Stephen King is one of the most prolific authors in the world, with more than 50 books in print, and more coming out every year. He also happens to be one of my favorite storytellers, an author I’ve read more than any other. In fact, I’ve read every book he’s ever written, so that puts me in the unique position of being a “constant reader,” as he calls us in his introductions — not an expert, but certainly a passionate follower and devout fan, though not his “number one fan.”
When it comes to putting together an “essential” reading list, I’m sure many books will be left off, some of your favorites, perhaps. But I had to whittle this down to what I consider his best work, his most important books. These are the 10 (or so) books that I think are “must-reads.” I don’t think he’s written a terrible book, ever, but that’s just me. So many people criticize King, without even realizing that they enjoyed movies that were written by him: Shawshank Redemption, The Green Mile, and Stand By Me, for example. I mean, everyone knows Carrie, and The Shining, and It — the books and films that made him famous. But hopefully this list will not only give you a solid list of essential books, but maybe even turn you on to a title or two that you’ve never heard of. Good luck, and happy reading.
1. The Stand
For me, the writing of Stephen King starts and ends with The Stand. It is an epic, post-apocalyptic horror story that begins with “Captain Trips,” a deadly virus, and ends with a massive showdown, good vs. evil — the last stand. I can still remember the opening scene, the family running from the medical facility, crashing into a gas station, miles away — handing the story to the immune Stu Redman.
It’s a big book, the uncut version clocking in at 1,100 pages, but it needs to be this big. We have so many storylines to follow, people to root for, and miles to cover, crossing the United States, one horrific moment after another. We root for Mother Abigail, the spiritual leader; Larry Underwood, the rock star; Nick Andros, a deaf man from the Midwest; and Frannie Goldsmith, a teenager. We meet the “Trashcan Man” and of course, the dark spirit, Randall Flagg.
While people often list The Stand, The Shining, or It as his best work, if I had to pick one as my favorite, it has to be The Stand. This story is a rollercoaster ride of tension and hope, a beautiful narrative that left me in tears.
2. The Shining
Due to the famous film by Stanley Kubrick, and the performance of Jack Nicholson, this may be King’s most well-known book. I recently re-read it for the first time in 30 years and it still holds up. And the ending, the father-son story — I can see why King hated Kubrick’s version; it lacked so much heart. Where The Stand holds tension over 1,100 pages, The Shining is an exploration of one man, Jack Torrance, falling apart, losing his mind to the Overlook Hotel, and the abuse and suffering that his family endures. I wondered, when I re-read this, if it would still scare me — and you know what, it did! And the same places, too — those damn hedge animals. This is really a classic King title, and one that puts the vulnerable Danny Torrance (REDRUM! REDRUM!) front and center, while also flipping back and forth between the quickly eroding mind of Jack, and the worrisome, helpless mother, Wendy. This is an iconic book, another essential King read.
Another massive book, also over 1,100 pages, It is another favorite King book of mine. It introduces us to the horror that lurks in the sewers of Derry, Maine, and a creepy clown known as Pennywise. We follow a cast of misfits, “The Losers Club,” first as children, and then later, as adults. What’s the line? “We all float down here.” Not only does King build on the vulnerability of a handful of kids trying to fight and defeat a terrible presence after the disappearance and eventual death of Georgie Denbrough, but King makes them come back to face the evil as adults. There has always been some controversy over the “bonding scene” between Beverly and the boys, with many fans saying it put them off the book altogether, but I never saw it that way — more like soldiers surviving a war, a blood oath and bond that could never be severed. It’s dark for sure, though.
