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RANKING THE KING

stephen_king_1980s_GettyImages-538283656There is no doubt that over the last 40+ years, Stephen King has been one (if not the most) successful authors in the world, having sold more than 350 million copies. I believe that as time moves on, and after King is gone, his work will be looked upon as America’s 20th century version of Charles Dickens. The fact that he is labeled a “horror’ novelist, obscures the reality that, in any genre, King is a great writer. No one can sustain a career of his quality over such a period without acknowledging his skill and power as a fiction writer. 

I have been reading King since 1974. I was fourteen when Carrie was published and immediately began to pass the paperback around good ole Barnwell High School. So, as someone who has re-read most of King’s works several times, here is my list of King’s top novels (novels only, no short story collections). Feel free to disagree and make your own argument.


54. The Tommyknockers (1987)

tommyknockersKing admits he wrote this book while high as a kite. And boy, it shows! The idea of the novel – alien artifacts (including an entire spaceship) are compulsively unearthed by folks in a small town, with disastrous result – is not terrible, but the execution of the story is … well, don’t bother.

53. Rage (1979)

RagebachmanThis was one of King’s first novel, and was later published under the Richard Bachman pseudonym. The story of a teenager who murders two teachers and takes a classroom of students hostage, it’s just not very good in comparison to what followed. After a rash of school shootings became common in America, King pulled this book from distribution, and it’s hard to find these days, and not worth it.

52. Rose Madder (1995)

RoseMadderA messy messy novel. It’s a realistic tale of an abused woman, and her attempt to survive, and there’s a magic painting that serves as a portal to another world. The two stories never mesh. 

51. Cell (2005)

Cell_by_Stephen_KingThis feels like King was trying to quickly take advantage of the evolving world of cell phone culture, and it shows. A mysterious pulse turns anyone caught speaking on a cell phone into a hungry, aggressive zombie. The story is flawed, and flimsy, and the characters are walking zombies even before they are zapped. 

50. The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon (1999)

Girl_Gordon_coverA girl gets lost in the woods with nothing but her portable radio, tuned to the Red Sox game. That’s it.  That’s the entire novel. As her exposure and dehydration worsen she hallucinates a battle with the God of the Lost in which the terrifying creatures and events mirror the reality of her struggle to survive. And, does anyone, other than baseball geeks, have any idea who Tom Gordon in twenty years after his prominence? 

49. Cujo (1981)

cujoCujo is the weakest of King’s earlier novels. Ultimately it’s just a simple story that King attempts to wring horror and tension from a rabid dog. For a King story, it’s bland, and slightly boring. Read it once, and you’ll never need to think of it again.

47 & 48. The Regulators & Desperation (1996)

desperation - regulatorsThese two mirror novels are mildly entertaining and have some moments of fantastic, chilling horror. Kudus to King for trying a different concept – two novels, one from him, and a second from his alter ego, Richard Bachman, that take place in the same setting with overlapping characters. In The Regulators, an autistic boy is assisted by an evil entity that orchestrates the horrors in both novels, is able alter reality in his neighborhood.  In Desperation people traveling a lonely highway are pulled over and kidnapped by a possessed police officer and imprisoned.

From_A_Buick8_StephenKing46. From A Buick 8 (2002)

The novel is a series of recollections by the members of Troop D, a Pennsylvania State Police barracks. All the stories center around the “Buick 8,” a vintage blue 1953 Buick Roadmaster, which has been in storage in a shed near the barracks since 1979, when it was left at a gas station by a mysterious driver who then disappeared. The car, they discover, is not a car at all, but a doorway to another dimension that occasionally disgorges bizarre alien items or creatures.

dreamcatcher-book45. Dreamcatcher (2002)

This novel was written shortly after King survived his famous accident. During his convalescence he was in a lot of pain (and on a lot of painkillers) and it reads as such. In fact, in 2014, King told Rolling Stone that “I don’t like Dreamcatcher very much,” and stated that the book was written under the influence of Oxycontin.

