A Beginner's Guide to Stephen King Books
There's never been a better time to be a Stephen King fan. On Monday, Hulu premiered 11/22/63, its JJ Abrams produced, James Franco-starring miniseries adapted from the writer's bestselling JFK assassination novel. It feels like every week brings new casting rumors and tidbits about cinematic adaptations of both The Dark Tower and The Stand, two of King's most beloved works, while countless other books threaten to rise up from the fires of development hell at any moment.
And at age 68, King shows no sign of slowing down; End of Watch, the third book in his hard-boiled detective trilogy, is due out in June. However, the sheer number of books -- 54 novels, six non-fiction works, and countless short stories -- can make a trip to the King section of your favorite local bookstore feel like entering a huge, haunted hotel with no one working the front desk. Where do you even begin?
That's where we step in. Below, we've put together the perfect Stephen King starter pack for anyone looking to explore the writer's work. So, step inside, and don't mind the cobwebs.
For horror fans...The Shining (1977)How many pages is it? 447
What's it about? A scary hotel.
Is it scary? Duh.
Why you'll like it: If you like horror, you've probably already seen Stanley Kubrick's chilling, painterly adaptation of King's novel -- and you may have heard that King has legitimate beef with the adaptation. "In the book, there's an actual arc where you see this guy, Jack Torrance, trying to be good, and little by little he moves over to this place where he's crazy," King told Rolling Stone back in 2014. "And as far as I was concerned, when I saw the movie, Jack was crazy from the first scene." And he has a point! The movie is a terrifying visual achievement, but the book, like most King works, is a deeply empathetic account of human struggle. Unlike the movie, the book is more than an ornate exterior -- there's something frightening in each room of the book's vast interior.
For the movie buff... Different Seasons (1982)How many pages is it? 527
What's it about? Prison, Nazis, dead bodies, and, uh, breathing.
Is it scary? Not especially.
Why you'll like it: Again, you probably know Stephen King from his movies -- or you know his stories from movies you didn't even realize were based on his work. Different Seasons is a collection of four novellas -- one for each season -- and two of them were adapted into two beloved, classic movies: The Shawshank Redemption and Stand By Me. The book also contains the unnerving novella that inspired Bryan Singer's still solid but slightly less acclaimed Apt Pupil. If you've seen any of these films, and tend to like your fiction with a healthy dose of realism, this is the perfect entry point to King's world.
For the aging Twilight fan... 'Salem's Lot (1975)How many pages is it? 439
What's it about? Vampires.
Is it scary? Totally.
Why you'll like it: Part of King's enduring genius is his ability to repackage familiar stories in shiny new wrappers. Salem's Lot is a terrifying, thoughtful re-telling of the Dracula mythos, moving the famous Count from Transylvania to Jerusalem's Lot, Maine. More so than Carrie, this is the first King novel that really feels like a King novel: sprawling, ambitious, a little bit of soap opera, and a lot of bloodshed. (Full disclosure: it was my first King novel and, on most days, still my favorite.)
For the politics junkie... The Dead Zone (1979)How many pages is it? 428
What's it about? A dude with psychic powers.
Is it scary? A little bit.
Why you'll like it: Before King dug into the JFK assassination with 11/22/63, he explored similar territory in this poignant, reflective novel about a man gripped with psychic powers who learns that a Maine politician will go on to cause a nuclear war. Psychic powers are one of King's favorite tropes -- the equally paranoid Firestarter from 1980 explores similar territory -- but what makes this book work is the central relationship between the doomed Johnny Smith (played by Christopher Walken in David Cronenberg's excellent adaptation) and his sweetheart Sarah, one of King's most moving and tragic romances. Also, this book marks the first introduction to Castle Rock, a Maine town that will go on to be the setting of many King stories over the year.
For the literary fiction reader... Roadwork (1981)How many pages is it? 274
What's it about? A cranky loner.
Is it scary? More unsettling.
