There aren't many names as closely associated with the horror genre as Stephen King. In terms of recognition within the horror genre, he is up there with the likes of Edgar Allan Poe and HP Lovecraft.
King is one of the foremost names in all of the horror, and with classic horror stories like It, The Shining, and Carrie under his belt, it's easy to see why. At 73, the King of Horror is still going strong, releasing novels and short story collections semi-regularly (averaging a book published every year or so), and they continue to terrify readers as much now as they did when he was first starting.
Best Stephen King Books To Read This Halloween
As great as some of King's novels most assuredly are, some of his novels are certainly better than others. With October right around the corner and a month for scary stories, we thought we'd take a look back at some of King's best work and name which books of his we recommend reading this fall season.
King's debut novel is the book that helped launch the young author's career to a rousing, successful start. It tells the story of Carrie White, a lonely high school girl bullied by her classmates and regularly abused by her religion-obsessed psychotic mother. After Carrie begins to discover she possesses strange telekinetic abilities, she starts using her newfound powers to exact revenge against those who wronged her — inadvertently causing one of the most devastating and horrific disasters in her small town's history.
The background of Carrie's writing is almost as famous as the novel itself. King, facing a bout of writer's block and with no other ideas, tried writing the story based on an idea that he wasn't enthusiastic about (he claimed that he thought he was writing “the world's all-time loser” of a book). After three pages, he threw the early manuscript out, only for the pages to be fished out by his wife, who encouraged him to finish it. It just goes to show just how far you can go with a bit of persistence and the right kind of support from a loved one–a weirdly inspiring story behind an otherwise terrifying novel.
Without Carrie, who knows where King–or horror, in general–would be today? It's a quick, easy read, perfect for Halloween, and pairs nicely with the equally terrifying 1976 film adaptation by Brian De Palma.
King has earned an excellent reputation for working within horror, tackling notable elements or subject material commonly found within the genre. For example, he's written about zombies (Cell), killer animals (Cujo), werewolves (Cycle of the Werewolf), killer clowns (It), hellish demons (The Stand and The Dark Tower series), and supernatural ghost stories (The Shining).
In his second novel, King turned his attention to the mythos of vampires, setting out to write a modern-day version of Dracula, with a stand-in for the infamous count (Kurt Barlow, in the book) moving to a quiet New England town, causing increasingly larger amounts of town inhabitants to turn into vampires slowly. It's a simple but incredibly effective story. One of the better vampire books in recent fiction made for a genuinely spooky novel and a wonderfully modern spin on the classic Bram Stoker book.
Throughout the 1980s, King regularly referred to it as his all-time favorite book and expressed his hopes to write a sequel one day (although he later said that, with the appearance of Father Callahan, the Van Helsing-inspired adversary to ‘Salem Lot's Kurt Barlow, in The Dark Tower series, the chance for a long-awaited sequel is unlikely at this point). For those who love vampire stories, ‘Salem's Lot is essential reading material for October, providing old-school scares with a more updated modern setting.
There's an old story that Stephen King once told when he was sitting in a bar with his editor, who tried talking King out of writing The Shining, believing that, after Carrie and ‘Salem's Lot, King would be “typed” strictly as a horror writer. Reportedly, King took that as a compliment and opted to go ahead and finish writing The Shining. Like the story of his wife saving the opening pages of Carrie and encouraging him to finish the novel, we're thankful that King managed to commit to this one, one of the most well-known ghost stories in modern fiction.
The Shining follows a depressed, formerly alcoholic struggling writer, Jack Torrance, who brings his wife, Wendy, and young son Danny to the Colorado mountains. He has secured a job as the caretaker of the isolated Overlook Hotel during the off-season. As winter sets in, the family soon begins to discover the Overlook's troubled history, as well as the sinister supernatural forces inhabiting the hotel, preying on Danny's unique psychic abilities, known as “the shining.”
With the haunted hotel theme, it's a classic ghost-story setup, and King manages to perfectly add in elements of drama involving familial troubles, including Jack battling his alcoholism, past abusive nature towards his son and wife, as well as his own failed career as a successful novelist.
Today, The Shining might be most remembered for its equally great adaptation by the legendary Stanley Kubrick in 1980, as well as Jack Nicholson's now-iconic performance as Jack Torrance (King hated the movie and Nicholson's performance, believing Nicholson to be too deranged to portray the everyday family man, Jack Torrance). Like many adaptations of King's work, the original novel is still a fantastic read and perfect for a chilly autumn night.
