Stephen King has been churning out one bestseller after another since the Nixon Administration, and although he’s now in his 60s, he’s shown no sign of slowing down. He’s written many classics, but also a few stinkers, with most of his career work rating somewhere toward the high end of that range. Picking King’s 10 best books is a tough task, but after having read every book in his arsenal at least once, and in some cases two or three times, I feel up to the task. Here are the Top 10 Stephen King books.
Stephen King’s first published novel is still one of his best. It still reads relatively fresh even after almost 40 years, although you just know the abusive kids today would be cyber-bullying Carrie White on Facebook, instead of face to face. It’s tough to read the book today without picturing a young Sissy Spacek playing Carrie in the 1976 film version, a role that earned the young actress an Oscar nomination for best actress.
9. Nightmares and Dreamscapes
Nightmares and Dreamscapes is a collection of King’s short stories that features some truly memorable tales. The opener, Dolan’s Cadillac, is a tale of revenge that demonstrates that some of King’s most compelling work features not aliens or vampires, but real-life situations that could produce terror. Two stories with chilling twists are Crouch End and The End of the Whole Mess. On the other hand, it’s fairly obvious where the story, You Know They Got A Hell of a Band, is headed almost immediately, yet you keep reading to see what King does with the story. And he does it right.
8. Under the Dome
Panned by many critics, the premise of Under the Dome is admittedly a bit cheesy, like something out of a 1950s science-fiction tale. Residents of a small New England town going about their business one day suddenly find their town has been enclosed in a clear dome. No one can get in, and no one can get out. All the best, and worst, of humanity is on display among the residents as they grapple with their plight. Without playing spoiler here, the main villain’s final fate seems a bit anticlimactic, but that’s a minor detail. Many King fans believe the author’s best work came earlier in his career, say, pre-1990, but this book shows King still has plenty of scares and creative genius left. In fact, his 2010 collection of short stories, Full Dark, No Stars, is one of his best books; not a top-10 pick on this list, but certainly one of his better efforts.
One of Stephen King’s gifts is his ability to make readers suspend their disbelief, no matter how bizarre his tale. A 1950s automobile that comes alive with evil intent? Sure, that’s possible. A mysterious cell phone signal that turns most of the population into murderous zombies? Yeah, that could happen. But in Misery, King takes an entirely plausible scenario and adds an element of horror.
The hobbling scene is one of the most horrific King has ever written. Misery was also one of the best film adaptations of a King novel, starring James Caan as Paul Sheldon and Kathy Bates as the deranged Annie Wilkes. Bates earned the Oscar for Best Actress in 1990 for the role.
6. Pet Sematary
In interviews after he wrote Pet Sematary, King said he found the novel personally disturbing. If the “Master of Horror” can scare himself, you know the public has something to fear. This is not a book you want to read if you have toddler-age children. The novel was made into a 1989 movie, notably co-starring former Munster Fred Gwynne, and a remake is reportedly in the works.
5. The Shining
It’s impossible to separate this book from its movie version. Any review of The Shining, the book, will undoubtedly be colored by Stanley Kubrick’s classic 1982 film version starring Jack Nicholson at his best. In fact, this is one of the few King books I have not read twice, simply because I know that Nicholson’s visage, and to a lesser extent, Shelly Duvall’s face, would be a distraction throughout. Ironically, despite the film’s enduring legacy as a horror classic, King was not happy with the treatment of his novel.
Pennywise the Clown could be King’s most bizarre creature, which is really saying something. The book follows the adventures of seven children who battle Pennywise during the 1950s, then become reunited 25 years later when it becomes apparent Pennywise has returned to kill again. The book works on a couple of different levels, both as a regular scarefest, but also as a character study. King’s mastery of character development is often overshadowed by the otherworldly situations in which his characters usually find themselves, but he always makes you care that everything turns out OK for the protagonists. That might be the best element of It, watching as a group of kids with typical kid problems transforms into a group of adults with adult-sized problems. You want a happy ending, not always a given in King tales, but in It … well, you’ll have to read the book.
3. Salem’s Lot
Vampires are all the rage in popular culture today, thanks to the incredibly popular Twilight book franchise, The Vampire Diaries TV show and numerous other recent books and movies. That wasn’t the case 30 years ago, when vampires were considered as unhip as the old black-and-white films starring Bela Lugosi. King’s second published novel, Salem’s Lot — along with the TV soap opera Dark Shadows a few years earlier — helped change that. Salem’s Lot was adopted into a 1979 movie starring David Soul of Starsky & Hutch fame, and in the 1990s as a miniseries starring Rob Lowe.
2. Skeleton Crew
King has penned more than a half-dozen books containing short stories or novellas, but Skeleton Crew is the best, based on one story alone. The opening tale, The Mist, follows the exploits of shoppers caught in a grocery store when a strange mist envelops the store. Most King fans rate this story very highly in ranking his career work. In fact, it might be one of the two or three best stories, whether short story or novel length, he’s ever written. The Mist was finally made into a film in 2007, featuring a horrific ending that King did not even hint at in his story. Skeleton Crew features several other engrossing tales, most notably The Jaunt and Survivor Type.
1. The Stand
Stephen King fans can argue at length about the author’s top five or top 10 books, but there’s a strong consensus for his No. 1 book — The Stand. Published in 1978, and reissued in 1990 with the addition of many deleted scenes, this post-apocalyptic tale follows the adventures of survivors of a super flu — dubbed “Captain Trips” by King. King provides an abundance of memorable characters, including a deaf-mute, a pyromaniac, a retired professor, a soft-spoken Texan, a pop singer and of course, Randall Flagg, aka the “Walkin’ Dude.” There is a sharp generational split defining those who call this King’s best work. Younger fans that discovered King in the past decade or so don’t rate the book nearly as highly, perhaps scared off by a 30-year-old book that runs more than 800 pages. The Stand was made into a 1994 miniseries and talks were underway in 2011 about the possibility of creating a film trilogy (think Lord of the Rings) out of the book.
One More: The Dark Tower Series
Stephen King himself has said these seven books, written over a 22-year period, are his crowning achievement. The series is a mish-mash of genres, an equal mix of fantasy, horror, Western and action-suspense. Choosing the best book of the series is tough, but if you’re looking for a starting point, obviously begin with the first book in the series, The Gunslinger. An eighth book is planned for release in 2012.