Stephen King has long been a staple in the horror genre, with more than 100 titles under his belt. At least half of those titles have seen screen time, and many are still in the making. The first time I dove into the twisted mind of Mr. King, I was twelve years old. I had no idea what I was getting myself into, but I loved every heart-racing, gut-wrenching second of it. I became an avid fan of this master of the macabre from that point on, soaking up every word I could get my hands on. If I was to blame any one person for the majority of my nightmares, it would be this amazing man, and for that he has my admiration. Stephen King has a way of crawling inside his readers and finding just the right buttons to press to send shivers down your spine, making you think twice about turning out the lights. To this day I owe many fears and phobias to his works of fiction, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.
Today we will be looking at several of his novels that have shaken me in their own special way, books that have stuck with me from childhood, making me think deeply about myself and the world around me or giving me goosebumps from grotesque imagery. I have no doubt I’ll be able to convince you to read the works of this great King of horror, or at the very least rent the movies! Without further ado, I give you the top 5 best Stephen King books to date.
No. 5: Desperation
Written in the late 1990’s, Desperation is horrific from start to finish. This supernatural story is set in a dusty Nevada town called – you guessed it – Desperation, which seems deserted when happened upon by our various traveling characters. For one reason or another, each is picked up by the local deputy and tossed in the clink, beginning their vacation in hell. From the jump we are greeted with scenes of horror so well written you can smell the fumes from the bodily fluids wafting up from the page. The story is fast paced and action packed, with escape being the focal point. The characters must figure out what has gone so horribly wrong in this small desert town, and what this obviously disturbed deputy has to do with it.
Mr. King’s inspiration for this story was a cross-country drive, during which he encountered a seemingly deserted town in Nevada. He mused to himself, what could have happened to all the town’s inhabitants? Deciding the sheriff was behind it, he went on to fill in the whys and hows. For readers who enjoy a truly visceral horror experience, this is the book for you. I found myself using the phrase “Ugh, gross!” a multitude of times during my journey with the characters, giggling with delight at some of the more grotesque scenes. There is a very familiar “Don’t get got!” feeling to this book. The mood is steeped in dread and helplessness so palpable you’ll find your chest tight with the need to escape Desperation.
No. 4: Gerald’s Game
Moving right along, we find ourselves in a secluded lakeside cabin with one Jessie Burlingame in Gerald’s Game. Written in 1992, just a few years before our previous title, Gerald’s Game stars Jessie in a desperate situation of her own.
If you’re into a slightly kinkier bedroom scene, this book will have you checking your safety releases and reviewing your safe, sane and consensual guidelines. Initially, we get a nice little jolt of instant karma, which had me laughing maniacally; unfortunately, this turn of events spells disaster for our heroine. There is plenty of gruesome imagery in this book; definitely enough to satisfy the need for a little blood and gore. But the real terror for me lies in the psychological torment Jessie goes through. As she slowly sinks into madness, she is forced to recall and relive extremely disturbing aspects of her childhood and undergo some pretty brutal self-analysis. Alone and helpless, she must conquer her past – and present – if she wishes to see the light of another day. The Space Cowboy is coming for her, but that’s OK; he’s only made of moonlight.
Stephen King dedicated this novel to his wife and sisters. He did an excellent job of capturing a lot of stereotypical female struggles. I mean, you can’t get much more literal than a woman who’s helpless due to the actions of a man. This book really pushes its readers to turn the eyes inward along with the main character and wonder, “Would I survive?” Unsettling, this is a great read that includes quite a few staples of the horror genre and smashes them together in an extremely pleasing way. Just make sure you have your safe-word ready.
No. 3: Misery
Oh Misery, the book that gave me trust issues. This late 80’s story of terror is a prime example of why fame is nothing but trouble. Our main character, Paul Sheldon, is a fed-up author who is ready to move on from his original beloved series to bigger and better things. After Paul suffers a horrific car crash that leaves him maimed and mangled, he is rescued by a seemingly kind stranger. Miss. Annie Wilkes brings Paul into her home, fixes him up, and reveals that she is his number one fan. This is just the beginning of the most horrific ordeal of Mr. Sheldon’s life. Riddled with absolutely heinous imagery, I often found myself ill at the appalling nature of Mr. Sheldon’s treatment. This book is twisted, I mean it is really twisted. I would cringe so often I was afraid I would develop a permanent tic!
