Looking to get your horror fix this October? In honor of Halloween, I’m breaking down my favorite works from the king of horror himself, Stephen King. There is no author who has influenced my writing style and reading tastes more, and ranking my favorites is no easy task. There’s something here for every horror fan, as King’s huge portfolio covers every horror subgenre out there.
If you haven’t read much King, maybe you’ll find your next favorite in this list. If you’re a mega-fan, feel free to debate my choices in the comments (The Stand’s not in this list?! *Gasp*). I’d love to chat, and I’m 100% cool with it if you don’t agree with my rankings. Tell me your favorites!
10. Pet Sematary
Scare Factor: 10/10
Anyone who’s had a pet die understands the allure of a cemetery that resurrects your beloved pal. But trying to knot together those delicate threads of mortality after they’ve already been snipped by the Fates never turns out well for anyone.
Animal lives are frequently cut short on the dangerous stretch of road in front of the Creed family’s new home, and Louis Creed thinks it’s cute that the local kids have made their own “sematary” for their bygone companions. But there’s nothing cute about the undead cat that comes crawling back to the Creed’s home after being laid to rest. He looks fine, sure, but he’s not the same kitty.
So what happens if unimaginable tragedy strikes, and more than a pet dies? What would you do?
This is arguably King’s most terrifying novel because deep down we all know the answer to that question. We’d all like to say, “No. I wouldn’t do that. I know it’s not worth it.” But could you actually resist the temptation to reverse unimaginable grief, and damn the consequences?
Louis Creed can’t resist, and the consequences are truly heinous. I’d wager good money that you’ll lie awake for a few nights after you finish the book.
So if this is the scariest King novel, why isn’t it at the top of the list? Well, while I love a great scare, that’s not what makes King a master in my eyes. His characters are. And as well-developed as the Creed family is, I had to look back at the book to remember their names. I guarantee you I won’t have to do that for my top three.
Scare Factor: 5/10
This one makes the list for sheer ingenuity and imagination. I mean, a killer car? Come on. It sounds ridiculous, but in King’s hands, it’s a page turner. If I ever see a red 1958 Plymouth Fury, I’m giving it a wide berth. And yes, I actually know what that car is and what it looks like, which means it really made an impression because the only car types I know are Jeeps and Impalas because I’ve had both.
Christine’s a beauty, but she’s a grade-A bitch. Her symbiotic relationship with her first owner, the hateful, egotistical bastard Roland D. LeBay, is what makes this one a standout for me. You’ll constantly be asking, “Who created who?” Did Christine warp an asshole into a monster? Or did LeBay imbue his hateful spirit into the car he loved more than his own family? Or maybe it’s a little of both?
Regardless, poor, sweet Arnie Cunningham is caught in the middle, and Christine’s looking for a new man. The red Plymouth will do anything to please, and keep, her man, and she thinks she knows what’s best. Anyone who gets in her way or displeases her will feel the cold steel of her snarling grill. Hold onto the wheel, because you’re in for a wild ride.
“Come on, big guy. Let’s go for a ride. Let’s cruise.”
Scare Factor: 6/10
This novel was my introduction to King, and it holds a special place in my heart as a result, even if King himself isn’t a huge fan of it. It was written while he was recovering from the car accident that nearly killed him, and he was loaded up on Oxycontin. You can tell, but I’m okay with that. I mean, it’s got a telepathic down syndrome man with dream sharing abilities that could save the world from an alien invasion, parasitic “shit weasels” that infect your body and eat their way out of you while you’re on the toilet, and fierce battles that are waged solely in the mind. What else could you ask for?
It’s trippy, riveting, and loaded with King’s unusual and intelligently raunchy (yes, that’s a thing) sense of humor. It features a group of close childhood friends, which is something King writes better than any other author, in my opinion. But in true King fashion, these four are not your average Joes. Thanks to an early friendship with Duddits, the Down Syndrome boy with supernatural abilities, they all have a bit of power inside. Unfortunately, that means they are powerful hosts for the alien invaders.