It’s the story of four lifelong friends who, as teenagers, saved Douglas “Duddits” Cavell, an older boy with Down syndrome, from a group of sadistic bullies. From their new friendship with Duddits, Jonesy, Beaver, Henry and Pete began to share the boy’s unusual powers, including telepathy, shared dreaming, and seeing “the line”, a psychic trace left by the movement of human beings. The entire book suffers from unfocused writing and weak editing, making sections of this boring – which is something you can almost never say about a King story. 

Duma Key44. Duma Key (2008)

The story of an artist who loses an arm and gains the ability to affect events through his paintings, is rambling and waaay too long. This is another King book that would’ve been markedly improved with tighter editing.

43. Bag of Bones (1998) 

Bag_of_Bones_faceIt’s not a bad book,  except for the fact that it’s a retread of themes and motifs he’s explored before. It’s a good novel, but a mediocre one for King. The narrator, Mike Noonan, a bestselling novelist, suffers severe writer’s block after his pregnant wife Jo suddenly dies of an aneurysm. Four years later, Mike, still grieving, is plagued by nightmares set at his summer house in TR-90 (an unincorporated town named for its map coordinates), Maine. He decides to confront his fears and moves to his vacation house on Dark Score Lake, known as Sara Laughs.

On his first day, he meets Kyra, a 3-year-old girl and her young widowed mother, 20-year-old Mattie Devore. Mattie’s father-in-law is Max Devore, an elderly rich man who will do anything to gain custody of his granddaughter, Kyra. . Mike begins to realize that Jo’s ghost is helping him to solve the mystery of Sara Tidwell, a blues singer whose ghost haunts the house. He also learns that Jo frequently returned to the town in the year before her death, without telling him.

42. Dolores Claiborne (1992) 

DoloresClaiborneNovelTold as a long, rambling monologue by the title character, what’s most impressive about the story is that King maintains such a unique voice for so many pages, but the story is tortuously slow to emerge and by halfway through you’re skipping pages. 

41. Joyland (2013)

Joyland Joyland is set at a North Carolina amusement park in 1973 and involves a carny who must confront the “legacy of a vicious murder and the fate of a dying child”. Devin Jones, age twenty-one, who takes a summer job at Joyland in North Carolina, is a student at the University of New Hampshire. Devin is told, during his interview by the resident fortune teller, Rozzie aka Madam Fortuna, that he will meet two children that summer: one is a girl with a red hat; the other is a boy with a dog. One of them has The Sight. Devin secures lodging for the summer at a rooming house owned by Mrs. Shoplaw, a woman who knows a great deal of Joyland’s history and employees.  Nothing really horrific, but it’s a good coming-of-age-story with some Kingian twists.

colorado-kid-cover-review-hard-case-crime-stephen-king40. The Colorado Kid (2005)

A pretty straight mystery novel that concerns the investigation of the body of an unidentified man found on a tiny island off the coast of Maine. Lacking any identification or obvious clues, the case reaches nothing but repeated dead ends. Over a year later the man is identified, but all further important questions remain unanswered. The two-person staff of the island newspaper maintain a longstanding fascination with the case, and twenty-five years later use the mysterious tale to ply the friendship and test the investigative mettle of a post-graduate intern rookie reporter.

King has stated that the point of the mystery was that it is never resolved, and it renders the book frustrating.

39. Insomnia (1994)

insomnio-Stephen-kingThe story, set in Stephen King’s multiverse in the fictional town of Derry, Maine is about a man who loses the ability to sleep and starts experiencing strange visions that might be more than simple hallucinations,  so highly. Insomnia is linked to The Dark Tower series, and features the first mention of the Crimson King. King himself has said that the novel is “stiff” and that he was “trying too hard.” 

38. Lisey’s Story (2006)

When you publish as much as King does, experimenting in order to lisey storykeep yourself fresh, is completely understandable. Some of the experiments work better than others. This is a very good story, and certainly one of King’s most unusual.

Lisey Landon, the widow of a famous and wildly successful novelist, Scott Landon. The book tells two stories—Lisey’s story in the present, and the story of her dead husband’s life, as remembered by Lisey during the course of the novel. Lisey begins to face certain realities about her husband that she had repressed and forgotten. She recalls Scott’s past—how he came from a family with a history of horrible mental illness that manifested as either an uncontrollable homicidal mania or as a deep catatonia, how he had a special gift, an ability to transport himself to another world, which he called “Boo’ya Moon” with its own unique dangers, how Scott Landon’s brother Paul was killed by their father when, at thirteen, Paul succumbed to the family disease and attempted to kill Scott, and how Scott really died.