There is a lot of Stephen King in this book. The idea of the trapped author is both literal and figurative. Mr. King had recently written a book that was geared more towards fans of fantasy than horror, and many of his readers made it known that this upset them. King feeling “forced” to write just as Sheldon was – although I’d take harsh words over brutal torture any day – is not an allusion that escapes us here. Then there is the image of a drug dependant writer, King himself having struggled a great deal with dependency in the past. This book gives us a wonderful insight into Mr. King’s mind and various feelings he himself has had during his writing career. Not to mention just how dark he can get with his characters; Annie is so deliciously messed up in the head I honestly couldn’t have dreamed up a more depraved character in my darkest nightmares. There is enough suspense and brutality in this novel to satiate even the most voracious of horror fans.
No. 2: ‘Salem’s Lot
Are you afraid to make eye-contact with an uncovered window on a dark night? Have you always wanted a weird phobia to brag about? Well, have I got the book for you! That’s right, folks, the first Stephen King novel I ever read, ‘Salem’s Lot, will give you life-long paranoia; it’s just that good. I first read this one when I was twelve years old, and I can tell you for a fact, this is not a book for kids. This mid-70’s vampire horror classic will have you on the edge of your seat right up till the last page. There’s an extremely homey feeling to this little piece of petrifying literature. Set in a small town, our random group of heroes must come together to defeat the undead before everything they love is lost. This book has it all: suspense in spades, gore, action, romance; there’s something for everyone!
King’s inspiration for ‘Salem’s Lot is actually fairly simple: what would happen if Dracula returned in the 20th century? He picked the setting of a small country town, somewhere tight knit where everyone knows everyone, thinking the Count wouldn’t last two seconds in the big city. From small-town America, the vampire plague could spread and grow until taking over cities would be a cakewalk. From someone who grew up in small country towns, I can attest this plan has its ups and downs. Small-town folk are nosey, y’all; I’d know if my neighbor took to munching on the grocery store clerk! This book does do an excellent job of painting a picture of small-town life and instilling an innate distrust of everyone around you. You’ll glare through your curtains at that neighbor who never leaves the house. You’ll wave garlic in the face of your friends. You’ll check your loved-ones for bites! Don’t trust anyone; always carry a stake. And if all else fails, blood can’t taste that bad, right?
No. 1: Pet Sematary
Topping our list is my absolute favorite Stephen King book, one that any fan of horror should be ashamed to admit they haven’t read. Written in the early 1980’s, Pet Sematary is one of the most diabolically shocking books I have read to date. I actually had the misfortune of seeing a bit of the movie at a sleepover when I was 8 years old. It took me several years to pluck up the courage to read the book; it was a very good thing I waited. This is far and away one of the best Stephen King books to read if you want to mistrust your pets and have a very deep, unshakable fear of small children. A sick twist on the idea of a local town legend, King takes us places we should never have gone, then makes us pay for it! I was unable to read this disturbing piece without turning on every light in the house and checking the locks on the doors twice. I’ve read this book several times and every time I close that back cover I still have to take a minute to collect myself. This book stays with you, haunting your soul with it’s eerie ambiance and gut wrenching story.
The inspiration for this novel is just about as scary as the novel itself. King and his family moved to a house on a busy road with such an appetite for the lives of household pets, the local kids had set up their own pet cemetery. Naomi King, Stephen’s daughter, lost her cat to this dangerous road and the family buried him in that cemetery, which happened to be near the Kings’ home. Shortly after this tragedy, their son had a very close call running towards the road, prompting Mr. King to use these frightening and sad experiences to help write this horrifying tale. He himself thought the final product was so dark he was not going to publish it! Needless to say, we should all be extremely happy he changed his mind. I loved every gruesome, grisly, spine-tingling minute of this book. If you are looking for an excellent read that is not for the faint of heart, Pet Sematary is the book for you!
There you have it; the five best Stephen King books. If you were ever going to break into the morbid world of the Master of Horror, you now have five fine titles to start with! Be warned; I have not over-embellished a single story. Mr. King is one of the darkest, most twisted minds I have ever had the pleasure of encountering. If you are squeamish or easily frightened, this is not the man for you. But if you, like myself, crave the macabre, if you have a tenacious love for the lurid, or just plain find yourself getting too much sleep, I dare you to dive in to this horrific world with me. While I have shown you but a glimpse into the amazing works of this wonderfully talented man, I’ve provided you with the best places to start for some first-rate nightmare fuel! Until we meet again, stay spooky.