In 1978, after just four published works, King set out to write one of the most ambitious books of his then-young career. Now, over 40 years since its publication, The Stand remains one of King's most consistently praised books, frequently being named as King's magnum opus (something that he hates hearing since it implies that he hasn't written anything as good as this novel that he wrote four decades ago).
At just over a thousand pages, The Stand is one of King's longest books, featuring a huge cast of characters and acting as a modern-day retelling of The Lord of the Rings set in a post-apocalyptic American setting. The novel focuses on a deadly experimental disease accidentally released from containment, wiping out 99% of the world's population.
The few survivors band together in two groups, each led by a personification of good and evil, with the main protagonists traveling to the town of Boulder and living under the benevolent Mother Abigail and the antagonists being recruited to Las Vegas by the demonic, otherworldly Randall Flagg (a recurring character in King's work and one of his most terrifying creations ever).
In 1990, The Stand was republished in its original form, with over 400 pages added back that had previously been cut due to the publisher's concerns over its extreme length. One of King's most ambitious works to date, the novel is an incredible exploration of the good and evil of the human spirit and one of the best apocalyptic survivor stories ever put to paper. Because of its length, it may be a bit of an intense book for those looking for a quick read in October, but we highly recommend reading it at some point. It's just amazing through and through.
King took a step back from full-length horror novels for his fifth published work, publishing instead a collection of short stories titled Night Shift. However acclaimed his first four novels were, King managed to translate similar acclaim to his short story work, producing a collection of stories just as scary as his novels, if not more so.
Frequently referred to as King's best short story collection to date, Night Shift contains numerous memorable stories, including “Children of the Corn,” “Jerusalem's Lot,” which acts as a sort of prologue to ‘Salem's Lot, and “Night Surf,” which takes place in the same post-apocalyptic universe as The Stand.
All in all, it wasn't surprising that King managed to write short stories that managed to terrorize readers so well, given the fact that he kicked off his career publishing short fiction in magazines. This book helped expose readers to some of King's more hard-to-find stories in a single collection, paving the way for future volumes of King's short fiction like Skeleton Crew and Different Seasons (both of which nearly made it on this list). For those looking for a quick read, we highly recommend the bite-sized stories contained in this book.
Turning away from fiction, King has also written some highly influential and critically acclaimed nonfiction books. His memoir, On Writing, is frequently hailed as one of the author's best books and is highly regarded in the literary community for the numerous pieces of advice and helpful tips King imparts to readers.
However, because On Writing might be a little too centered towards aspiring writers (although we recommend checking it out, regardless of that fact), we opted to choose his other highly acclaimed nonfiction work, Danse Macabre. The author's first nonfiction work, Danse Macabre, analyzes horror in fiction across multiple media types, including novels, comics, movies, and radio.
In the book, King specifically cites key examples of influential horror fiction, bringing up essential authors within the genre, common archetypes, and narrative devices, and examining just why we are frightened by horror and what attracts us to it in the first place. For those interested in King's inspirations, he explicitly discusses his favorite horror stories that were key influences on his career and writing style.
Not only is Danse Macabre an excellent read for anyone interested in King's career, but it's also a superb examination of horror in general, offering a deep chronological look and analysis of the genre, as well as providing possible psychological reasoning for why we like it so much.
In more recent years, It has gained a lot of renewed interest and attention, thanks mainly to the groundbreaking success of the 2017 movie. However great the 2017 adaptation was, the original King novel is still considered a classic of King's bibliography. The book's story is a back-and-forth narrative split between the late 1950s and the then-modern mid-1980s (the novel was published in '86), following a group of adults who were terrorized as children by an otherworldly monster that eats kids and that primarily takes the form of a clown.
After coming extremely close to killing the monster when they were younger, the group makes a solemn vow to return to their hometown should the creature ever reappear to prevent it from targeting the next generation of children. As the evidence begins to pile up suggesting its return, the group–now in their middle ages–bands together once more to kill the creature once and for all, all the while overcoming their fears and problems they've encountered transitioning from their childhood into their adulthood.
While the recent film adaptations of the novel are good, the original novel version of It remains a chilling read. It consistently frightens readers with the appearance of Pennywise the Dancing Clown, one of the scariest clowns in all of fiction. At just over a thousand pages, It is admittedly a long read and might take you the entire month of October to get through. But if there's one book that offers plenty of nonstop scares that you want to spend the Halloween season reading, you can scarcely do better than It.
