The 10 Best Stephen King Novels

Books Lists Stephen King
The 10 Best Stephen King Novels

Stephen King has transcended anything we could muster up to write about him in 2019. This makes picking the best Stephen King books a daunting challenge. One of the most transformative writers in American history, King helped kick-start a horror boom throughout the ’70s and ’80s—and outlived it (along with a near-fatal accident) to keep his career alive through to this very month, which sees the release of The Institute, King’s 61st novel since 1974. That staggering number doesn’t even count short-story collections, nonfiction, scripts and other ephemera. And while King hasn’t maintained a perfect batting average across those dozens and dozens of releases, he hasn’t lost his spark, either; early buzz on The Institute is highly positive, and recent releases The Outsider, Revival, Mr. Mercedes and more all continue to garner praise and enviable sales.

Beyond the printed page, King is in the midst of an ongoing film and television revival, with adaptations like Gerald’s Game, the upcoming Doctor Sleep and the two-part It lighting up screens big and small. As Pennywise creeps back into theaters this week for the Andy Muschietti-directed It Chapter Two, float into the list of Stephen King books ranked below and find out where the source material lands on our list of King’s best novels. (Note: short-story and novella collections, while among King’s best work, were exempt from this list, as was his memoir, On Writing.)

Here are the top 10 best Stephen King novels of all time:

the-long-walk.jpg10. The Long Walk (1979)
Released under the pseudonym Richard Bachman, The Long Walk is actually the first novel Stephen King wrote—he just didn’t finish and sell it until after Carrie and a few of his all-time classics were already on shelves. The Bachman identity was largely a way for King to publish more novels, faster, but fans often like to distinguish the Bachman books as King’s non-supernatural outings, although Thinner bucks that trend and King has since run wild across ample non-horror genres. Known best today as a precursor to Battle Royale, The Hunger Games and countless other “teens compete to the death at the behest of a totalitarian society” iterations, The Longest Walk takes place in a world in which 100 teenage boys annually participate a walking competition. Walking may not sound as thrilling as a fast-paced sci-fi death-match, but these boys must maintain a minimum speed throughout their march, and the contest only ends when all but one walker has dropped dead or been eliminated for violating rules. It’s not a stretch to feel the influence of the Vietnam War here, as King depicts a country eager to send its young men off to grueling, inevitable death, with the promise of a better life dangled as a prize for those who survive. There’s a potent anger present in most of the Bachman books, and The Longest Walk mines that most potently. —Steve Foxe

liseys-story.jpg9. Lisey’s Story (2006)
Stephen King is fairly infamous for crafting protagonists who just happen to be bestselling authors with beautiful wives, but it wasn’t until 2006’s Lisey’s Story that King gave the wife a turn in the spotlight. Lisey’s Pulitzer Prize-winning husband has been dead for two years when her story begins, but his ghost (metaphorically) haunts her. At the prompting of a nosey academic, Lisey finally sorts through her husband’s remaining papers, revealing secrets even a 25-year marriage couldn’t uncover. Much of Lisey’s Story, written as a sort of love letter to King’s wife, Tabitha, reads like a non-genre domestic drama, which makes the moments of horror—and romance—that much more affecting. This one will no doubt be controversial among King’s more straightforward fear-fiend fans, but as a representative of King’s 21st-century work, which has found him exploring, by and large, a more contemplative and sympathetic worldview, you could do much worse. More recent novels like The Outsider and Revival hit higher highs of horror, but are less consistent and ultimately affecting than Lisey’s StorySteve Foxe