37. Blaze (2007)

blazeBlaze is the story of a brain-damaged con artist who kidnaps a wealthy man’s baby for ransom then bonds with the child. It was written before Carrie and King offered the original draft of the novel to his Doubleday publishers at the same time as ‘Salem’s Lot. They chose the latter to be his second novel and Blaze became a “trunk novel.” King rewrote the manuscript, editing out much of what he perceived as over-sentimentality in the original text, and offered the book for publication in 2007.

36. Doctor Sleep (2013)

Doctor_SleepA sequel to The Shining? Well, not really, more like an update on the character of Danny Torrance. As an adult, Danny embraces his father’s legacy of anger and alcoholism. Dan spends years drifting across the United States, but he eventually makes his way to New Hampshire and decides to give up drinking. He settles in the small town of Frazier, working first at a tourist attraction and then at a hospice, and attending Alcoholics Anonymous meetings. His psychic abilities, long suppressed by his drinking, re-emerge and allow him to provide comfort to dying patients. Aided by a cat, “Azzie,” that can sense when someone is about to die, Dan acquires the nickname “Doctor Sleep.”

35. Finders Keepers – Bill Hodge’s Trilogy #2 (2015)

Finders_Keepers_2015The second book in the trilogy focusing on Detective Bill Hodges, examines the murder of reclusive writer John Rothstein (an amalgamation of John Updike, Philip Roth, and J. D. Salinger), his missing notebooks and the release of his killer from prison after 35 years. 

32 & 33. The Talisman (1984) & Black House (2001) 

The main problem with both of these books it that they were co- written with Peter Straub. As great an author as Straub is, his style and outlook of horror are different than King. To me, their combined writing voice never meshes, making the story less page-turning than if King had written this solo.

black house and talismanThe Talisman is one of King’s childhood transporting fantasy stories, parallel universes which can be traversed only if your twin in the other universe has died. Twelve year-old Jack to cure his mother’s terminal cancer by locating a magical talisman, leading him through several dark and dangerous adventures that add up to one of King’s most satisfying stories

The sequel, Black House, ties Jack’s story of parallel universes firmly to King’s Dark Tower saga. The now adult Jack whose memories of his earlier adventures have been repressed slowly realizes a serial killer plaguing a small town is actually an agent of the Crimson King. Jack retains his rare ability to flip between universes, and must reluctantly take on the task of saving not just his own, but all of them. I’d love to rank this higher, but I cannot. 

31. Sleeping Beauties (2017)

sleepingCo-written with his son Owen, women begin falling into a supernatural-like sleep, becoming cocooned in a gauzy material, and then react violently to attempts to wake them. The women’s efforts to stay awake indefinitely creates the terror that propels this novel into the top-half of King’s work.

30. Cycle of the Werewolf (1983)

A straight-up werewolf story in Tarker’s Mills, Maine, with each chapter being a month on the calendar. A werewolf is viciously cycle of the werewolfkilling local citizens at each full moon, and the otherwise normal town is living in fear.  Marty Coslaw, a 10 year-old boy in a wheelchair who works out the identity of the werewolf. A short novel (127) during a time in his career where King was working a fevered pace, and almost everything he was writing was excellent.  

29. Mr. Mercedes – Bill Hodges Trilogy #1 (2014)

mr mercedesWhile Mr. Mercedes, the first of a trilogy of crime novels, isn’t perfect (some of the characterizations are a bit thin and clichéd, as if King were aping other crime novels or TV shows) it’s tense, pivoting on a serial killer (who opens the story by running down innocent people in a Mercedes, hence his moniker) who taunts a retired police detective with his plans to kill again and again. 

28. The Running Man (1982)

running manOne of the best novels published under the Bachman pseudonym, The Running Man depicts a dystopia centered on a gameshow in which the contestants are hunted by professional assassins on live television. It’s the most action-packed of all King’s novels, more of a thriller with a fantastic premise than anything else—but it’s a tightly written, gripping sci-fi story that has aged very well.