It’s a hard plot to explain, and I’m not going to try, because I’ll just ruin it. But it showcases the greatest advantages of novels, such as internal dialogue and insight, to the tenth degree, which is why it translated so poorly to film (I can’t believe they even tried).
7. Bag of Bones
Scare Factor: 3/10
Most King novels have you sitting rigid on your couch, your eyes wide, biting on your lip. Bag of Bones will have you bawling like a baby. This one is more in the vein of The Green Mile, in that it swaps most of the scares for heart and drama. But it’s King, so there is still a strong paranormal element.
Mike Noonan is an author suffering from severe writer’s block after the tragic, sudden death of his wife. He escapes to their summer home, drawn by a dream, and meets a young woman and her toddler daughter who are being harassed by the child’s downright despicable paternal grandfather. Seriously, I think I loathe Max Devore more than any other King villain (although Tom Rogan from It is a close second). But something besides Max Devore is haunting both Noonan’s home, the summer Maine town, and little Kyra Devore. Something holding a serious grudge. Assaulted from all sides, our heroes just want peace, to be allowed to live their lives and flourish as they should, but they’re going to have to fight hard for that right.
Normally, when I cry while reading, it’s a gradual process. It starts with a closed throat and a misting that clings to my lashes, and only if the sorrow continues for multiple pages do I actually shed tears. Bag of Bones is the only novel that has ever sucker-punched me with so much emotion in a single line that I skipped all the usual steps and instantly burst into loud, unattractive sobs.
Scare Factor: 7/10
I liked this one so much, I wrote an essay on it. You can find it in this anthology from Ashland Creek Press.
There are so many things that make Cujo a masterpiece. The first is that the villain is about as sympathetic as they come. In fact, you could argue that Cujo isn’t the villain at all, rabies is. Cujo’s character arc is more complex than that of some authors’ human characters, and even in the tragic, deadly finale, you feel no hatred toward Cujo, only pity, for all involved.
That’s because a killer dog is not really the most frightening thing about this novel. The true terror comes from the realization that all the missteps in Donna Trenton’s day (even the most minute choices), and really the previous few months of her life, merged together to lead her and her son into the jaws of a tortured, mad canine, and worked against her to keep help at bay.
Life’s a bitch, and there’s no way you can predict it. There is no evil here, only bad luck and the inevitability of death. There is no real villain to blame, and yet lots of people end up dead, some of them completely innocent. It’s just an ordinary day, when you boil it down to basics, and that is truly terrifying.
Scare Factor: 5/10
Speaking of sympathetic villains … poor, poor Carrie White. I’ve talked about her on this blog before, in this post, so I won’t linger too long here. Really, I’d hesitate to even call Carrie a villain. The fact that the girl didn’t snap far earlier in the novel practically makes her a saint.
The idea that someone’s debut novel could be this great sort of makes me want to crawl into a hole and never show my writing to anybody, but it’s also incredibly inspiring.
Zealotry of any kind is usually scary, and Carrie’s mom has it in spades. Carrie examines the ugly side of humanity and the effects hatred, ignorance, and the fear of anything different from oneself can have on others.
4. The Shining
Scare Factor: 9/10
The book is five times better than the movie. Yes, I’m that person. Fight me.
Danny is more lovable and intelligent, Wendy isn’t weak, and Jack is far more complex. The whole concept of “shining” is actually fleshed out, along with the history of the hotel, and the supernatural elements are more intense and widespread. The slow, creeping feeling of dread lingers with you each time you slide in your bookmark and try to go about your day.
Jack may not be a saint to begin with, but his downfall comes at a time when he is truly trying, and beginning to succeed, at getting his act together, and it makes the decline all the more tragic. The supernatural elements here act as more tangible representations of an addict’s inner demons and human capacity for depravity, and in the middle of it all, little Danny’s light shines bright (pun most definitely intended). Danny is a symbol of hope at the center of ever-encroaching evil, and following him around the Overlook will keep your heart at a steady gallop.
