Stephen Edwin King (1947 – ) is sometimes called the ‘King of Horror’, and here are some of his greatest books that you should pick up to understand his mastery.
If you Google “prolific writers of the 21st century”, there are high chances of finding Stephen King’s name on that list. With over 60 novels and 200 short stories, King’s works express his interest in the overarching genre of horror and psychological exploration of the human condition, which earned him the moniker “King of Horror”. But that would be an oversimplification of the range of genres he has traversed, be it crime/thriller or sci-fi/fantasy. While King’s greatness as a writer is debated, it is unanimously acknowledged that he is a great storyteller.
King’s emphasis on stories and engaging plotting has made his works the subject of numerous adaptations of differing qualities and levels of fidelity to the source material. While The Shining is a critically acclaimed film, it is famously reviled by King due to the changes imposed by director Stanley Kubrick on the source material. On the opposite end of the adaptation spectrum is The Stand, which has been adapted twice as a miniseries and has notably generated mixed results but both the adaptations were unable to capture the mood and the inherent nihilism of the source material. Because many of King’s stories have been adapted into films, television series, and comics, he remains relevant in pop culture.
The Best Works of Stephen King
Stephen King started his writing career in 1967 by selling short stories to Men’s Magazine while he continued working on drafts of his novels. Carrie, his fourth novel, would be published as his first in 1979. His novels always carried a commentary on middle-class American life.
His stories are about extraordinary intrusions into the mundane. Because fear is such a reaction towards the unknown, King’s interest in the exploration of the facets of fear and, as a result, the human condition is downright evident in most of his works. Let us look at five of his works that qualify as his best (and most popular) below.
King’s penchant for “what if” storytelling is perfectly on point in this novel, which follows a time traveler from the year 2007 traveling back in time to prevent the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, and what would take place as a consequence of the meddling with time. King’s exploration of ethical dilemmas surrounding the moralities of time travel and the power of changing the effects of time were explored in his 1979 novel The Dead Zone, but 11/22/63 is where he perfects it.
The book, in typical King style, is meticulously researched. Because it is about the prevention of the death of JFK, it also becomes a commentary on the cynicism in American society as a whole. At its core, the book is also a love story about a man out of time and a woman struggling to know her place. Conceptualized as a story by King for the readers of The Help and historical novels like People of the Book, 11/22/63 is a perfect non-horror recommendation to get started with King’s works.
Dolores Claiborne (1992)
This follows the 65-year-old titular character, a widow living in the tiny Maine community of Tall Island, who has been suspected of murdering her wealthy employer, Vera Donovan. The story follows Dolores’ recounting of her life and the events leading up to the night of her employer’s death.
The first indication that you are reading something different from King’s grocery list of works is the style of writing. Known to employ a third-person perspective and jump from character to character, it is a unique approach to see the author utilize the first-person perspective throughout. The second indication is King’s almost stubborn refusal to commit to the supernatural. Barring a supernatural connection to Gerald’s Game, Dolores Claiborne is very much a human story about sins of the past, repressed memories, trauma, and the steps that a human being is forced to take to bring about a semblance of normalcy back into their life.
It is the personal and familial horrors that he is interested in exploring here. This makes Dolores Claiborne a markedly different, yet engaging, read if you can get past the dialect that the author utilizes in the first 15 pages.
This 1986 horror novel by Stephen King is perhaps correctly described as one of his final theses on the genre of horror. It follows the experiences of seven children as they are terrorized by what appears to be an evil clown, known as Pennywise, living in the sewers. Pennywise is later discovered to be an evil entity that feeds off the fears of its victims to ease its hunt.
Told through largely non-linear narratives, this novel is King’s exploration and summation of Americana through the two timelines in which he drops his characters – the late 1950s and mid-1980s. The fictional town of Derry becomes the setting of this horrifying tale. King, through his mammoth 1100-page novel, tries to explore the paralytic nature of fear and how even after being buried deep within the psyche and forgotten, fear tends to bubble over to the surface; it can never be eradicated.