27. Elevation (2018)

elevation-largeCastle Rock resident, Scott Carey faces a mysterious illness which causes bizarre effects on his body and makes him rapidly lose weight, even if he appears healthy on the outside. While battling this disease with his trusted doctor, he also tries fixing a dire situation involving a lesbian couple trying to open a restaurant surrounded by a disapproving public.

A short novel (144 pages) it is held back by King’s recent predilection to toss in gratuitous slams at Donald Trump, just because he can, even when it has nothing to do with the story. References like this will not help the novel age as well as others. 

26. Roadwork (1981)

Roadwrk1This is one the few full-length novels King wrote that has absolutely zero supernatural or horror ingredients. The story takes place in an unnamed Midwestern city in 1973–1974. Grieving over the death of his son and the disintegration of his marriage, Barton George Dawes is driven to mental instability when he learns that both his home and his workplace will be demolished to make way for an extension to an interstate highway.

It’s an gut-punch of a novel, and seems to be more relevant now than when it was written. I’ve always thought this was a truly underrated novel. 

25. The Institute (2019)

institutemA novel that feels like King, after watching the first season of “Stranger Things” told himself, “Hell, I can do them one better than that!”

King is usually at his best when kids are his main characters, (IT, THE BODY, CARRIE, etc …) and most of the book is compelling – following kids with special abilities being used and abused by evil adults. The sci-fi gobbledygook about the kid’s abilities, is kinda vague and silly. One of the most interesting character bookends the book, the loner former cop Tim, in South Carolina.

The two out of left field gratuitous Donald Trump slams are now something to be expected from King. He has revealed himself to be another nasty-minded 60s liberal who, if you disagree with his views, are as evil as the adults who run The Institute.

24. Under the Dome (2009)

Under-the-Dome-coverMore science fiction thriller than horror, this massive (1000+ pages) was King’s 48th novel. Set in and around a small Maine town, it tells an intricate, multi-character and point-of-view story of how the town’s inhabitants contend with the calamity of being suddenly cut off from the outside world by an impassable, invisible barrier that drops out of the sky, transforming the community into a domed city. Most of the book contains some of King’s best writing, the characters are vividly imagined and realistically drawn, but the payoff is a bit ridiculous, which renders this book out of the Top Ten.  

23. End of Watch  Bill Hodges Trilogy #3 (2016)

end of watchThe conclusion of the trilogy that began with Mr. Mercedes. For nearly six years, Brady Hartsfield, the insane perpetrator of the “Mercedes Massacre,” in which eight people were killed, has been in a persistent vegetative state.But behind the vacant stare, Brady is very much awake and aware, having been pumped full of experimental drugs…scheming, biding his time as he trains himself to take full advantage of the deadly new powers that allow him to wreak unimaginable havoc without ever leaving his hospital room.

22. The Dark Half (1989)

dark halfThad Beaumont is an author and recovering alcoholic who lives in the town of Ludlow, Maine. Thad’s own books – cerebral literary fiction – are not very successful. However, under the pen name “George Stark”, he writes highly successful crime novels about a violent killer named Alexis Machine. When Thad’s authorship of Stark’s novels becomes public knowledge, Thad and his wife, Elizabeth, decide to stage a mock burial for his alter ego at the local cemetery, which is featured in a People magazine article. Stark’s epitaph says it all: “Not A Very Nice Guy.” Slowly, Thad comes to realize his dark half is doing terrible things. The psychological richness of this idea, especially considering King’s own history with pseudonyms, combined with the tightness of the writing put this one in the middle of the pack.

King wrote several books under a pseudonym, Richard Bachman, during the 1970s and 1980s. Most of the Bachman novels were darker and more cynical in nature, featuring a far more visceral sense of horror than the psychological, gothic style common in many of King’s most famous works. When King was identified as Bachman, he wrote The Dark Half – about an author with a sinister parasitic twin – in response to his outing.

21. The Outsider (2018)

outsiderSmall town Detective Ralph Anderson arrests a popular little league coach named Terry Maitland for the horrifying murder of an 11-year old boy by Ralph Anderson. The evidence seems to prove the culprit is guilty beyond any doubt—but then, incontrovertible evidence arises that also seems to prove Maitland’s innocence. This is a great melding of King’s classic 80s horror with his more recent police procedural stories. 