I think what draws me to this book over many other King titles is the noble, but complicated, cause of Johnny Smith. Imagine if you were this man, or if you knew him, and he said that certain events were going to transpire? That the president, or some other politician, was going to cause the end of the world through his selfish acts? You’d say he was crazy, right? So we root for Johnny, because we know he’s telling the truth, we know the obstacles he’s up against, and we want to see him win. And of course anything involving luck, the occult, or any sort of supernatural powers is always a fascinating read. We feel for Johnny when his fiancée moves on; we see the sad, sordid life he’s living, and we feel sympathy, empathy. And in the end, he is the hero, and we’re one of the few who know about his secret. And that’s part of King’s appeal, sometimes, that he lets us peek behind the curtain, lets us know about what dark magic is happening in the shadows. It’s also one hell of a good movie, starring Christopher Walken.
This is such an original book. Long before The Hunger Games, there was The Long Walk. Originally written under his pseudonym, Richard Bachman, King’s The Long Walk first came out in paperback but was later collected in The Bachman Books. Part reinstated draft, part lottery, much like in It, King uses the vulnerability of youth in 100 young boys to show us a dark and horrific story, where only one boy will survive. And that’s part of what makes it such a compelling read, right? From the very beginning, we know they are all going to die, all but one. Who do we root for? Who do we hate? There are so many kids to know, with Raymond Garraty as the protagonist. Over time, we get to know their stories, and everything changes. There are odds on the contestants; a heavy favorite is married; one may be the son of the Major, the man who runs the event; another, a loner, has alienated everyone but Ray; a group of the boys form “The Musketeers”— the plot getting more and more complicated, and heartbreaking, as the story unfolds. It’s a powerful book that’s sometimes overlooked when talking about Stephen King. And it’s a thin one, only a few hundred pages!
6. Pet Sematary
This starts out, as many of King’s books do, as a sweet, innocent story, with a family moving to the country. But even though they are surrounded by nature and kind neighbors, it doesn’t take long for the horror to creep in — in the woods and the highway that runs so close by the house, where a pet or child might easily wander out into the rumbling semis and speeding cars. King likes to ask a lot of “what if” questions in his books as he chases the rabbit down the hole. And this story is no exception. If memory serves me correctly this novel has some pretty intense sex scenes, which King usually avoids, and that offsets the darkness and violence — there’s plenty of that, don’t worry. It’s definitely one of his creepiest books. When you ask yourself what lengths you would go to for your family, to fix things, to undo a horrible accident, do you have limits? King doesn’t.
7. Salem’s Lot
I thought about leaving this book off the list just because vampires have been so overdone lately, but then I remembered that this book was written in 1975, and that it’s one of my favorite vampire novels, so I had to include it. I love the way King takes a classic monster, or situation, and places it in a contemporary setting. What WOULD it look like if vampires existed now, in contemporary society? What if children started to disappear? The tension in this book is palpable, using the small town and isolation to his benefit (as he often would over the years) as well as a small band of good-hearted people who are striving to protect their own, to right a wrong. These vampires do not sparkle — they are violent, eternal, and terrifying.
This one may surprise a lot of people, and it may not make a lot of lists, but it always fascinated me. Once again King masters the small-town life, tapping into the hopes and dreams of wholesome, simple people. But there are so many secrets, so many wishes, and so many debts to be paid. And as those wishes are granted, more base desires bubble to the surface — jealousies, resentments, and hatred. The tension that King builds for the first 250 pages increases, layer upon layer, until the satisfying climax, at the end of another mammoth 1,000-page book. This was deemed “the last Castle Rock story,” and it definitely ends with a bang. Being a King fan, you learn to invest in sturdy bookshelves, that’s for sure.
9. Night Shift
I had to include one of King’s short story collections, and when I look at the stories that are in this collection, his first, it’s just packed full of some of his best short fiction. Many of these stories were first published in “men’s magazines” such as Cavalier, Penthouse, and Gallery — which is where a lot of authors got started back then; it’s how they paid their rent. “Night Surf” would go on to become The Stand. Obviously, “Jerusalem’s Lot” has ties to Salem’s Lot. And, many people, when selecting their favorite King story ever, mention some that are in here: “Quitters, Inc.,” “I Am the Doorway,” and “I Know What You Need.” Also, several of these stories were later made into feature length films, as well: The Lawnmower Man, Children of the Corn, Cat’s Eye, Maximum Overdrive, Graveyard Shift, and The Mangler. When it came out, it also included FOUR previously unpublished short stories, which is kind of unheard of. While all of his short story collections are worth picking up, this is my favorite, possibly because it was my first collection of his. King has since gone on to place stories in the best magazines and journals around — the Paris Review, The New Yorker, The Atlantic, etc.
