I am the author of three middle-grade children's books, and I blog on the side. My favorite topics are movies, writing, and pop culture.
Discovering Stephen King's books
One of the most defining moments in my reading history was discovering the Stephen King section at my local library. After picking up Firestarter and Cujo, I was immediately hooked and began to work my way through the two shelves that my local library had dedicated to King's novels, shying away from the fantasy books like his Dark Tower series and sticking to the mainstream horror novels that have defined his career.
Despite the criticism that both his mainstream success and the genre itself draws, 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 earned plenty of home runs in his career. Below are my top 10 favorite Stephen King books in the order in which they were published.
Carrie book cover
There is nothing like reading Carrie as an outcast teenage girl. I didn’t have half of the problems 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 compiles snippets of made-up newspaper articles, chapters from fake reference books, and even testimony taken from court hearings after the events of the book to create a scrapbook of tales which tell the story from multiple points of view. The story jumps around between these different made up texts along with the third person narration, adding realism to an otherwise unrealistic situation.
King also bounces from multiple character perspectives, giving a voice to good girl Sue, the bully Chris, the maniac mother, Mrs. White, and others as well as Carrie and telling the same story from multiple angles, sometimes retelling the same scene several times from these many perspectives, usually out of order. 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, if only for the nostalgia factor and its relatability to my own angsty teenage past.
Excerpt from Carrie
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."
— Stephen King, Carrie
The Shining book cover
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 both immense and claustrophobic location and sympathetic yet tortured 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 work and his family. But as expected from King, he turns their oasis into a nightmare.
Quote (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.”
Excerpt from The Shining
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.
— Stephen King, The Shining
The Dead Zone book cover
The Dead Zone (1979)
Johnny Smith’s unflinching good guy attitude is heroic 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 crumbles.
Again, King jumps around from different characters, and the genre is constantly morphing. 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's 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. It's also a very topical story which raises deep questions about how far a person should go to do the right thing when called upon to do so.
Excerpt from The Dead Zone
We all do what we can, and it has to be good enough, and if it isn't good enough, it has to do.
— Stephen King, The Dead Zone
Firestarter book cover
This thriller by King is another page turner. Again, his protagonist is a young girl. Charlie McGee is what Carrie White could have been if she had had a better upbringing. Charlie has the power to create and extinguish fire thanks to a genetic mutation brought about by experiments done on her parents from a secret agency known as The Shop. Once she allows herself to unleash her powers on her enemies, she goes a little overboard on her quest for revenge.
Charlie and her father, Andy, 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. Instead, they must rely on their best judgment and use of restraint to keep themselves alive until they can expose The Shop's experiments and finally stop running.
But Stephen King isn't known for his squeaky clean endings, and this one is epic in its scale and bittersweet catharsis. Charlie's story ends just as it is beginning, and like Danny Torrance reappeared in Dr. Sleep, I would one day love to see where she ended up.
Excerpt from Firestarter
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?
— Stephen King, Firestarter
Cujo book cover
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, and it became the first book of his that I ever read. Never much of a dog-lover, 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 mind-bending 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 with a limited understanding of the big picture can create a recipe for disaster. And once again, the innocent one, Tad, pays for it.
Cujo 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 and a call back to a previous story, even when the villain is flesh and blood. And you have to appreciate his ability to work these little Easter eggs into his plots.
Quote (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.”
Excerpt from Cujo
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.
— Stephen King, Cujo
Pet Sematary book cover
Pet Sematary (1983)
Pet Sematary is no doubt the scariest book that I’ve ever read. It kept me awake at least one night while I was reading it. But that's what you get for reading a King book late at night.
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 grief of losing her beloved cat after he is struck and killed by a truck. But masking the truth leads to 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 else, it shows that death is not something to fear or play around with. It will only come back to bite you.
King teases the reader with what's to come which keeps the pages turning well into the eerie night. The most disturbing sequence, though, has to be Rachel telling the story of her sick sister, Zelda, who died young of a horrible, prolonged illness that turned her into a monster.
This traumatized Rachel so badly that she can't handle even speaking about death. Some of King's scariest story elements are moments that could be true. That, on top of his horrifyingly accurate and gruesome way with words, makes him more than just a writer shining a flashlight on his face as he tells his ghost stories.
Excerpt from Pet Sematary
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.
— Stephen King, Pet Sematary
Misery book cover
Misery is any writer’s nightmare come true. 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 separate that world from reality.
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 fight back. This is the ordeal that Paul Sheldon must endure throughout the course of the novel.
From the first chapter, it is apparent that Annie Wilkes is evil. She's also disgusting, from her sloppy eating to her favorite form of punishment: removing limbs. What's worse is that she knows that she's crazy. So trying to make her see the error of her ways is out of the question. She knows; she just doesn't care.