20. Revival (2014)

revivalRevival is one of King’s best most recent novels. Bleak, depressing and pure King terror. A minister loses his faith and pursues experiments in “secret electricity.” He is now able him to heal almost any affliction, albeit, with terrible side effects. When he attempts to communicate with the afterlife he  realizes the awful the afterlife is a hell in which enormous, ancient monsters enslave and torture all humans, no matter what kind of lives they led. 

19. Gwendy’s Button Box (2017)

Written in collaboration with Richard Chizmar, this a delicious little bit of horror.

gwedny button boxGwendy is a twelve year old girl, wide, school outcast. At the peak of some stairs in an elevated park of Castle Rock, a black suited stranger offers her a peculiar object. A little button box, with two tiny levers. A magic box that every now and then grants little gifts, but at a terrible cost. Pressing the different buttons carries dire consequences, and protecting the box, a grave responsibility. What if someone steals the box? What if one of the buttons is accidentally pressed? What would happen if someone presses the dreaded black button…

18. Christine (1984) 

ChristineKing takes the old premise “haunted car goes on killing spree” and somehow wrote a scary, and thoughtful, novel. Kind of the male version of Carrie, King is always strong when tapping into the excruciating pain unpopular in high school and manages transforms Arnie’s adolescent rage into a universally horrifying experience.

17. Carrie (1974) 

Carrie - Stephen King - Signet Books - 1980s reprint pbkKing’s first novel launched him into the literary bestselling heavens, from which he has never come down.  King has the knack of touching every reader in a universal sore spot: the hell of adolescence. As Carrie becomes a raging monster, the reader always feels extreme sympathy for her, no matter how horrific her behavior. A truly difficult thing for a writer to do.  

16. Needful Things (1991)

needfulthingsbookcoverThe story is about a shopkeeper who runs his business by exchanging goods for money and mysterious deeds performed by the customer. The proprietor, Leland Gaunt, is a charming elderly gentleman who always seems to have an item in stock that is perfectly suited to any customer who comes through his door, but he expects each customer also to play a little prank on someone else in town. Gaunt knows about the long-standing private grudges, arguments, and feuds between the various townspeople, and the pranks are his means of forcing them to escalate until the whole town is eventually caught up in madness and violence.

It’s a simple concept—a magical store where your darkest desires can be acquired, for a hidden and terrifying price—that King uses to comment on humanity, society, and the interior craven nature of most humans.

15. Gerald’s Game (1992)

gerald's gameJessie and her husband Gerald travel to their secluded lakehouse in western Maine for an unplanned romantic getaway. The titular “game” involves handcuffing Jessie to the bed for lovemaking, a recent addition to their marriage that both partners find exciting. This time, however, Jessie finds herself reluctant after being handcuffed to the bedposts and asks to stop, only to be ignored by Gerald, who pretends her protests are only part of their game. Realizing her husband is deliberately feigning ignorance and that he plans to rape her, Jessie lashes out, kicking Gerald in the chest. The shock causes him to have a fatal heart attack. He dies, leaving Jessie still handcuffed to the bed.

Gerald’s Game is one of King’s least supernatural horror stories, but manages to create it’s terror in helplessness. 

14. Thinner (1984)

Thinner0Another Bachman Book –  a selfish, overweight man kills a gypsy woman and escapes justice, but is cursed by her father to grow ever thinner, no matter how much he eats. That’s it. It’s that simple. As the man steadily loses weight, his desperation grows to frightening levels that turn this into a disturbing black comedy. 

13. Firestarter (1980) 

firestarter-183x300King has always written stories about primal forces that humans can’t control, and when that force is within a child who has no maturity of reason, then you get terror. This novel is often overlooked, but it’s one of King’s strongest stories. 

Andy and Charlene “Charlie” McGee are a father/daughter pair on the run from a government agency known as The Shop. During his college years, Andy had participated in a Shop experiment dealing with “Lot 6”, a drug with hallucinogenic effects similar to LSD. The drug gave his future wife, Victoria minor telekinetic abilities and him a telepathic form of mind control he refers to as “the push”. They both also developed telepathic abilities. Andy’s and Vicky’s powers were physiologically limited; in his case, overuse of the push gives him crippling migraine headaches and minute brain hemorrhages, but their daughter Charlie developed frightening pyrokinetic ability.

