Stephen King’s It is now the highest-grossing horror movie of all time, so it’s no surprise that Hollywood is dishing out King-inspired properties faster than ever before. From films like Gerald’s Game and The Dark Tower to TV shows like Mr. Mercedes and The Mist, Stephen King’s stories have never been more popular among thrill-seekers.
Newcomers to King’s prolific works often find it tough to decide which book to start with. While it’s nearly impossible to narrow down King’s exhaustive body of work to just 10 novels, we’ve provided a list of his greatest hits for those who haven’t had much exposure to his work.
Let’s start with the honorable mentions: Needful Things, Thinner, and Pet Sematary were narrowly squeezed out but are worth exploring if you find yourself looking for more. The Dark Tower series is also masterful but didn’t make the list, because no single book does it justice. That’s one epic that needs to be appreciated as a complete body of work.
10. ‘The Dark Tower IV: Wizard and Glass’
Dark Tower mostly takes place in Mid-World, the decayed remains of a once great empire where a Gunslinger named Roland is attempting to reach the distant – titular – Dark Tower. The fourth book in the series was published in 1997, and it focuses largely on Roland’s teenage years and his doomed love affair with Susan Delgado. It was the final Dark Tower book written before King’s van accident, which inspired him to quickly finish the series by writing the last three books all in a row. To some fans, the final books felt a little rushed and anti-climactic, and they see book four as the best of the series.
9. ‘Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption’
People are often surprised that The Shawshank Redemption was adapted from a 1982 Stephen King novella: It goes against the general perception that he only writes horror books about killer clowns, haunted hotels and super viruses. But is there anything more terrifying than the prospect of being sentenced to life in jail for a crime you didn’t commit? Throw in a sadistic warden and prison rapists, and you’ve got a living nightmare. In his novella Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption, Andy Dufresne is short and his buddy Red is Irish, but Hollywood had a different idea for the characters. Originally, the adaptation bombed, but it has since become regarded as one of the most moving films of its time.
8. ‘The Dead Zone’
King wrapped up his incredible run of 1970s books with The Dead Zone, the tale of Johnny Smith, a schoolteacher who awakens from a coma with psychic abilities. When he meets a deranged politician destined to become president he faces the horrible choice about whether or not he should assassinate him. It’s a riveting story, and in 1983, it became a movie starring Christopher Walken and Martin Sheen.
7. ‘The Green Mile’
King released his prison drama The Green Mile in six monthly installments in the spring and summer of 1993. It’s the story of a large black man sentenced to death for the rape of two young girls. He’s very timid and quiet, but he possesses the power to heal people with a touch. Some accused King of creating a “magical negro” character, but the writer strongly disagrees: “When I was writing the book I said to myself, ‘What can I do to make sure that this character goes to the chair even if he’s innocent?'” King says. “And I said, ‘Well, it’s 1933. If he’s black, nobody is going to let him off the hook no matter what the evidence is. They’re going to fry him.’ So I made him a black guy.”
King spent four decades considering the idea of a man who goes back in time to prevent JFK’s assassination, and in 2011 he finally wrote the book about it. The result centers around a divorced high school teacher who finds a portal to 1958 in a small diner, taking a teaching job in a small town near Dallas as he prepares for the big day. It’s absolutely brilliant, and the New York Times even called it one of the greatest books of the year. There’s talk of turning it into a movie, but so far nobody has been able to boil down the 849-pager into a tight screenplay.
Authors like King attract a lot of nutty fans, but thankfully, he’s never dealt with anyone like Annie Wilkes, the deranged Misery character who kidnaps her favorite author and forces him to write a sequel to her favorite series. When the author fights back, Wilkes takes out an axe and starts chopping away at him. It’s a disturbing book, and it wasn’t until years later that King realized the whole thing was an elaborate metaphor for his raging cocaine addiction. “Misery is a book about cocaine,” he recently told Rolling Stone. “Annie Wilkes is cocaine. She was my number-one fan.”
4. ‘Salem’s Lot’
After breaking big with his debut novel Carrie, King proved he wasn’t a one-trick pony when he released the follow-up in 1975. Salem’s Lot has a rather simple premise: What if a Dracula-like vampire moved to a small town in Maine? Slowly, much of the town transforms into vampires – until a high school teacher and his young girlfriend begin fighting back. For years King contemplated writing a sequel, but he decided to simply fold one of characters, Father Callahan, into the final Dark Tower books.
3. ‘The Shining’
King and his young family moved to Colorado for a brief period in the mid-1970s, and when they were out there they spent a night at the historic Stanley Hotel in Estes Park. The place was about to close up for the winter, and King spent time wandering around the nearly empty building all by himself. He imagined would it be like spending the entire winter trapped inside, and the idea for The Shining came to him almost at once. At the time, he was struggling with a pretty bad drinking problem, and this became a major element of the plot. Stanley Kubrick adapted the story for the big screen in 1980, and it over time it has become a beloved classic – though King has been very vocal about his distaste for this version.
King’s 1986 novel It has caused more people to fear clowns than perhaps any movie, book or TV show in history. It’s an epic story, spread across three decades, about a group of Maine friends that battle a demented clown named Pennywise who lives in their town’s sewers. They think they kill him in the 1950s, but 30 years later they are forced to reunite for a final battle. At 1,142 pages, it’s one of King’s longest books, but many people find themselves reading it in a matter of days.
1. ‘The Stand’
The original draft for The Stand was so long that printing presses were literally unable to handle it, forcing King to cut out a large chunk of the book, the story of a super virus called Captain Trips that wipes out about 99 percent of the planet. The survivors come together in two camps and wage the ultimate war of good against evil. It’s a crazily ambitious book, but King executed it flawlessly. The uncut version came out in 1990, and four years later ABC turned it into a miniseries. There’s been talk for years about a proper movie – or even a series of movies – but neither has yet to happen.