There’s no doubt that writer Stephen King is best known for the horror novels that haunt his special corner of American literature. But the extremely prolific writer has also written plenty of dark/epic fantasy, science fiction, literary, mystery, and even romance. In fact, there are plenty of examples of genre-mixing in his writing. Books like Lisey’s Story (a truly fantastic read), Duma Key, The Green Mile, The Eyes of the Dragon, Bag of Bones, and The Dark Tower series are fantastic examples of what King can do with just about any genre of fiction.
It can be hard to make a distinction between King’s true horror books and those that happen to have some scary moments in them. But that’s why we’re here. We’ve made a ranked list of ten pure horror novels by King that we think will keep you up for plenty of nights to come. A Halloween treat!
We really tried to focus on novels where horror was at the forefront of the story, where without the scares, the book wouldn’t be a book at all. That’s why you probably won’t see The Dark Tower books or The Stand, largely considered to be the King’s magnum opus, on this list. But you should read those, too.
Here we go:
In recent years, the King of Horror has taken an interest in hardboiled detective and science fiction novels. Things like the Detective Bill Hodges trilogy, Under the Dome, and 11/22/63 have been among his latest offerings. But his 2014 novel Revival was a return to form for the writer.
This homage to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, the cosmic horror tales of H.P. Lovecraft, and Arthur Machen’s “The Great God Pan” is quite the revelation, literally and figuratively. The novel tells the story of a Christian minister who uses strange methods to cure the ill. After his wife and son die in a car accident, he denounces God in front of his entire congregation and is forced to leave town. Years later, he’s back to bring a dead woman back to “life” in order to learn more about the afterlife.
What he discovers on the other side is truly terrifying. Revival is must-read recent King.
The Dark Half
If there’s one thing King loves, it’s writing books and stories about writers. There have been plenty over the years, including “Secret Window, Secret Garden,” “1408,” and another novel on this list that we’ll get to momentarily, but The Dark Half is probably the most “autobiographical” of the bunch.
You see, King used to write under a pseudonym, Richard Bachman, in order to publish more than one novel a year without overwhelming his audience. The Bachman books consist of a series of gritty novels that were published from 1977 to 1984, and King has revisited the pseudonym since being outed, too.
The protagonist in The Dark Half has to deal with the death of his own pseudonym in an unexpected way, as his better-selling alter ego comes after the people that tried to kill him off. It’s all a fun bit of supernatural horror that includes a lot blood, violence, and some pretty gross body horror. It’s an especially fun horror novel if you’re a writer…
But not as fun as King’s ridiculous novel about undead pets. A book that was definitely inspired by EC horror comics (King’s early brushes with horror were in the pages of those books), this novel might be classified as a delicious, campy romp with plenty of scares. The novel’s B-movie sensibility cannot be understated.
In Pet Sematary, a family moves to the small town of Ludlow, Maine, where people bury their dead pets in a special cemetery, which is actually an ancient Micmac Indian burial ground. Obviously, that means that these animals come back to life as evil shadows of themselves.
Oh, the setup is so perfect. When the family’s little two-year-old boy is suddenly killed by a speeding truck, the father decides to bury the boy in the pet cemetery in the hopes that he will be revived. What happens next is what the best campy horror is made of.
King’s best book about a novelist is also a great horror story that is still quite relatable today. A disturbing look at fandom, Misery is what happens when a writer’s work becomes a mad woman’s obsession.
Paul Sheldon, writer of Victorian-era romance novels, suffers an accident on the road during a snowstorm. He is rescued by Annie Wilkes, a former nurse who is coincidentally Paul’s biggest fan. And she’s not very happy about the ending of his last book. So Annie decides to kidnap Paul and keep him hostage until he fixes the damage he’s done.
Imagine being kidnapped by an angry mob of Ghostbusters fans after telling them that the new team will be made up of an all-female cast, and then forced to rewrite the entire script. That’s Annie Wilkes.
Misery is a fascinating psychological horror tale about the dangers of fandom and a writer’s connection to his work. And if you need a great Stephen King movie, the film adaptation is pretty fantastic, as well.
The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon
This slim novel (to King’s standards) has plenty in common with a fairy tale, as a little girl finds herself lost in the woods with nothing or no one to help her find her way except what’s in her backpack: a bottle of water, two Twinkies, a boiled egg, a tuna sandwich, a bottle of Surge, a poncho, a Game Boy, and a Walkman. Thankfully, King’s little protagonist proves to be quite the survivalist as the book progresses.
Walking a thin line between an intense examination of loneliness and isolation and a supernatural thriller, as things grow weirder in the woods as time passes, this is a compact horror novel that you can read in one sit-down and you’ll get King at his best, as his character exemplifies the meaning of human resilience, even as she begins to hallucinate due to hunger, fear, and thirst.
Her love for her baseball idol pitcher Tom Gordon allows her to face her fears and even confront the “God of the Lost.” This is a really good one. A few years later, a pop-up book adaptation of this novel was fittingly released.
