Author Stephen King, the undisputed legend of modern genre fiction, first became known for horror, then sci-fi fantasy with his Dark Tower series and recently moved into crime fiction.
One of the great things about King’s books is that to some extent they all exist within the same imagined Universe; a version of Maine where evil and the supernatural are always bubbling away beneath the surface of the ordinary and the everyday.
Characters and places recur across his books, often in small ‘cameos’.
This list focuses on full-length novels and short story collections. All of King’s books are superb, and once you’ve read one it’s hard to stop, but here are ten of the best. All the pictures are from the first edition books.
10 The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon
The Girls Who Loved Tom Gordon (1999) is a survival horror and unique because it is written from the perspective of Trisha, a 9-year-old girl lost in the forests of after becoming separated from her family on a day out.
The majority of the horror is psychological as Trisha is alone for days in a vast maze-like wilderness.
She faces many practical challenges, as a young girl with little experience of looking after herself, and when she struggles she feels a dark presence following her waiting for her to die.
Trisha clings to hope by listening to her hero Tom Gordon play baseball on her Walkman.
IT features the villainous Pennywise the clown who has been terrifying readers for decades. A group of children in Derry, Maine each encounter ‘It;’ a dangerous, evil force. The kids manage to defeat ‘it’ but vow to return to Derry as adults if ‘It’ is not really dead.
One of the weirdest crazes of 2016 must have been the evil clown craze which saw grown men dressing as children’s entertainers and creeping people out after dark.
There have been notable examples of bad clowns in the past, such as real-life serial killer John Wayne Gacy, but it was Stephen King’s IT (1989) that thrust clowns firmly into the public subconscious as figures of fear.
8 Mr. Mercedes
Mr. Mercedes (2014) is the first book in the ‘Bill Hodges’ trilogy which saw King dip into the crime thriller genre.
Retired detective Hodges and his unusual accomplices join forces to stop the ‘Down Town killer’ before he commits another atrocity.
Mr. Mercedes has some of the most evocative, nightmarish scenes written in any of King’s books.
Young Brady Hartsfield is one of King’s scariest villains, but we really get to know him and view all of his despicable actions through his eyes.
Mr. Mercedes is one of King’s best because it looks at how the 2008 financial crash affected the lives of ordinary Americans and changed the landscape of industrial towns and cities.
7 Night Shift
Night Shift (1978) is a collection of some of Stephen King’s best short stories; tightly written tales of terror and the unexplained and, as the title of the collection suggests, many focus on the temporal and on things that go bump in the night.
Stories like Graveyard Shift slowly build atmosphere and suspense and stories like The Man Who Loved Flowers have powerful, blindsiding twists.
Night Shift is essential reading for King fans and for anyone who enjoys feeling the hair on the back of their neck stand on end on a dark and stormy night.
The premise of Misery (1987) was so good that King’s book entered the popular culture, with the line “I’m your number one fan” being quoted and referenced all over the shop.
Writer Paul Sheldon kills off the heroine of his bestselling Misery series and writes a book on a different subject.
He has a horrific drunk-driving accident and gets trapped in the snow but former nurse Annie Wilkes rescues him and ‘nurses him back to health’ in her home.
Unfortunately, Annie lives for Paul’s Misery novels and wants her beloved heroine reinstated at any price.
Misery gives a fascinating insight into the claustrophobic and powerlessness existence of someone who has been invalided.
5 Doctor Sleep
Doctor Sleep (2013) is a sequel to The Shining and is one of King’s finest works. It follows an adult Danny who is struggling to deal with his powers and with the events of the Overlook.
Danny falls into drug addiction but slowly manages to turn his life around primarily by helping a little girl who also has the shining and is in grave danger.
The book reunites us with our favorite characters but it also widens out the story, introducing us to a new modern American family.
The villainous steam Vampire gang is fascinating and fantastical and King gives us a supernatural take on big world events like 9/11.
4 Pet Sematary
Louis Creed moves his wife and young kids to Ludlow, Maine to be close to his new job. Ludlow has a very unusual pet cemetery; when you bury things there they ‘come back’.
First, the family’s cat comes back, then when their son is killed in a road accident Louis brings him back but those who come back are not the same.
Pet Sematary (1983) is a gripping book with a massive fan following. There is something very creepy about a loved one becoming a very different person all of a sudden. King has often said that he considers it to be the scariest of his novels.
3 Salem’s Lot
Writer Ben Mears returns to his hometown of Jerusalem’s Lot after a long absence. He slowly becomes aware that the locals are being turned into Vampires. He teams up with a few ‘in the know’ locals to try and stop the killings in the town.
Salem’s Lot (1975) has a major chill factor. The key incidents King writes of in this book are some of the most terrifying in modern literature, including Ben’s childhood experiences exploring the town’s old ‘ghost house’ and the first Vampire attack on the two Glick boys near the start. Salem’s Lot oozes atmosphere.
Carrie (1974) was King’s first published novel and has a different style to his subsequent work.
Carrie tells the story of the events surrounding a deadly fire at a high school through news reports, court reports, and first person witness testimonies so we see events from a wide range of viewpoints.
Carrie White is a social outcast at school because of her quiet demeanor and her unhinged, extremely religious mother who tries to repress her daughter’s transition into womanhood by keeping Carrie in the dark about puberty.
Carrie also has telekinetic powers so when her attempts to fit in end are ridiculed there is hell to pay.
1 The Shining
The classics are classic for a reason. The Shining (1977) is the story of recovering alcoholic Jack Torrance’s journey into madness over the course of one winter snowed in at the Overlook hotel with his family.
Jack takes a job as an out of season caretaker, planning to use the solitude to work on his novel but the remote hotel is a site of great evil.
Jack’s son Danny has a unique telepathic, precognitive power called the Shining that gives him visions of the horrors that will befall his family but he is too young to stop his parents going there.
A novel so gripping and terrifying that Joey in Friends had to keep the book in his freezer — a masterpiece.