Through the portrayal of Pennywise, King tried to open a storytelling structure that could explore all facets of fear and evil pervading America: racism, bigotry, crime, and economic hardship. The violence is shocking and exaggerated, but that is largely due to Pennywise affecting the tendrils of evil already present within the small town. There could be questions about the necessity of the length of the story and questionable moments exploring sexuality, but the potency and enduring appeal of the tale cannot be denied. It is the quintessential example of him utilizing all of the tropes of the genre and perfecting and delivering them in a book with raw impact.
‘Salem’s Lot (1975)
The 1975 horror novel, ‘Salem’s Lot, is King’s second published book and, some might argue, one of his best works. It follows writer Ben Mears, who returns to his hometown of Jerusalem’s Lot (or Salem’s Lot) in Maine to try to write his next novel. While he begins to rekindle old friendships and dabble in romantic relationships, the townspeople are being turned into vampires.
Conceived as King’s ode to Dracula, this book reflects American indie sensibility or a penchant for soap operatic melodrama crashing headlong into gothic horror. It is impressive that King spends almost half of the book establishing and exploring the small town, with its cast of quirky characters and its dark rotten secrets. When the vampire, who had been hinted at throughout the novel, starts baring its fangs, you are emotionally involved in the story and are rooting for the town to survive.
Objectively, King is teasing the scythe of death. It could be read as the innocence of small towns being sucked dry by outside forces or as the darkness lurking beneath the floorboards and the walls of these houses, needing only the barest hint of an outside influence to explode outwards.
The Stand (1978; The Complete and Uncut Edition – 1990)
Perhaps too prescient for its own good, The Stand is a post-apocalyptic dystopian sci-fi that centers on a deadly pandemic caused by experimentation on an especially virulent strain of influenza, leading it to become weaponized. In the aftermath of that pandemic, the last remaining band of humans gathers into factions representing good and evil in a clash for the ages that will decide the fate of the new world moving forward.
The 1990 edition of The Stand, with 1152 pages (400 of which were restored by King specifically for this edition), is the longest novel written by Stephen King, surpassing his horror magnum opus It. There are critical flaws in the story, especially the presence of the “Magical Negro” stereotype in the character of Mother Abigail (a character whose sole purpose was to be the voice of comfort and aid for the white protagonists).
However, if looked at from the perspective of exploration of a dystopian world, The Stand is a seminal piece of fiction and has influenced a whole generation of writers. There is also a wry and cynical commentary on the complacency of human beings, leading them to repeat the same spate of mistakes, which is why the divisive ending of the book works in this humble writer’s opinion. King’s wish to write a fantasy epic in the vein of The Lord of the Rings but in an American setting is in full bloom in this novel.
For a book spanning more than 1100 pages, it is one of the more engaging of King’s stories that describe in detail the brutality and ugliness of American society. It is also a tale with a biblical core and is responsible for introducing one of the more famous King antagonists, Randall Flagg, who is later revealed to be the embodiment of evil in his Dark Tower series of fantasy novels, which connects all of the author’s universes. The Stand is also one of the more unadaptable of King’s novels, further cementing the legacy of King’s storytelling skills.
Also Read: The 10 Best Stephen King Film Adaptations
Why You Should Read the Works of Stephen King
The novels of Stephen King are engagingly plotted, which makes them perfect screenplay fodder for Hollywood to adapt into movies or miniseries. However, King is one of those very few writers who take the axiom of “write what you know” and utilizes it to its fullest potential. His stories manage to absorb you right into the world he creates because of his meticulous research, focusing on the smallest details.
The exhaustive nature of his world-building is also extended to his characters. Even stories with hokey premises like Christine are absorbing and engaging because you care for the characters. This reflects his mark of efficiency because his novellas have engaging characters you want to follow through to the bitter end. For stories not tumbling into the genres of horror, like Dolores Claiborne or The Outsider, we get to note the author’s understanding and interest in the human psyche, the relationship of the human condition with past trauma, and the resurgence of the said trauma. These aspects of the human condition become anchors in the emotionally raw stories of King and his high fantasy epics like The Dark Tower. While these five books just scratch the surface of his bibliography, this curation will hopefully serve as a good primer for exploring the author’s works.