Cujo is one of King’s more “realistic” novels, featuring a setup that’s real enough to send shivers down your spine, especially if you live in the suburbs or ever owned a Ford Pinto… The story goes like this: the Trentons move from New York to Castle Rock, Maine (where nothing good ever happens in the Kingverse). Vic and Donna Trenton, who are having some marital problems, have a four-year-old son named Tad, because children should always be in danger in these books.
Meanwhile, longtime residents Charity and Brett Chambers have a nice St. Bernard named Cujo that loves chasing wild rabbits in his spare time. During his latest safari, Cujo is bitten on the nose by a rabid bat. And, as you can probably imagine, all hell absolutely breaks loose.
The dog kills several people before feasting its eyes on the ultimate prey: a boy and his mother, who have stopped by the Chambers’ place in their little Ford Pinto. What follows are very tense moments of terror inside a little car, as a mom tries to protect her son from the rabid terror that awaits them outside.
King has said in interviews that he doesn’t really remember writing Cujo, as he worked on it at the peak of his struggle with drug addiction, but we wish he had. He wrote a fine horror book. Cruel ending and all.
King’s ode to Bram Stoker’s Dracula is a classic vampire tale that might even formidably rival the novel it pays homage to. When Kurt Barlow comes to Jerusalem’s Lot, Maine (where nothing good happens, either), shit hits the fan, as he preys on the living and ignites an outbreak of vampirism in the town.
The only guy who can stop him is, you guessed it, a writer named Ben Mears, who already has a strained relationship with his hometown, which he abandoned years ago. Like a modern team of Draculian vampire hunters, Ben teams up with his new sweetheart Susan, a little boy named Mark, and some other townspeople to take down the vampire and his unholy creations. There’s also Father Callahan, this story’s version of an incompetent Van Helsing, who loses a lot in the novel but redeems himself in King’s The Dark Tower series.
All in all, this fat novel holds plenty of scares, including a school bus full of vampire children who hunt down the school bus driver who tormented them. We have goosebumps.
By now, The Shining, along with the other two entries in the top 3 of this list, has become embedded in American pop culture, whether because of King’s book or Stanley Kubrick’s excellent movie (King would disagree). Either way, this is the novel that never made you want to become a hotel caretaker.
An alcoholic writer (surprise!) named Jack Torrance brings his wife Wendy and his son Danny to his new job as the off-season caretaker of The Overlook Hotel in Colorado, where he hopes to make a bit of extra cash to support his writing. The job seems easy enough until all the guests leave and the doors shut behind them until the spring. That’s when the hotel’s ghosts come out to fuck with the living.
You’ll recall plenty of the spooky ghosts Danny encounters on his treks through the claustrophobic hallways of the hotel. It’s because he was born with telepathic powers that allow him to communicate with the lost souls of the Overlook. It unfortunately also triggers the place’s supernatural energy, which quickly takes control of Jack, who is convinced into killing his wife and son due to cabin fever and a pretty bad case of writer’s block.
This is one of those special novels that you only get once in a lifetime and an especially good example of King’s unique brand of horror. Get to it, Constant Readers!
The story of how debut novel Carrie came to be a huge hit for the future King of Horror is now as famous as the actual book. King began working on a short story about a girl with telekinetic powers when someone accused him of not knowing how to write about women. He typed up the infamous shower scene while living in a trailer and working as a high school teacher. King didn’t love the scene, so he tossed the first pages of his bestseller in the trash. It was his wife Tabitha who pulled the pages out of the wastebasket and convinced him to finish the story. And here we are.
Apart from all the telekinesis, Carrie is another book that has remained quite relatable. On one side, it’s a lot of social commentary about religious fanaticism, alienation, adolescence, and bullying, while the rest is pure horrific fun.
While many will point to the high school cruelty or Carrie‘s eventual vengeance upon her classmates as the source of true terror in the book, we’d say there’s nothing scarier than Margaret White, an unstable Fundamentalist who unceasingly punishes her daughter Carrie for her sins. Waiting to see how their conflict plays out is the best part of the book, as the real moments of cruelty take center stage amidst all the supernatural stuff.
The 1976 movie from Brian De Palma, starring Sissy Spacek and Piper Laurie, is quite good, too.
Well, here we are. Like the Losers Club, as much as we’d like to forget about Pennywise, we just can’t. Sparking a pretty logical (let’s face it) fear of clowns, IT is King’s terrifying, gruesome, trashy, cosmic, demonic horror masterpiece that we still can’t claw out of our minds so many years later.
Not only does IT, a shape-shifting evil entity, prey on your worst fears, he also lives in the sewers and eats little children. As the story unfolds, it is revealed that IT has stalked the town of Derry, Maine (where nothing good…you get the picture) for centuries, waking up every 27 years to murder and eat everything.
It’s up to the Losers, a group of childhood friends, to confront the monster not once, but TWICE in order to finally rid the town of the ancient, otherworldly evil. Watching Pennywise haunt their memories throughout the book quickly becomes a guilty pleasure. Are we bad people?
The true power of this masterful novel is in the all-encompassing evil nature of the villain that we can’t quite understand. It not only makes a group of kids desperately aware of their own mortality, but scars them for life in more ways than one. And for what purpose? We may never truly know.