3. Needful Things
Scare Factor: 6/10
Again, I’ve talked about this book before on this blog. I couldn’t help myself. It acted as the central example in How To Head Jump: Properly Implementing Multiple Characters’ Thoughts in Stories. Check that out if you want deeper insight into the plot. But essentially, a mysterious new vendor comes to Castle Rock, and he’s selling exactly what each character wants most in the world. If they want to own it, they just have to pull a little “prank” on one of their neighbors. Absolute chaos and carnage ensues in a climax that will have you devouring the final third of the massive book in one sitting.
This book makes my top three because, once again, King uses a nail-biting story to examine the darker side of the human psyche, but this time he does it on a huge and impressive scale. Each character is memorable. Some you hate, some you love, and some you pity, but you feel connected to each one. The intricacy of the plot blew my mind. The characterization made me jealous. And the villain is unlike anything I’ve ever seen before or since.
Scare Factor: 10/10
Speaking of incredible, unique villains … It will have you jumping at shadows in the bedside-lamplight and fumbling for every switch on your way to the bathroom. If your house creaks or something falls on the floor, God help you.
This book makes me geek out from both a writer and a reader standpoint. I am head over heels in love. I had an extremely hard time deciding whether to make this number one or not, and honestly, I think the only thing that kept me from doing so was that weird-ass sex scene inside It’s lair (Seriously, Mr. King, wtf, dude?). It was a close race to say the least.
It’s so difficult to expertly pace such a large novel, and yet no part of It feels dry. Even if no one is being mauled or stalked or traumatized, you’re still unearthing a clue, falling deeper in love with characters, and watching important relationships form.
Writing children authentically takes care, firsthand observation, and a lot of straining your brain to think back on your own childhood. Children think differently, speak differently, and interact with each other differently than adults. Young Bill, Mike, Richie, Bev, Eddie, Stan, and Ben jump off the page (As I predicted, I didn’t have to check my book for their names). They are living, breathing children, and not once was I ever pulled out of the story by an action or a line of dialogue. Not only are they believable, they’re hilarious, heartwarming, and awe-inspiring. All of their lives become precious to you, so each time It appears, especially in the later timeline when all bets are off, a knot forms in your gut. You cheer for them, lament with them, and scream with them through all 1,000+ pages.
And you’ll be left thinking about the malevolent sewer-dweller well into the night.
Scare Factor: 8/10
Dreamcatcher might have been my introduction to King, but Desperation made me a true fan. Tak is the most unsettling villain I’ve ever read on paper. Sure, Pennywise is a monster of the most heinous sort who gobbles children and morphs into your greatest fears, but there is some small level of method to his madness. He needs to do those things to survive. He takes only children, unless an adult is foolish or courageous enough to try and hunt him.
Tak, on the other hand, just wants to watch the world burn. No man, woman, or child is safe, and he kills without logic and without qualm. From the moment he arrives on the page, you know something’s wrong, but you can’t immediately put your finger on what it is. Before all the players can even come together, there is projectile blood vomit from a possessed rotting corpse, gut shots, and a child thrown down the stairs. Tak is a demon, and he isn’t going to halt his carnage at Desperation (best tiny Western town name ever!), unless somebody stops him.
In the face of unbridled power and enormous evil, a child, once again, is our heroes’ greatest hope. David Carver is essentially a child prophet, able to commune with God, Himself. But David is well aware that though He is great, “God is cruel,” and solutions will not be handed over on a silver platter, and no life is guaranteed.
Desperation grapples with the tougher elements of faith, religion, and sin in the middle of a graphic and thrilling novel that has every ounce of King’s usual flair and mastery. I grew up in Classical Christian schools, and I read dense theology texts as early as fourth grade. None ever left me searching so deep within myself nor prompted me to examine my beliefs and ask myself hard questions like this work of fiction. To me, this novel proves that fiction speaks the loudest truths, and that is what earns it my number one spot.