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The essential Stephen King: a crash course in the best from America’s horror master

Stephen King has written over 70 books. Here are the ones you can’t miss.

Aja Romano writes about pop culture, media, and ethics. Before joining Vox in 2016, they were a staff reporter at the Daily Dot. A 2019 fellow of the National Critics Institute, they’re considered an authority on fandom, the internet, and the culture wars.

The flourishing Stephen King renaissance we’re currently in the midst of shows little sign of slowing down — as this week’s long-awaited remake of Pet Sematary makes clear. And with this summer’s follow-up to 2017’s It just a few months away, the time has never been better to get acquainted, or reacquainted, with King’s voluminous body of work.

But where to begin? King has, to date, written or collaborated on more than 70 books, including collections of nonfiction essays, and published over 200 short stories. His oeuvre is huge — and it touches on so much more than just horror.

Sure, you’re probably at least somewhat familiar with It and The Shining. But while they might be King’s most famous titles, they’re not the only reasons he is a pop-culture institution.

To help you start brushing up on your King reading, here’s a handy guide, via an overview of more than four decades of King’s stories.

The prerequisite: The Shining (1977)

The best introduction to all things King.

In addition to being the seminal influence on modern haunted house tales, this story of Jack Torrance’s fight against addiction as he succumbs to the demons of the Overlook Hotel is worth reading both for its insights into King’s own fights with alcoholism and other addictions and for its differences from the legendary Stanley Kubrick film version (which King legendarily hates).

Both Jack and his wife Wendy are generally much more sympathetic characters in King’s version of events than Kubrick’s, and King goes into far more depth concerning the hotel’s history. King’s inspiration for the book was his real-life stay in the renowned Stanley Hotel in Colorado; one of his major beefs with Kubrick’s film was that Kubrick was unable to film in the Stanley due to a lack of snow. King also has repeatedly framed Kubrick’s version as misogynistic, arguing that it deprives Wendy of agency and transforms her into a shrill stereotype.

But beyond its connections to and deviations from its famous film adaptation, The Shining is noteworthy as an introduction to King’s multiverse. The titular “shine” is a psychic ability to read minds and sense the future that also — as we find out in numerous King stories throughout the years — may be linked to a kind of multi-dimensional, extra-sensory travel.

The Shining also provides an introduction to one of the major criticisms of King’s work, specifically its use of the “magical Negro” trope regarding its treatment of hotel cook Dick Hallorann. Between this and several other novels that seem to use the trope (notably The Green Mile), King’s problematic black characters often overshadow the complexity of characters like Susannah from The Dark Tower and Mike from It’s Losers Club. But for what it’s worth, Hallorann’s magical ability serves as most readers’ gateway to King’s entire multi-dimensional universe of psychics and dimension-jumpers.

King 101: The must-reads

A chronological study of the King novels that explain his career and cultural impact.

Salem’s Lot (1975)

King has described this lush vampire novel as a racquetball he was bouncing off the 19th-century wall of Bram Stoker’s Dracula. The result of his experiment is a gorgeously crafted tale of a man who returns to his eerie hometown just as a long-dormant nest of vampires takes over. The large and deftly drawn ensemble of characters, as well as the sly nods to vampire tales of the past, combine to make Salem’s Lot, King’s second published novel, one of his most enduring favorites.

The Dead Zone (1979)

This book was King’s first hardcover bestseller — that is, it was the book that signaled his jump into the literary mainstream as a writer. It’s fitting, then, that it’s more of a science-fiction thought experiment than a horror novel. King’s career-long obsession with time jumps and the ethical dilemmas surrounding them — a theme he would explore more definitively 32 years later with 11/22/63 — are on full display here, though the story is not itself about time travel. Instead, King’s protagonist, one of his purest and truest heroes, finds himself afflicted with a mysterious psychic ability to see into the pasts and futures of anyone he touches. His attempt to grapple with the responsibility of such a gift builds to a notably dramatic climax, made famous in David Cronenberg’s 1983 film adaptation.

The Long Walk (1979)

Generally the most highly regarded of the five novels King published under the pen name Richard Bachman, The Long Walk is a young adult dystopia, the first novel King ever began writing, and perhaps the one with the most creative hodgepodge of ideas. Set in an alternate history in which Germany won World War II and has brought fascism to North America, the story involves a grueling modern version of a 19th-century walking contest in which contestants have to obey strict rules or die. The Long Walk is one part Hunger Games, one part Man in the High Castle, but still uniquely Stephen King, with a large ensemble cast, plenty of male bonding and daddy issues, and a hero who fights and perseveres against heavily distorted social norms.

Different Seasons (1982)

This collection of four novellas includes the inspirations for three of the most well-known King film adaptations: The Body, which became 1986’s Stand By Me; Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption, which became 1994’s The Shawshank Redemption; and Apt Pupil, which became perhaps the biggest flop among King films.

