It may not be fashionable to say it, but Stephen King is one of the most gifted and prolific American writers in history. A vast majority of his many, many books are addictive page-turners, and his distinctive style makes a King passage immediately identifiable.
We’re about to embark on a Stephen King renaissance, beginning with this fall’s It remake and Spike’s The Mist, a TV series based on the New England horror author’s short story. Many more King books have adaptations in the works, so many horror fans might be wondering where to start among his hundreds of stories.
You’ve probably heard of King’s most famous novels, published in the late 1970s and mid-80s. That’s the “haunted noun” era, including Christine the haunted car, Cujo the crazed dog, Pet Sematary, the haunted, uh, cemetery, and Carrie, the bloody girl at prom. Those who like long fantasy series may be more familiar with The Stand, King’s religious, post-apocalyptic tome about cults, or Under the Dome, which was adapted into a television show recently by comics writer Brian K Vaughan. It and The Dark Tower delve deep into King’s quasi-religious, trippy vision of our universe, and probably shouldn’t be read first. But hold up. Before we get to the book list, there’s a few things you should know about Stephen King.
He’s Obsessed With Coming of Age Tales
The only thing more common in Stephen King novels than haunted objects is a young male protagonist who’s just about to learn about sex. The 1986 film Stand by Me, based on King’s novella The Body, includes a line that really sums up King’s oeuvre: “We talked into the night. The kind of talk seemed important until you discover girls.”
The novels that follow a group of rag-tag pre-adolescents against a supernatural horror include It, Dreamcatcher, The Body, The Long Walk, and Joyland, and there’s always a sense that King has regressed into his own teen self in order to write the dialogue. These stories are often told by an adult narrator reflecting on the way kids cope with dark forces.
Sexual Depravity Often Pops Up Without Warning
Since the beginning of his writing career, King has used non-heteronormative sex for shock value in his novels. While his protagonists typically have sex with one other person, often for comfort during a novel’s quiet moments halfway through the plot, villains are sexually aggressive.
1974’s Carrie finds horror in a young girl unprepared for her body’s changes during puberty. Her mother calls her budding breasts “dirty pillows” in an infamous and often-quoted line. The evil Overlook Hotel in The Shining seduces Jack Torrance, in part, by bombarding him with images of naked women who aren’t his wife. The film, which King hated, brings to life a throwaway line about a gay butler and hotel guest by confronting Jack’s wife with them mid-fellatio.
Gay sex is used to code a character as having their core deteriorated by whatever dark force is preying on humans in the novel. In The Stand, a young psychopath who goes by The Kid demands that Trashcan Man jerks him off in bed. In order to get him to finish the job, The Kid sticks the barrel of his gun up Trashcan Man’s ass, which unexpectedly excites him. The scene is played purely for horror, and we’re meant to understand that these two characters are slipping further from humanity, and closer to whatever evil Randall Flagg is peddling.
He’s Touch and Go With Women
King has written some of horror’s greatest and most terrifying female characters, including Carrie and her mother, Misery’s Annie Wilkes, Firestarter’s Charlie McGee, Dolores Claiborne, Jessie in Gerald’s Game, the titular Rose in Rose Madder, and Lisey Landon in Lisey’s Story, who is supposedly based on his wife, Tabitha King. These women have agency, and their choices affect the plot, whether they’re made in relation to male characters’ actions or not. They are both subjects and objects of horror scenarios.
However, women’s sexual desire is often played as uncomfortable for male characters, which could admittedly be King’s attempt to satirize the way our society works. In Carrie, all the women around the titular hero are so concerned with purifying and cataloging their female bodies that they’ve become cruel to each other. Misery’s Annie Wilkes is a sad, unmarried woman who’s become obsessed with a fictional heroine. Jessie and Rose are victimized by men, though King focuses his stories on their fight to escape.
If his women desire men the way his men desire women — with fleeting sexual feelings, fantasies, and acts of aggression — they’re demonized. Although most of King’s male narrators regularly make sexual observations about the women around them, the women in his stories are either committed to one dude or their sexual acts are strange, as in “Dedication,” a short story in King’s Nightmares and Dreamscapes. There, a maid begins licking the semen from a hotel guest’s bed in order to improve her changes of a successful pregnancy.
His Magical Interconnected Worlds
In It, King has his protagonists come in contact with Maturin, a turtle god locked in perpetual battle against “It,” the dark force threatening King’s fictional earth, which he calls Keystone Earth. The world Maturin inhabits, or All-World, is later expanded and explored in the Dark Tower series, where King tells us that many of his more mysterious villains originate from this place. The Stand’s Randall Flagg and The Dark Tower’s Roland are examples.
The mainstream universe, similar but not identical to our Keystone Earth, is where most of King’s novels take place, in Maine cities, which don’t exist on Keystone Earth, including Jerusalem’s Lot, Castle Rock, and Derry. Existence, according to King, is split between celestial creatures who subscribe to either Higher Random thought or Higher Purpose. Creatures like “It” represent Higher Random, or chaotic evil, and creatures like Maturin represent Higher Purpose, or lawful goodness.
Across many of King’s novels, he makes reference to “ka,” which is a word in High Speech used by both Random and Purposeful entities. Ka refers to the changing life force which powers every living being in existence, and it is neither good nor evil. “Ka” is a central theme in The Dark Tower, but it also appears quickly in many other King novels, including Hearts in Atlantis, Desperation, It, Dreamcatcher, Duma Key, The Stand, The Tommyknockers, Rose Madder, and Insomnia.
So Which Books Do I Read, and in What Order?
The definitive Stephen King reading list depends on what sort of genre you prefer. Using broad strokes, King’s novels and short stories can be split into quick, scary beach reads, dark, magical realism and interconnected lore, Bachman books (written under King’s pen name Richard Bachman), and books to read before watching a film or TV adaptation. Here’s how we’ve separated them.
The best of his simple, quick scares: Firestarter, Cujo, Pet Sematary, Thinner, Needful Things, Gerald’s Game, The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon, Cell, Dreamcatcher, Joyland, The Colorado Kid
The best of his multiverse: It, The Stand, The Dark Tower series
The best of the Bachman books: The Long Walk, Thinner, The Regulators
The best of the books made into TV or movies: The Body (Stand by Me), The Green Mile, Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption (The Shawshank Redemption), The Shining, The Mist, Under the Dome, It, 11/22/63, Misery, Salem’s Lot
Books worth skipping or reading the synopses: Rage, The Dead Zone, Roadwork, The Eyes of the Dragon, The Tommyknockers, The Dark Half, Insomnia, anything published after 2013 (unless you’re a completionist)