As the undisputed master of the horror genre, Stephen King has published an astonishing 63 books (and counting). That’s not even taking into account his 200+ short stories or his outstanding memoir/guidebook On Writing.

King’s books have been adapted for the big screen fifty times since Carrie premiered in 1976. He’s also the evil genius behind 14 miniseries and a handful of horror anthology episodes.

With such a huge library to choose from, how can you possibly get started? As someone who got into Stephen King’s work way, way too young (we’re talking like, ten years old), I can tell you that there are a few books that stand out above the rest.

Honorable Mention: The Dark Tower saga

It felt weird to leave these books off the list entirely, but in my opinion, The Dark Tower series only works as a whole. If you take a look at each book on its own merits, they vary in quality. Sorry, Roland fans!

Pet Sematary

Promotional image for 'Pet Sematary' remake
Paramount Studios

I find this book too sad and unsettling to revisit. It doesn’t help that my inner editor wants to take a red pen to the title every time I see it! Pet Sematary, like many of King’s books, takes place in Maine. Louis Creed, his wife, and their two adorable kids seem to have discovered paradise when they move into their new house… but tragedy and dark magic would soon turn their bucolic existence into a nightmare. Tenderhearted readers may struggle with this one.

The Dead Zone

Christopher Walken in 'The Dead Zone'
Paramount Pictures

Maine is Stephen King’s personal playground, a place that is seemingly wholesome on the surface but rife with darkness underneath. (Kind of like Molly the Thing of Evil, King’s beloved/feared corgi.) The Dead Zone takes place in Castle Rock, Maine, where a man awakening from a coma discovers that he has clairvoyant powers. Johnny Smith joins up with the police to hunt a killer using his newfound abilities.

‘Salem’s Lot

Still from ''Salem's Lot'
Warner Bros. Television

Although Stephen King is a master of horror, he doesn’t often use the tropes we associate with the genre. Evil is almost always to be found in the hearts of men, not in ghosts or monsters. That’s what sets ‘Salem’s Lot apart from the rest of his work. It’s also only his second novel, following Carrie. He’d never again write about vampires–which is a shame because Salem’s Lot is very good. The EPIX miniseries Chapelwaite starring Adrien Brody is a prequel to this vampire tale.

The Stand

I read The Stand when I was a kid, and while I won’t say that it scarred me for life… well, this one is both terrifying and haunting. To be honest, I’d wait a little while before diving into this dystopian novel about half the world’s population being wiped out by a flu virus. There are two versions of this book on the market–the 1978 original and the 1990 “complete and uncut” edition, which is King’s longest published work.

11/22/63

Still from '11/22/63'
Hulu

Proving that he’s still got it almost forty years into his writing career, 11/22/63 is one of King’s best. Time travel isn’t his usual scene, but this book explores the potential horrors of trying to fix the past. The date in question, of course, is the day that President John F. Kennedy was assassinated. In trying to save JFK, Al Templeton and Jake Epping discover that no act is without consequences.

It

Pennywise the clown
Warner Bros. Pictures

Why isn’t It higher on this list? For exactly one scene. The infamous scene was already a terrible idea when the book was published in 1986 and is completely unforgivable now. If you’ve read the book, then you know what I’m talking about. Neither the miniseries nor the film adaptations wanted anything to do with it–and considering how horrifically scary the rest of the book is, that’s saying something. Still, the tale of childhood terror carrying over into adult trauma is a classic, and Pennywise remains one of King’s greatest monsters.

Misery

Still from 'Misery'
Columbia Pictures

Misery is especially terrifying for writers and other creatives who fear their fans more than just about anything else. Annie Wilkes (portrayed to perfection by Kathy Bates in the movie adaptation) kidnaps bestselling author Paul Sheldon and forces him to write to her whims–or else. Given that fandom has grown only more rabid and demanding since this book was published, it’s even more unsettling today.

The Green Mile

Warner Bros via Giphy

Originally published as a series of short volumes, Stephen King’s The Green Mile broke ranks with the rest of his work in several ways. First, it shattered publishing expectations and hinted at the future of publishing serialized stories. Second, it takes place in a historical setting unlike any that King had explored before. It’s also incredibly sad. The adaptation starring Tom Hanks and the late Michael Clarke Duncan is a masterpiece.

Different Seasons

Still from 'The Shawshank Redemption'
Columbia Pictures

Different Seasons is a collection of four novellas, and they are all incredible in their own way. The four novellas are loosely inspired by (you guessed it) the seasons of the year:

  • Rita Heyworth and the Shawshank Redemption (Hope Springs Eternal)
  • Apt Pupil (Summer of Corruption)
  • The Body (Fall From Innocence)
  • The Breathing Method (A Winter’s Tale)

Two excellent movies (and one not-so-great flick) were drawn from this collection. The Shawshank Redemption (1994) is the only adaptation of his work to win an Academy Award for Best Picture. Stand By Me (1986) is an adaptation of The Body and won the Golden Globe for Best Drama Motion Picture. Apt Pupil was adapted into a film of the same name starring Ian McKellan and Brad Renfro.

The Shining

Here’s a controversial opinion. I think the Stanley Kubrick film is better than the book. Sorry, please don’t throw snowballs at me! It’s hard to read The Shining now without Jack Nicholson and Shelley Duvall intruding. The 1977 novel has many significant differences, and it is best enjoyed as its own thing. Stephen King would agree with me; he famously disliked the Kubrick film because of how much the director changed the substance of the book.

The Shining remains the most popular book of King’s long career, and for good reason. It’s a gut-wrenching study of addiction–and that, more than the haunted hotel, is the true terror at the heart of the novel.