My Top 10 List of Stephen King Books
I’ve never been a big reader of fantasy novels, but I’ve always loved horror novels. One of my first favorite books was a picture book called, “The Haunted House” starring Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck. Once I learned to read, I evolved to R.L. Stein’s Goosebumps series. Then, in my teen years, I gave Stephen King a try to began to work my way through the two shelves that my local library had dedicated to his novels.
There is something about the horror genre that just speaks to teenagers. Aside from that, though, Stephen King is actually a great writer. His distinctive voice, characterization, and general storytelling abilities have earned him the success that he has acquired. He doesn’t always hit it out of the park, but he has had plenty of homeruns in his career. Below are my top 10 favorite Stephen King books in the order in which they were published.
- Carrie (1974) – There is nothing like reading this as an outcast teenage girl. I didn’t have half the crap life that Carrie has in this book, but I did sympathize with her, even as she was burning her classmates to death. What really makes this book work for me, though, is its unique storytelling structure. King creates snippets of newspaper articles, chapters from fake books and even testimony taken from court hearings after the events of the book to create a scrapbook of tales that tells the story. It jumps around between these different made up texts along with the third person narration, adding realism to an otherwise unrealistic situation. He also bounces from one perspective to another, giving a voice to Sue, Chris, Mrs. White, and others as well as Carrie. This is not just Carrie’s story. This is a story about a horrific night in a small town and the events leading up to the tragedy. King also introduces his bold technique of giving away important plot points earlier in the text, teasing the reader of the horrific events to come. It’s not about what happens but how it happens. I hate to say that he peaked at his debut novel because he’s written a ton of great work, but Carrie may always remain my favorite Stephen King novel.
Quote courtesy of Wikipedia: “Yet although she had swum and she had laughed when they ducked her (until she couldn't get her head up any more and they kept doing it and she got panicky and began to scream) and had tried to take part in the camp's activities, a thousand practical jokes had been played on ol' prayin' Carrie and she had come home on the bus a week early, her eyes red and socketed from weeping, to be picked up by Momma at the station, and Momma had told her grimly that she should treasure the memory of her scourging as proof that Momma knew, that Momma was right, that the only hope of safety and salvation was inside the red circle. 'For straight is the gate,' Momma said grimly in the taxi and at home she had sent Carrie to the closet for six hours.”
2. The Shining (1977) – Like most fans of the book, I’m not a big fan of the movie. That’s because tonally, they’re very different stories. The exciting location and sympathetic characters are all present, but the focus and horror is much different. This is one of many of King’s novels in which the protagonist is either a teacher or a writer, two professions that King himself has held. Jack Torrance is also a bit of a drinker, another demon that King himself has had to overcome. Like Carrie, there is also a young character with supernatural powers, Jack’s son Danny. It is his “shine” that keeps him from the fate that befalls the other young boys in King’s later novels. The idea of a family spending the winter in a luxury hotel all to themselves sounds like an ideal place for an aspiring writer who needs to reconnect with his family, but as expected from King, he turns their oasis into a nightmare.
Quote courtesy of Wikipedia: “The world's a hard place, Danny. It don't care. It don't hate you and me, but it don't love us, either. Terrible things happen in the world, and they're things no one can explain. Good people die in bad, painful ways and leave the folks that love them all alone. Sometimes it seems like it's only the bad people who stay healthy and prosper. The world don't love you, but your momma does and so do I.”
The Dead Zone
3. The Dead Zone (1979) – I just reread this book recently, and I liked it a lot more as an adult. Johnny Smith’s unflinching good guy attitude is very admirable without seeming like a flat, shapeless character. Johnny takes a mental and physical beating throughout the book, and while it wears him down in both body and mind, his character never chapters. Again, King jumps around from different characters and goes through different phases. In some sections, it’s a love story, in others a political thriller, others take on a supernatural shift, and there’s even a crime thriller section to keep you reading on to find out where it is all going to lead. Johnny is the axis around which the other characters in the story revolve, yet his powers draw him further from the living and closer to that corridor that leads to his destiny into the Dead Zone.
Quote courtesy of Goodreads: “We all do what we can, and it has to be good enough, and if it isn't good enough, it has to do.”
4. Firestarter (1980) – This is another page turner. Again, his protagonist is a young girl. Charlie McGee could be Carrie White if she had had a better upbringing. She has the power to create and put out fire. As she begins to test out her powers, (handed down to her from her parents whose genes were genetically mutated after they acquired powers from participating in a scientific experiment) she becomes more dangerous to herself and to the villains. Once she allows herself to unleash these powers on her enemies, she goes a little overboard on her quest for revenge. Charlie and her father are totally undeserving of the horror that befalls them. Andy didn’t ask to be given his powers, and Charlie didn’t ask to be born with hers. Still, that doesn’t keep them from falling victim to The Shop who feel entitled to keep their creations at their disposal. Our heroes are like unenthusiastic X-Men with no Xavier to hide them from their enemies or themselves. So, they must rely on their best judgment and use of restraint to keep themselves alive and work toward a moment in their lives when they don’t have to run from those who want to exploit them.
Quote Courtsey of Goodreads: “A kid of your age---any kid---could get hold of matches if she wanted to, burn up the house or whatever. But not many do. Why would they want to?”