Part of what makes this collection of four novellas so interesting is the very fact that King focused on the often ignored and underappreciated novella. These four novellas have gone on to garner a lot of attention. “Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption” became one of the most loved movies of all time, and was nominated for an Academy Award. “Apt Pupil” also went on to become a major motion picture. And in case you forgot, “The Body” became the movie Stand By Me, another very well known, and loved, film. For those that think King is a windbag, going on way too long, this may be the book for you. It’s got more substance than a short story collection; you have more time with each of the stories and characters, but you could also finish off an entire novella in a few hours. But really, it’s always about the writing, right? Don’t worry about the length. This is a fantastic collection of stories, and another essential King book.
11. The Dark Tower
BOOKS: The Dark Tower: The Gunslinger (1982); The Dark Tower II: The Drawing of the Three (1987); The Dark Tower III: The Waste Lands (1991); The Dark Tower IV: Wizard and Glass (1997); The Dark Tower V: Wolves of the Calla (2003); The Dark Tower VI: Song of Susannah (2004); The Dark Tower VII: The Dark Tower (2004); The Dark Tower: The Wind Through the Keyhole (2012).
Yes, I cheated and included all eight books as my 11th selection.
It’s hard to know where to even start with this series. What I do know is that the opening line to The Gunslinger is one that has stayed with me since I first read it some 25 years ago: “The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed.” Gives me chills just to say it — it always does. If The Stand was an epic novel, this is so much more, an expansive universe that touches on so MANY of King’s other books as well. How’s it go? “All things serve the beam.”
Inspired by the poem “Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came” by Robert Browning, it starts with a lonely gunslinger, Roland Deschain, a man with a mission, and many secrets. Along the way his group, his ka-tet, expands to include Jake Chambers, Eddie Dean, Susannah Dean, and the bumbler (a kind of dog-like thing), Oy. They are on a mission to find the tower, and to save the world by defeating The Man in Black (who has many different forms) and The Crimson King. Roland is the last living member of a knightly order known as gunslingers and the last of the line of “Arthur Eld,” his world’s analogue of King Arthur.
This is such a unique mix of genres that it’s really hard to compare it anything. There have always been those who mention the Lord of the Rings trilogy, and I suppose there is that. Many have said that Roland resembles “the man with no name,” a Clint Eastwood character, and I see that as well. King has described it as his “magnum opus,” which simply means “great work,” and I think that’s accurate as well.
This series is brilliant. I’ve never cared so much about so many different fictional characters, have never been so invested, have never cried so hard or so often while reading something. When they released the eighth book, a side story, many years after the seventh (and supposedly last) book came out, I gobbled it up in one day. That’s the kind of passion King creates in his fans, the kind of spell he casts.
HONORABLE MENTIONS: Misery, Carrie, The Talisman, Black House, Firestarter, Doctor Sleep, The Eyes of the Dragon, 11/22/63, The Green Mile, Under the Dome, Dolores Claiborne, and, of course, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft (non-fiction).
Richard Thomas is the author of three books — Transubstantiate, Herniated Roots, and Staring Into the Abyss. He is also the editor of three anthologies out in 2014: The New Black, The Lineup: 25 Provocative Women Authors, and Burnt Tongues with Chuck Palahniuk. In his spare time he writes for The Nervous Breakdown, LitReactor, and is Editor-in-Chief at Dark House Press. For more information visit www.whatdoesnotkillme.com. Follow him on Twitter.