12. Misery (1987)

Misery_coverA popular but conflicted writer who winds up in the clutches of his highly unstable biggest fan. Here King is writing a story of true terror that has nothing to do with vampires or ghosts, just crazy and passionate Annie Wilkes, who may be King’s great evil  creation. The novel had obvious parallels with King’s personal life and ingenuously  dissects the darker side of the relationship between celebrities and their fans

11. The Eyes of the Dragon (1984)

eyesofthedragon_169A kingdom is in turmoil as the old King Roland dies and its worthy successor, Prince Peter must do battle to claim what is rightfully his. Plotting against him is the evil Flagg and his pawn, young Prince Thomas. Yet with every plan there are holes—like Thomas’s terrible secret. And the determined Prince Peter, who is planning a daring escape from his imprisonment…

The story takes place entirely within the realm of Delain from The Dark Tower series. Although King is still mostly described as a  “horror writer,” but he has been able to successful jump to different genres during his entire career, making the point, that a good writer is a good writer.  In this charming  fantasy, King crafts a clever plot using the typical fairy-tale tropes hand, and re-invents the genre. A thoroughly delightful book!

10. The Dark Tower Series (1982-2004)

dark tower seriesThe eight novels that make up this multi-dimensional science fantasy epic vary wildly quality. The first three are mesmerizing, and then the story dips and wanders until the final book brings everything back. This is, of course, the circular quest of Roland, the world’s last Gunslinger on a quest to reach the titular Dark Tower, the axis on which all worlds (and of his novels) turn. 

It is almost impossible to describe these books, which include King himself as a character, and make it sensible. Enough to say that, if you’re interested in fantasy speculative fiction at all, then you will have no problem devoting the time to read the 4300+ pages in this story. Epic is the only way to describe it.

9. Pet Sematary (1983)

What would you do to bring something—or someone—back?

pet-sematary-book-cover-stephen-kingWhen the Creeds move into a beautiful old house in rural Maine, it all seems too good to be true: physician father, beautiful wife, charming little daughter, adorable infant son-and now an idyllic home. As a family, they’ve got it all…right down to the friendly car. But the nearby woods hide a blood-chilling truth-more terrifying than death itself-and hideously more powerful. The Creeds are going to learn that sometimes dead is better. One of King’s more emotionally gut-punch novels.  

8. The Green Mile (1996)

green-mileThe Green Mile was originally released as a “serial novel” in six installments and a great example of magical realism.

In 1932, death row supervisor Paul Edgecombe gets a new prisoner, John Coffey, convicted of murdering two white girls. Coffey is a mountainous, simple-minded black man named John Coffey, who displays inexplicable healing and empathetic abilities .This is one of King’s greatest novels, as he masterfully mixes issues of race, sadism, and mercy into the story as Coffey’s innocence becomes clear.  Truly powerful. 

7. ‘Salem’s Lot (1975)

salems lotKing’s second novel takes the vampire story and turns it into a 20th century classic. He manages to update all the classic tropes, from the slightly insane vampire’s assistant to all the old rules involving sunlight, permission to enter, and seduction that make them fresh and frightening.

King said that, of all his books, Salem’s Lot was his favorite. In his June 1983 Playboy interview, the interviewer mentioned that because it was his favorite. In 1987 he told Phil Konstantin in The Highway Patrolman magazine: “In a way it is my favorite story, mostly because of what it says about small towns. They are kind of a dying organism right now. The story seems sort of down home to me. I have a special cold spot in my heart for it!”

6. 11/22/63 (2011)

11-22-63According to King, the idea for the novel first came to him in 1971, before the release of his first novel, Carrie  He was going to title it Split Track. However, he felt a historical novel required more research than he was willing to do at the time and greater literary talent than he possessed.