The Dark Tower
If you thought The Stand or It made for ambitious October reading, The Dark Tower might not be your thing. Spanning the course of eight novels and a short story, The Dark Tower series offers a very bizarre entry on this list as it is the only time King has ever tried writing an entire series of novels before (he's written quite a few sequels, but never anything this big before). Equal parts Lord of the Rings with some added elements of science fiction, Sergio Leone-style spaghetti western, and horror, The Dark Tower tells the ultimate battle between good and evil being waged over multiple otherworldly realms.
At the heart of the story is Roland Deschain, the last of an ancient order of knights known as “the gunslingers” (imagine someone equally parts Jedi and Arthurian Knight living in the Wild West) living in a post-apocalyptic alternate universe where magic exists. Throughout the series, Roland attempts to reach the mythical Dark Tower, which controls all of existence and acts as the center of the universe, encountering numerous strange enemies and recruiting several allies on his epic journey. Referred to as King's magnum opus on his website, The Dark Tower is a must-read for any fantasy or horror fan, with a story and plot as ambitious as any of King's other work.
For King's fans, this is an essential book, with The Dark Tower acting as a sort of linchpin connecting many of his books, including appearances by Randall Flagg, King's ultimate antagonist. He has appeared in past works like The Stand and The Eyes of the Dragon, Father Callahan from ‘Salem's Lot, and even Stephen King himself.
Commonly ranked as one of King's scariest and darkest works (by his admission, King himself has cited this book as the one that scared him the most), Pet Sematary tells the story of the Creeds, a family who have just moved to the rural Maine countryside. After their children's beloved cat is run over by a passing car, the father soon discovers a pet cemetery in their backyard, which has the power to bring deceased things back to life. The only problem is that those brought back are “changed” as a result, taking on a more malevolent personality than ever before. Nearly forty years after it was first published, Pet Sematary is still frightening readers to this day.
Admittedly, it may be a bit of a grim book, even for a Stephen King story. However, it's still a remarkable book to read through and one you can proudly say you've managed to conquer (it's like being able to say you made it through one of those haunted houses that require you to sign a waiver before entering). Pet Sematary is an essential entry in King's bibliography. Still, we do warn parents in particular about its contents; it plays heavily with the fear of losing your child, which might be the primary reason King found it so terrifying in the first place.
In 1984, King tried getting out of his regular horror niche and attempted a new project. The fantasy novel, The Eyes of the Dragon, was an almost fairy tale-esque story firmly outside the horror genre. While the book itself was a pleasant read and might've spelled a different phase in King's career, King's fans were divided and less enthusiastic about King leaving horror behind.
As a response, King wrote this novel, focusing on a writer (a Stephen King stand-in named Paul Sheldon) who is rescued after a serious roadside accident in the Colorado mountains by a seemingly quaint although very odd former nurse named Annie Wilkes, who also happens to be one of Sheldon's biggest fans.
As Sheldon recovers from his accident, however, his interactions with his supposed savior become more and more sinister, leading him to believe she has dark ulterior motives for keeping him there. According to King, the relationship between Sheldon and Wilkes was based on his feelings of being chained to the horror genre and partly his past alcoholism and drug addiction, personified by Wilkes' character and interactions with Sheldon.
Today, the book is perhaps most widely remembered for Wilkes' appearance and the later film adaptation by Rob Reiner in 1990, where Kathy Bates fantastically played her in what might be the actor's most famous role. It's a simple enough setup story but makes excellent use of its claustrophobic setting and limited characters, managing to leave you cringing regularly throughout its 400-page length.
For nearly 50 years, Stephen King has managed to become one of the most recognizable and universally known names in all of horror. His numerous novels and short stories ushered in a new era within horror, helping it stay relevant and entertaining to multiple generations of readers. He ranks not just as one of the best modern horror writers, but as one of the best horror writers ever.
We highly recommend reading these books by King this Halloween season, all of which tend to be looked favorably upon and consistently regarded as some of the author's best. Additionally, we also really enjoyed Doctor Sleep, The Shining's sequel featuring a now adult Danny Torrance; Firestarter, a novel about a father and daughter with supernatural abilities on the run from an insidious government program (it reads like an early Spielberg movie); and 11/22/63, a time travel story about a man attempting to stop JFK's assassination.