Stephen King is best known as The King of Horror, but his range is much wider than many realise. In a career spanning 55 years so far, he has published almost 100 titles, including non-fiction, short stories, comics, novellas as well as full-length novels. His stories blend realistic as well as supernatural elements, and range from horror, to sci-fi, fantasy, crime thrillers and even Westerns.
Besides being popular with readers (with sales of over 350 million copies), Stephen King is also a Hollywood favourite. Many of his stories have been adapted into movies, tv series or miniseries – sometimes twice, even three times (Carrie and It). Many of these adaptations – including Carrie, The Shawshank Redemption, The Shining, and Misery – have become iconic in their own right. Stephen King has had a huge impact on both literature and popular culture; so much so that he was awarded the National Medal of the Arts, the highest honour in the arts in America, in 2014.
What makes Stephen King so successful? He excels at drawing readers in with seemingly ordinary, relatable situations, and then discomfiting and shocking us by taking the stories into unexpected, chilling directions. He is famous for creating memorable, complex characters – revealing him as a great observer of human nature. As a writer, Stephen King is persistent – he sets himself a 2000-word target every day, and doesn’t stop writing until he reaches it; and even serious injuries don’t stop him from writing – he resumed work within a month of a serious car accident in 1999, despite experiencing pain that limited his ability to sit for extended periods. He is also an adventurous writer, demonstrated not only by the wide range of genres he has written in, by his cross-overs into comics, but also by his early adoption of online publishing.
Our pick of Stephen King books are much-loved stories that also make a great starting point for new readers:
The Shining was Stephen King’s first outright bestseller and confirmed his status as the preeminent writer of the genre. It draws heavily upon Stephen King’s own experiences – the setting and plot are based on his family’s stay at The Stanley Hotel in Colorado (they were the only guests in the large, atmospheric building); and the main character’s struggle with alcoholism mirrors Stephen King’s addiction at the time. The Shining tells the story of Jack Torrance, who takes his wife and son to the Overlook Hotel when he accepts the role of seasonal caretaker. The hotel is haunted by evil spirits that gradually erode Jack’s sanity and make him murderous; it is up to young Danny Torrance – who has psychic abilities called the “shining” – to overcome the danger. Stanley Kubrick’s celebrated movie adaptation created some iconic images – a manically grinning Jack Nicholson, creepy twins in a long hallway – that cemented both book and film into pop culture; famously, Stephen King disliked the film and has criticised it repeatedly. Bolstered by fan interest, The Shining is now accompanied by a sequel, Doctor Sleep, featuring Danny Torrance as an adult.
Pet Sematary is the book that Stephen King thinks is his “most frightening”; he felt it was so wrong, so dark, that he put it in a drawer and thought he would never publish it. Luckily, he eventually changed his mind. The Pet Sematary in question is in a small town in Maine, located in the woods behind the new home of Louis Creed and his young family. Louis learns, from his kindly elderly neighbour, that behind the Pet Semetary lies a “real cemetery” built on an ancient burial ground, a powerful place that can bring creatures back to life. Then tragedy strikes Louis’ family and he decides to make use of this supernatural power… Pet Semetary powerfully interweaves supernatural horror elements with the psychological horror created when human nature strays into sinister immorality.
The Green Mile made me realise that Stephen King doesn’t write just horror – this story is more akin to Southern Gothic and magical realism than traditional horror. The Green Mile is presented as the memoirs of Paul Edgecombe, who worked as a prison supervisor in the American South during the 1930s. The rich storytelling draws vivid portraits of the different inmates, and in particular of John Coffey, a tall and imposing but mild-mannered Black man who was on Death Row for raping and murdering two young white girls. Gradually, Paul notices that John has unusual, perhaps supernatural abilities with empathy and healing, and starts to question whether he truly committed the horrific crimes he was convicted of. Originally released as a serial novel in six parts, The Green Mile is now available collected into one volume.
The premise of Misery – a famous writer, injured in a car accident, who is then rescued (but in reality held hostage) by a crazed fan – invites readers to speculate whether it draws from Stephen King’s own experiences. Misery is the main character in Paul Sheldon’s popular novel series, and Annie Wilkes, Paul’s “biggest fan”, is not happy that Misery has been killed off. Once she has him trapped, Annie wants Paul to write stories the way she wants them – and Paul has to escape to save his own life, before the insane Annie goes too far. Misery is an incredibly tense and quietly horrifying story. The movie of the same name – with a compelling performance by Kathy Bates as Annie – is a cultural icon in its own right.
It is an important novel in many ways: its powerful use of the “evil clown” trope (probably the best-known example in the modern era); being the first Stephen King novel set in the fictional town of Derry (a location repeatedly used in his other stories); its sheer heft (over 1000 pages); and the way it combines favourite Stephen King themes of childhood trauma, the power of memory, and human cruelty, with classic horror motifs such as monsters, zombies and the idyllic-yet-sinister small town – “peak Stephen King”, if you will. It is an ancient, shapeshifting monster that preys upon children and feasts on their worst fears. It appears to humans as Pennywise the Clown, and holds power over the small Maine town of Derry. The task falls upon a group of seven young outcasts to confront It and stop the killings. The monsters, gory scenes, and child victims make It one of Stephen King’s scariest stories.
Now may be a good time to read The Stand – what was published in 1978 as a dark, post-apocalyptic fantasy, seems uncomfortably prescient during the current pandemic. The story starts in a world ravaged by an extremely contagious and lethal strain of influenza, developed as a biological weapon and accidentally released. The resulting pandemic kills most of the world’s population and pushes civilisation into near-collapse. The survivors begin to experience prophetic dreams about the old and saintly Mother Abigail, and about Randall Flagg, the personification of evil, and start to align themselves with one or the other. The stage is now set for an ultimate showdown between Good and Evil. The Stand has an epic, multi-layered story and is inspired by Lord of the Rings and the Book of Revelations.