It’s Apt Pupil, his attempt to grapple with the horror of the Holocaust, that offers one of King’s grimmest and grossest versions of horror. The story of a young teen who falls into an obsessive, psychosexual relationship with a neighbor who is a Nazi, it’s a descent into madness that ultimately feels exploitative rather than transformational. Still, it’s bracketed by two of the greatest stories King has ever written (though The Body garnered King an accusation of plagiarism from an old friend). The fourth novella, The Breathing Method, is a lighter, more traditional ghost tale, set in a Manhattan club and done in an early-20th-century literary pastiche.

The four stories together offer a good glimpse into King’s range of styles and preoccupations. And if you have a shorter attention span, the novellas offer a basic alternative to King’s epic works while still giving you plenty of story.

Pet Sematary (1983)

Most people probably know Pet Sematary, if they know it at all, through the uneven but mesmerizing 1989 film adaptation — currently receiving a highly anticipated remake. King’s novel, however, is about far more than zombified cats. It’s about the intense and often horrific nature of grief, and the lingering effects of direct brushes with death itself. King weaves a vivid and often brutal character study out of the deep and abiding worry parents have for their children. Pet Sematary is full of a rich subtext and bleak sadness that’s not often associated with King as an author, but in this Monkey’s Paw parable, his love and empathy for the human condition has never been more fully on display.

It (1986)

While It was still being written, King described it to the Washington Post as a story about kids, and specifically an expansion of the themes he began exploring in The Body. “There are times when I think I just ought to burn it,” he said. “But ‘It’ is going to be pretty good. You’ll like it.”

It became one of the most iconic works of 1980s literature, and the famous 1990 miniseries starring Tim Curry introduced millions of viewers to the title character: a shapeshifting entity that cyclically resurfaces every 27 years in the town of Derry, Maine, to lure children to their doom. Its resting state is the form of a terrifying clown named Pennywise, but fundamentally It takes on the form of whatever children fear most. King uses this conceit to explore not only the processes by which we overcome our childhood fears, but the processes by which we don’t. The children at the center of It, a group of pre-teen misfits known as the Losers Club, are all still haunted by their experiences 27 years later when It resurfaces again, reuniting them all in one last battle to save the town and themselves.

Using a wildly ambitious nonlinear structure, King sweeps back and forth through time to explore themes of friendship bonds, coming-of-age, conquering fear, and the secrets of small town America, all while unfolding a chilling tale with an iconic monster at its center. A 1,100-page magnum opus which King has accurately described as “a final exam on horror,” It merges the past with the present and reminds us that childhood fears — along with childhood dreams — remain tucked away inside of us, just waiting to resurface.

Dolores Claiborne (1992)

Published just months after King’s other overtly feminist novel, Gerald’s Game, Dolores Claiborne is a notable stylistic break for the author. An almost stream-of-conscious first-person narrative, it contains essentially no supernatural elements except for one surreal moment in which the heroine, during a solar eclipse, becomes psychically joined with the heroine of Gerald’s Game in a moment in which they can see into each other’s minds. Instead, it recounts the story of an abuse victim pushed to the breaking point, literally, in her own words.

Dolores, while trying to reckon with her past, works for a controlling, vicious boss, an older woman named Vera who throws herself headlong into a Baby Jane-like psychological feud with Dolores. Though the endless dialect-laden monologue makes the book something of a slog, it’s worth it, both for the sheer energy with which these women hate each other and for the sympathy King lends to Dolores and poor, strapped but persistent women like her.

The Dark Tower (1978 – 2012)

The Dark Tower, which King began writing in college, is based on a famous Victorian romance poem by Robert Browning, “Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came.” King conceived the story as an epic fantasy joined with the tropes of the spaghetti Western. He spent decades unfolding the story of exhausted gunslinger Roland Deschain, the last of his kind, and his attempts to track the villainous Man in Black across the vast desert wasteland of a worn-out world.

The titular Dark Tower is gradually revealed to be an interdimensional portal that serves as the nexus of all Stephen King universes. Roland must join with the friends he’s made along the way to restore his own world to life and keep the Man in Black from destroying all worlds. This quest frequently requires Roland to travel between worlds himself; much of the series’ action takes place in modern-day New York City.

King fully explores the interconnectivity of his universes throughout the Dark Tower. He even invokes himself as a significant character, painting himself as a kind of prophetic scribe who must write down all the worlds of the Dark Tower in order to keep their inhabitants alive. The series is nonlinear — the final book fits chronologically between the fourth and the fifth, and the storyline continually jumps back and forth through time and space — and that nonlinear nature ultimately becomes a crucial part of the entire series.

Revival (2014)

One of King’s most critically well-received works, Revival is a classic merger of Lovecraftian Weird fiction with King’s typically epic sweep of landscapes and character ensembles. Once again a story of an intergenerational bond between a man and a boy, Revival follows a jaded faith healer who essentially Dr. Frankensteins the afterlife, and the young man who becomes his assistant. Like all Weird fiction, Revival is full of foreboding and intimations of untold cosmic horrors, but it’s also really fun. The sheer strangeness of the story, along with King’s ability to pull you along through his sprawling literary canvas, makes Revival one of King’s most enjoyable reads — and a sign that King is just as on top of his game as he was four decades ago.

Extra credit: The Stand

The pop-cultural juggernaut every King fan must eventually reckon with.