the-dead-zone.jpg8. The Dead Zone (1979)
The Dead Zone, released at the tail end of the ‘70s, is sometimes considered the cap of King’s first hot streak; Firestarter followed in 1980, leading to a decade of immense highs (It) and embarrassing lows (The Tommyknockers) as the author battled substance-abuse issues. If The Dead Zone is the end of an era, it’s a deserving coda. Reluctant protagonist Johnny Smith spends almost five years in a coma, and awakens with the ability to see hidden details and limited predictions upon touching people and objects. At first, Smith wants only to maintain his normal life as a schoolteacher, but when his abilities draw unwanted attention, he soon finds himself called upon to help solve a sadistic murder streak. His successful role in the investigation creates enough of a stir that he is let go from his job and must start over in another state…where he encounters Greg Stillson, a rising politician who raises an alarm for Smith. When Smith arranges a chance to touch Stillson’s hand, the vision of a horrible future he receives may finally be enough to spur Smith into action. The Dead Zone is a novel-length treatment of the old “Would you kill baby Hitler to prevent the Holocaust?” conundrum, and feels more relevant than ever in our current political climate. —Steve Foxe

pet-sematary.jpg7. Pet Sematary (1983)
By the time Pet Sematary was published in 1983, a mythology had grown around it. Rumors among King’s fans suggested that the book was too frightening to publish, the sort of death-saturated manuscript you had to read wearing rubber gloves. There was some truth to this. When a cat belonging to his daughter was killed on the busy truck route in front of his house, King wondered: what would happen if he buried the cat, and three days later it came back, somewhat altered? And what if a child were killed, too, then came back changed (and not for the better)? In the novel, doctor Louis Creed takes a job at the University of Maine Infirmary and moves his wife, daughter and two-year-old son Gage into a house by a busy interstate. The highway soon consumes his daughter’s cat and later his son. But the permanency of death is a hard lesson for a parent to learn, and when Creed interferes with the natural order, fate slams him tenfold with retribution. King once wrote that horror writers are afraid to open the door all the way and show the monster’s face. In Pet Sematary, King swings it wide. Beyond? The darkness and the dim shape of Oz, the great and terrible, awaits. —William Gay

dark-tower.jpg6. The Dark Tower Series (1982-2012)
“The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed.” With what is now considered one of the best opening lines in fiction, Stephen King kicked off the most ambitious—and perhaps the most inconsistent—undertaking of his long and storied career. We’re going to cheat and lump the whole saga together, from The Gunslinger in 1982 to The Wind Through the Keyhole in 2012, because separating out just one installment is nigh impossible. Hell, the complicated nature of The Dark Tower is what keeps so many King fans from taking the eight-book (plus one short story) plunge, and it’s hard to blame the cautious: combining high fantasy, Arthurian legend, western trappings, bits of imagined language, moments of intense horror and characters and concepts pulled from throughout his vast bibliography, The Dark Tower is King’s very own “shared universe,” from long before that term got used and abused by movie studios. It often feels like anything goes within the pages of The Dark Tower, but that genre-busting spontaneity is part of the charm, as is the epic hero’s journey at the series’ center. Most authors can only dream of producing something as grand and sprawling and beloved as The Dark Tower; for King, it’s an accomplishment plenty of his fans avoid, which speaks to just how much legendary paper and ink he can claim as his own. —Steve Foxe

misery.jpg5. Misery (1987)
Thanks in part to Kathy Bates’s Oscar-winning turn as Annie Wilkes in Rob Reiner’s 1990 film adaptation, Misery is easily one of King’s best-known and most widely read stories. Novelist Paul Sheldon suffers a car accident on a snowy road, and is rescued by a former nurse named Annie Wilkes, who just happens to be the absolute biggest fan of Sheldon’s romance novels. Unfortunately for Annie, Paul has grown bored of his protagonist Misery Chastain, and has killed her off in the most recent book. Unfortunately for Paul, Annie doesn’t care for that ending, and will do everything in her power to make sure Paul writes a better one. Originally intended as a Bachman book, Misery finds Stephen King unpacking toxic fandom decades before Twitter would allows Annie Wilkeses the world over to vent their frustrations around the clock. (King has since said that Misery is not just about the expectations of his own fans, but about cocaine’s hold over him throughout much of the ‘80s.) The novel is perhaps the best example of King’s ability to ratchet up tension with nary a ghost or goblin in sight, as Wilkes proves plenty terrifying in her all-too-human form. If you thought Jack Nicholson hefted the most iconic ax in King history, you haven’t read Misery yet. —Steve Foxe