5. Cujo (1981) – The illustration of the snarling St. Bernard on the cover of this book caught my eye as I was discovering King for the first time. Never having been a fan of dogs, I knew that a book about a rabid one would give me the scares I needed to get my horror fix, and it delivered in a psychological way. This book is one of King’s most psychological, exploring the idea of when a person should decide to take action. When should Donna leave the hot car and risk the bite of a rabid dog to save her roasting son? When should Mrs. Cambers decide to leave her husband? When should Vic decide to come home from his business trip after not hearing from his wife? When should Donna break off her affair with Steve Kemp? This book shows how multiple bad decisions by multiple people can create a recipe for disaster, and once again, the innocent one, Tad, pays for it. This book is full of sickening suspense as you watch the wrong decision being made again and again and how missed opportunities can lead to consequences just as devastating as making the wrong decision. At the center is an otherwise normal animal that just happens to be overcome with sickness, though it also alludes to the fact that Cujo may have been infected with the evil spirit of Castle Rock murderer Frank Dodd, who appeared in King’s other novel, The Dead Zone, and who may have been hiding out in Tad’s closet this whole time. King just can’t help but sneak in a supernatural element, even when the villain is flesh and blood, and you have to appreciate that.
Quote Courtesy of Goodreads: “It would perhaps not be amiss to point out that he had always tried to be a good dog. He had tried to do all the things his MAN and his WOMAN, and most of all his BOY, had asked or expected of him. He would have died for them, if that had been required. He had never wanted to kill anybody. He had been struck by something, possibly destiny, or fate, or only a degenerative nerve disease called rabies. Free will was not a factor.”
6. Pet Sematary (1983) – This is no doubt the scariest book that I’ve ever read. It kept me awake at least one night while I was reading it. The Creed family never did anything to anyone, and yet their simple move to a new house in a new town ruins everything good about their peaceful, nonthreatening lives. When a person becomes desperate, they do desperate things. What begins is a series of events used to protect Ellie Creed from the fact that her beloved cat was struck and killed by a truck turns into a literal blood bath. Once Louis is shown how the pet cemetery can reanimate dead corpses by his well-meaning neighbor, Jud Crandall, Louis uses that as the answer to bringing back his dead son and later his wife with disastrous consequences. If nothing, it shows that death is not something to fear or play around with. It will only end up haunting you.
Quote courtesy of Goodreads: “He held her and rocked her, believing, rightly or wrongly, that Ellie wept for the very intractability of death, its imperviousness to argument or to a little girl’s tears; that she wept over its cruel unpredictability; and that she wept because of the human being’s wonderful, deadly ability to translate symbols into conclusions that were either fine and noble or blackly terrifying. If all those animals had died and been buried, then Church could die (any time!) and be buried; and if that could happen to Church, it could happen to her mother, her father, her baby brother. To herself. Death was a vague idea; the Pet Sematary was real. In the texture of those rude markers were truths which even a child’s hands could feel.”
7. Misery (1987) – Misery is any writer’s nightmare come to life. We all want some kind of success, but what we don’t want is for people to read our work and not be able to interpret the story’s world from reality. That aside, imagine being rescued by a good Samaritan only to have them lock you up against your will and torture you verbally and physically until you have no choice but to attack. This is the ordeal that Paul Sheldon must endure throughout the course of the novel. This is another psychological thriller that King nails with his narration, delving deep into Paul’s mind, the only thing that he has control over after becoming totally reliant on his rescuer and number one fan, Annie Wilkes’, care over his broken body. The tension in this book tightens as a vice as the story unfolds, and you’re begging Paul to do something, and, knowing that he can’t, you’ll be trying to jump into the story to take Annie out yourself.
Quote courtesy of Goodreads: “I am in trouble here. This woman is not right.”
The Green Mile
8. The Green Mile (1996) – If you’ve seen the movie, this book is practically identical. While this makes watching the movie that more satisfying to a King fan, it can make reading the book after seeing the movie a bit pointless. However, this was one of the few cases where I still had fun reading the novel, even after I had seen the faithful adaptation onscreen. It was nice to have the story told through King’s familiar narration and learn more about certain characters’ back stories, such as the death row inmates, as well as Paul Edgecombe’s life after the story takes place. In this story, King plays down the horror (aside from the brutal rape and murder of two little girls and the occasional execution) and plays up the whimsy and sympathy for characters whom you otherwise wouldn’t think twice about.
Quote courtesy of Goodreads: “On the day of my judgment, when I stand before God, and He asks me why did I kill one of his true miracles, what am I gonna say? That it was my job? My job?”
9. On Writing (2000) – This is not a novel, but it is one of my favorite books about writing. Half autobiography and half a “how to” book, King explores his own history in becoming a writer and later delves into the mechanics of writing, including writing styles, do’s and don’ts, and the basics of forming interesting and concrete sentences. He doesn’t forget to add a little horror, though. His recollection of a doctor sucking an infection from his eardrum with a long needle had me screaming aloud the first time I read it. The years that he struggled trying to make it as a writer while battling alcoholism is very encouraging to an aspiring writer, and his advice about writing in general will make you stop and think that maybe this best-selling author knows what he’s talking about.
Quote courtesy of Goodreads: “Amateurs sit and wait for inspiration, the rest of us just get up and go to work.”
10. Cell (2006) – This book opens with a bang. While many of King’s novels take some time to get going or don’t make much sense in terms of where the novel is going, this book gets right to the point. It’s got the normalcy of a New England fall day and suddenly shifts to all out chaos and horror of the opening of a great zombie novel. Clayton Riddell goes from struggling artist to zombie survivor within a few minutes, showing that sometimes, the starving artist had an advantage to being poor. Their mind can’t be warped by a faulty cell phone signal. The rest of the novel is full of twists and turns as you follow Clayton on his journey to find his son and try to stay alive in the middle of this take over by the ever evolving “phoners” led by “The Raggety Man”.
Quote courtesy of Goodreads: “Three days ago we not only ruled the earth, we had survivor's guilt about all the other species we'd wiped out on our climb to the nirvana of round-the-clock cable news and microwave popcorn. Now we're the Flashlight People.”
Are you a Stephen King fan? Leave your list of your favorite Stephen King books and/or movies in the comments below!