King later explained: “I’d like to tell a time-travel story where this guy finds a diner that connects to 1958… you always go back to the same day. So one day he goes back and just stays. Leaves his 2007 life behind. His goal? To get up to November 22, 1963, and stop Lee Harvey Oswald. He does, and he’s convinced he’s just FIXED THE WORLD. But when he goes back to ’07, the world’s a nuclear slag-heap. Not good to fool with Father Time. So then he has to go back again and stop himself….. only he’s taken on a fatal dose of radiation, so it’s a race against time.”

5. The Long Walk (1979)

long walkThis was The Hunger Games twenty-nine years before Katniss Everden existed.  Set in a future dystopian America, ruled by a totalitarian and militaristic dictator, the plot revolves around group of young people are forced to compete in a grueling, annual walking contest until all but one of them is dead. The winner receives “The Prize”: anything he wants for the rest of his life. In 2000, the American Library Association listed The Long Walk as one of the 100 best books for teenage readers.

While not the first of King’s novels to be published, The Long Walk was the first novel he wrote, having begun it in 1966–67 during his freshman year at the University of Maine some eight years before his first published novel Carrie was released in 1974. This is one of the infamous Bachman Books, and remains an effective dystopian thriller to this day.  

4. The Dead Zone (1979)

TheDeadZoneJohnny Smith is injured in an accident and remains in a coma for nearly five years. Upon emergence, he exhibits clairvoyance and precognition with limitations, apparently because of a “dead zone,” an area of his brain that suffered permanent damage as the result of his accident.

1979 was a very good year for King, with the release of two of his strongest novels, The Long Walk and this classic political thriller, in which an unwilling psychic sees a terrifying vision involving an unstable politician. This is a powerful novel about rehabilitation and loss.

3. The Shining (1977)

ShiningnovelKing’s third novel turned him into a household name. This is King working at the height of his powers. The setting and characters were influenced by King’s personal experiences, including both his visit to The Stanley Hotel in 1974 and his recovery from alcoholism.

Jack Torrance, an aspiring writer and recovering alcoholic accepts a position as the off-season caretaker of the historic Overlook Hotel in the Colorado Rockies. His family accompanies him on this job, including his young son Danny Torrance, who possesses “the shining”, an array of psychic abilities that allow Danny to see the hotel’s horrific past. Soon, after a winter storm leaves them snowbound, the supernatural forces inhabiting the hotel influence Jack’s sanity, leaving his wife and son in incredible danger.

King is hitting his full stride in this novel, working at 100% of his storytelling powers. Over the next decade, King would write 20 novels, most of which are in the top half of this list.

2. The Stand (1978)

The_Stand_coverAn extremely contagious and lethal strain of influenza, resistant to antibodies and vaccines, is developed as a biological weapon within a secret U.S. Department of Defense laboratory, and is accidentally released and quickly kills 99% of the world’s population. The few survivors, united in groups, establish a new social system and engage in confrontation with each other.  King said he was attempting to create an epic in the spirit of The Lord of the Rings that was set in contemporary America and transforms into a biblical battle between good and evil.  He succeeded. 

This may be THE most EPIC end-of-the-world novel ever!

1. IT. (1986)

itThe story follows seven children as they are terrorized by an evil entity that exploits the fears of its victims to disguise itself while hunting its prey. “It” primarily appears in the form of Pennywise the Dancing Clown to attract its preferred prey of young children.

The novel is told through narratives alternating between two periods and is largely told in the third-person omniscient mode. It deals with themes that eventually became King staples: the power of memory, childhood trauma and its recurrent echoes in adulthood and overcoming evil through mutual trust and sacrifice. It thematically focuses on the loss of childhood innocence and questions the difference between necessity and free will. Grady Hendrix described the book as being “about the fact that some doors only open one way, and that while there’s an exit out of childhood named sex, there’s no door leading the other way that turns adults back into children.”

King has stated that he first conceived the story in 1978, and began writing it in 1981. He finished writing the book in 1985. He also stated that he originally wanted the title character to be a troll like the one in the children’s story “Three Billy Goats Gruff”, but who inhabited the local sewer system rather than just the area beneath one bridge. He also wanted the story to interweave the stories of children and the adults they later become.

A bone-fide classic. Possible the greatest horror novel ever written, and one of the best novels of the past 50 years. 

 

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