salems-lot.jpg4. ’Salem’s Lot (1975)
Carrie was an explosive start, but Stephen King’s second published novel best forecasted what to expect from the horror genre’s most outstanding author. Praised upon release as “Peyton Place meets Dracula,” a reference that only half-makes sense to most modern readers, ‘Salem’s Lot brought the vampire myth into the backyards of semi-rural Americans, and found King at his most ruthless; characters you come to love will meet grisly ends. Amusingly, the novel also features the first of King’s many writer protagonists. King sold ‘Salem’s Lot for an outstanding sum by today’s standards, let alone 1975’s, and never let up from there. Last year’s The Outsider even touches upon some of the same themes, to chilling effect. —Steve Foxe

the-shining.jpg3. The Shining (1977)
For most modern readers, legendary director Stanley Kubrick’s stay at the Overlook Hotel looms large over Stephen King’s original novel. Nearly all of the moments lodged in the public consciousness—everything you’ve seen parodied on The Simpsons—are only in the film: the elevator of blood, the ghoulish twin girls in the hallway, the typewriter, “Here’s Johnny!” Pushing past these iconic bits of pop culture reveals one of King’s greatest accomplishments, a hauntingly compelling look at a troubled man’s descent into madness. King’s novel is more sympathetic toward Jack Torrance, a recovering-alcoholic writer (sound familiar?) trying to improve his family’s life by taking a job as caretaker of a remote off-season resort with a barely concealed violent history. The house wants Danny, Jack’s gifted young son, and puts the Torrance family through hell to get to him. King infamously hates Kubrick’s adaptation, and while it’s hard to debate the film’s quality or place in the horror movie pantheon, the novel is the more nuanced and, arguably, scarier version of the story, topiary monsters and all. —Steve Foxe

it-novel.jpg2. It (1986)
Of all the King books revolving around plucky kids, these might be the pluckiest, most iconic and possibly the most annoying. The protagonists are a collection of fairly broad stereotypes (geek, fat kid, sickly kid, “the girl,” etc.), painted in an all-encompassing pastiche of ’50s American life, but in the end that’s really the point. King remains and has always been obsessed with the turbulent years of early adolescence. The titular “IT,” on the other hand, is probably King’s most enduring and iconic monster, an interdimensional being of pure malevolence and alien mindset that seems so much simpler on the surface. An evil clown that kills kids? That could at least be dealt with in ways accessible to adults. Fighting the actual evil of It is a much trickier proposition, one that depends upon a perfect blend of mysticism and childhood faith necessary to overcome It’s greatest weapons: fear and entropy, and the ability to make an entire town forget about the atrocities it commits and allows. The ending of It is occasionally cited as its weak point, but it’s a big, fat novel that is far more about a journey, both in the ’50s and ’80s, and the horrifying visions suffered along the way. —Jim Vorel

the-stand.jpg1. The Stand (1978)
Stephen King’s magnum opus nearly didn’t make Paste’s Best Horror Novels of All Time countdown, fitting, as it does, more neatly into post-apocalyptic fiction or fantasy. At over 800 pages (more, if you’re reading the uncut edition), The Stand includes as much horror as any of King’s other novels, spurred by a viral outbreak that kills off 99.4% of the population. World-ending scenarios were on everyone’s minds in the ’70s and ’80s, as global tensions escalated and means of mass destruction proliferated. King isn’t content to simply explore a post-pandemic wasteland, though; The Stand is his most epic standoff between good and evil, the latter concept embodied by Randall Flagg, a recurring antagonist of King’s who becomes essential to the sprawling Dark Tower saga. Knowledge of that series isn’t necessary to undertake The Stand—just a month or so of dedicated reading time, and a hearty resistance to nightmares. —Steve Foxe

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