Alongside It and The Shining, The Stand is probably King’s most popular work. Originally published in a truncated form as a novel in 1978, it was re-released in an “uncut” edition in 1990 that was essentially a new draft, containing an additional 400 pages of material — making The Stand the longest book in King’s catalog, as well as one of the most epic works of apocalyptic fiction around.

The Stand concerns itself with societal collapse after an unrestrained flu epidemic, a byproduct of biological warfare, wipes out most of the Earth’s population. Surprisingly fast-paced given its sprawl, the book introduces one of King’s most famous characters: the mysterious Randall Flagg, a universe-hopping entity who takes many forms and shows up in a variety of King novels, most notably as The Dark Tower’s Man in Black.

In its thorough nature, its gargantuan size and scope, and its attempts to explore the pitfalls of a society forced to rebuild itself in a hurry, The Stand has become one of King’s most notable and culturally inescapable works. Among King’s oeuvre, however, the book has its fair share of critics: The New York Times, waylaid by the book’s massive size, found it lacking in narrative depth and claimed that the book “reproduces at length all the empty excesses that it appears to deplore.” And King does seem content to treat the apocalypse mainly as a thought experiment rather than an opportunity for meaningful narrative development.

Still, if you’re going to call yourself a true King fan, you should probably at least sample The Stand. For one thing, it’s The Stand. For another, it’s influenced basically every post-apocalyptic work that’s come after it. It all adds up to a book made for fans — but one newbies might want to work up to.

Continuing studies in Kingology

There’s more to King’s career than his most celebrated novels. Much, much more.

Danse Macabre (1981)

What it is: a collection of 1981 essays on the horror genre

What it’s about: This book is an advanced collegiate course in horror delivered in essay form — though it’s full of far more youthful anecdotes and colorful metaphors than your average essay collection. King discusses the nature and function of horror from a wide variety of angles and demonstrates a jaw-droppingly thorough knowledge of speculative fiction of all stripes, moving from discussions of modern sci-fi writers to early-20th-century pulps to 18th-century Gothic literature to 1950s beach-movie horror to mid-century radio dramas and long-extinct comics publishers, all with ease.

Why it’s famous: In addition to serving as a fabulous explication of the past two centuries of horror writing, Danse Macabre is a look at the personal experiences that shaped King’s views on horror. It’s also a glimpse of a writer who’s at his peak and knows it.

“The Jaunt”

What it is: a 1981 King sci-fi short story that’s become a cult classic

Where to find it: King’s short story collection Skeleton Crew

What it’s about: A futuristic family prepares to make “the jaunt,” a journey through space involving a complicated time-warp.

Why it’s famous: It’s all about the ending.

“The Man in the Black Suit”

What it is: a 1994 King short story originally published in the New Yorker

Where to find it: King’s short story collection Everything’s Eventual

What it’s about: A young boy meets the devil in the guise of an ordinary gentleman.

Why it’s famous: The winner of the O. Henry Award, a famous literary award for short fiction, as well as the World Fantasy Award, this story arrived at the cultural moment when critical assessment of King was beginning to change, and thus has a currency among the literati that many of King’s other works don’t have. Still, several of the classic Stephen King elements are at work here — the supernatural man in black, the fraught encounter between man and boy, and untold cosmic horror translated into a microfiche catalog of everyday details — told through a run-of-the-mill fishing trip gone horrifically awry.

“Jerusalem’s Lot”

What it is: a prequel short story to Salem’s Lot, set a century earlier and easily read as a standalone

Where to find it: King’s short story collection Night Shift, as well as some newer editions of Salem’s Lot

What it’s about: King’s prequel is a masterful send-up of 19th-century Victorian vampire literature. Written in the epistolary style of Dracula, it tells the tale of an aristocrat unearthing hidden secrets about his family and their connection to the ruined Puritan settlement of Jerusalem’s Lot — a macabre site that turns out to be teeming with vampires.

Why it’s famous: “Jerusalem’s Lot” is a wonderful pastiche that fills in lots of backstory details and makes the decadent, gothic story of Salem’s Lot seem even more decadent and gothic.

Lisey’s Story (2006)

What it is: a hybrid novel of romance and psychological horror

What it’s about: After the death of her husband, a famous writer, a grieving widow has to contend with dark secrets about his life while fending off a stalker fan and attempting to deal with her husband’s demons.

Why it’s famous: For years, King claimed that this little-known story was his favorite of all the books he’s written, though recently he seems to have reassessed his opinion.

On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft (2000)

What it is: a memoir of his life as a writer and the lessons about writing he’s learned

What it’s about: Employing the same mix of autobiographical anecdotes and deep wisdom he used in Danse Macabre, King dives deep into the art and craft of being a writer.

Why it’s famous: Ironically, King’s advice on writing was one of the works that finally garnered him critical acclaim. The book wound up being praised more, and by more critics, than any of his fiction to date. On Writing “should lead [King] to better things,” one critic wrote on the book’s release.

What it helped further, instead, was King’s long-overdue critical reassessment. On Writing now routinely tops lists of the best pieces of writing advice ever written.