She's also suicidal but threatens to take Paul with her whenever she's feeling down. Her reputation, along with the long winter, keeps away any sign of help, and once it does come, it leads to desperate measures on both sides.
King dives 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 like a vice as the story unfolds.
You find yourself begging Paul to do something or for fate to give him a break so that you both can be released from the prison that Annie has trapped you both in. By the end, you're willing to jump into the pages to take Annie out yourself.
Excerpt from Misery
I am in trouble here. This woman is not right.
— Stephen King, Misery
The Green Mile book cover
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 often make reading the book after seeing the movie a bit pointless. However, this was one of the few cases where I still got sucked into novel, even after I had seen the faithful adaptation onscreen.
King’s distinct narration is what keeps you reading despite knowing what happens next. And you learn more about certain characters’ back stories, such as the death row inmates, as well as Paul Edgecombe’s life after John Coffey's execution. King plays down the horror this time (aside from the brutal rape and murder of two little girls and the occasional execution via electric chair) and plays up the whimsy and surprising sympathy for the death row inmates.
Just like the movie, the book is narrated by Paul as an old man in the nursing home where he is now the prisoner. He is reliving the events of his past by writing them down in a memoir and sharing them with his "lady friend," Elaine. Because of this, he jumps around from past to present, sometimes even mixing up the events of the past the way that an older narrator would start to get confused about where they are in the story.
This book was first published in six installments. It is said that even King didn't know how the book was going to end until he wrote the ending. Considering how well the story flows, it's an impressive feat.
The page-turning element for those who have already seen the movie is what the movie doesn't incorporate. It's like getting to watch the director's cut in your mind. You know what's coming, but you don't know what extra flavors are going to be sprinkled in as you go.
Excerpt from The Green Mile
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?
— Stephen King, The Green Mile
On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft book cover
On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft (2000)
On Writing is not a novel, but it is one of my favorite books about writing and one of the most well-regarded overall. 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 include 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 just might know what he’s talking about.
Quote (Goodreads): “Amateurs sit and wait for inspiration, the rest of us just get up and go to work.”
Excerpt from On Writing
Amateurs sit and wait for inspiration, the rest of us just get up and go to work.
— Stephen King, On Writing
Buy a copy of On Writing here!
Cell book cover
While many of King’s novels take some time to get going, Cell opens with a bang. A picturesque New England autumn day suddenly shifts to all out chaos and horror as 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 has an advantage to being poor. His is one of the few minds that aren't warped by a deadly 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”.
To me, a zombie story is only as good as the heroes that we follow. Clayton is joined by another man and a young girl in his quest to get back to his wife and son. The three become a little family, latching onto each other with the fear that this found family may be the only family that they have left, and possibly the more preferable one. Clayton keeps trying to break from the group in order to cover more ground to get back to his old family, and it continuously leads to disastrous results.
This book is even more relevant now than it was when it was first published. Cell phones were prevalent in the early 2000's but not the lifelines that they are today. While it's not talking as much as texting that fuels the phone addiction of today, this book was a good indicator of the figurative phone zombies that our culture would grow to become.
Excerpt from Cell
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.
— Stephen King, Cell
Are you a Stephen King fan? Leave your list of your favorite Stephen King books and/or movies in the comments below!
One of the best Stephen King talks on YouTube
Noel Penaflor from California on July 24, 2019:
Firestarter is the only book on this list I haven't read. I keep meaning to but (excuse here). Excellent list that brought back literary memories.
Laura Smith (author) from Pittsburgh, PA on February 01, 2015:
Oh, no I haven't, but I'll put it on my must read list. Thanks!
MacAllister Bishop from Bonne Terre, MO on February 01, 2015:
I love all these. Stephen King's sequel to the Shining Dr. Sleep is a must read if you haven't read it yet.
Laura Smith (author) from Pittsburgh, PA on September 13, 2014:
Thanks for the comment! Yeah, Misery is one that I always forget about. That made my list at the last minute, but it's awesome.
FlourishAnyway from USA on September 13, 2014:
Misery is probably my favorite, but this is a great list!
Laura Smith (author) from Pittsburgh, PA on September 12, 2014:
Thanks. Check them out. Even if you're not into horror, he writes in many different genres.
Ahdilarum on September 12, 2014:
I never read novels. But you have provided some good info and review about his books. Enjoyed this page.
Laura Smith (author) from Pittsburgh, PA on September 12, 2014:
Me too. I still want to read The Stand and 11/22/63 myself. Thanks for sharing!
FictionFish on September 11, 2014:
Stephen King is the master of the horror genre for sure. Some of my favorites are The Tommy Knockers, The Shining, Pet Sematary, The Green Mile, The Stand, Under the Dome, and I am currently reading Mr. Mercedes. I read the Dark Tower series and there are many more that I would like to read when I get the chance