Why you'll like it: Everyone knows Stephen King is prolific -- but how prolific is he, really? At a certain point, he started releasing books under a pseudonym just to see if they'd succeed without his name on the cover. Instead, he became Richard Bachman, and while it might feel weird to start your King journey with a Bachman book, Roadwork is an ideal appetizer for the genre-averse. The strangest, most beguiling of the Bachman novels, which often have rougher edges and cynical, downbeat endings, Roadwork is like a small town Taxi Driver that, as this excellent Gawker essay points out, belongs on the shelf next to Don Delillo's White Noise. Ripped of its horror trappings, it's comforting to see King's work still retains its existential power.
For the mystery addict... Joyland (2013)How many pages is it? 288
What's it about? Carnies.
Is it scary? More spooky.
Why you'll like it: King released this short novel through the imprint Hard Case Crime, and while the book doesn't have the same detective fiction bona-fides as his ongoing Bill Hodges series, it does have a mystery-driven noir-like dream quality to it. Unlike some of the weightier tomes on this list, the book is light, funny, and nostalgic, but, like all King works, it still has a moral seriousness to it, a curiosity about youth and death that deepens all the fun-house action. It bears the mark of an older, wise writer returning to adolescence with all the tricks he's learned over a long career.
For the animal-lover... Cujo (1981)How many pages is it? 309
What's it about? A not nice dog.
Is it scary? Prepare for nightmares.
Why you'll like it: Cujo is ferocious. While most of King's books maintain a comforting, yarn-like tone amidst all the gross-out moments, tension, and body horror excess, few are as unnerving on a chapter-to-chapter level as Cujo. From the fairy-tale like opening sentence -- "Once upon a time, not so long ago, a monster came to the small town of Castle Rock, Maine" -- the book grabs you like a chew toy and doesn't stop shaking until the last page. It's like the evil inverse of those Sarah McClachlan SPCA commercials. Adopt this book now -- or else.
For the person who likes their car too much... Christine (1981)How many pages is it? 526
What's it about? A not nice car.
Is it scary? Vroom vroom.
Why you'll like it: Like fellow Baby Boomer icon Bruce Springsteen, Stephen King has an intense relationship with cars and the open road. From A Buick 8 explores similar territory and his only film as a director, Maximum Overdrive, imagines a world where cars come to glorious, cheesy life. This leisurely-paced novel concerns a killer car, but the real joys of the book come from soaking up the mundane details of teen boy life -- the shitty jobs, the vulgar insults, the gross afternoon snacks -- that King nails with such ease. Afterwards, check out John Carpenter's underrated film adaptation if you want to experience the book's story in a sleeker, turbocharged model.
For the romance novel fan... Lisey's Story (2006)How many pages is it? 528
What's it about? The wife of an author.
Is it scary? More spine-tingling than terrifying.
Why you'll like it: From beginning of his career, King has shown a consistent interest in exploring the inner-lives of women, something many of his more macho genre peers often neglect. But even King's earlier works might not prepare you for the raw emotional truths of Lisey's Story, the story of a widow reeling from the death of her husband. It contains some of King's most beautiful, insightful writing while still delivering the psychological thrills of his more grisly tales. Don't believe me? King has often listed this one as his own personal favorite.
For the ambitious overachiever... The Stand (1978)How many pages is it? 1,152 (Uncut Version)
What's it about? A really bad flu.
Is it scary? Look at how thick it is!
Why you'll like it? I'm putting this on the list with a slight caveat: The Stand probably works best if you have at least one or two shorter King novels under your belt. If you're thinking about getting into an author, it's probably not the best idea to kick off things with a work this physically imposing -- trust me, it will hurt your wrist if you hold it in one hand on your morning commute. It's the same reason you don't see It or Under The Dome or The Dark Tower on here. But, if you are adventurous, there's obviously a lot to love here. Often picked as the best King book by aficionados, it's a hulking achievement that reads like a proto-prestige HBO TV series. King's fundamental battle between good and evil has never had a more epic stage.
For the completist and stickler for chronology... Carrie (1974)How many pages is it? 199
What's it about? A bad prom.
Is it scary? GAH!
Why you'll like it: If you like to start from the beginning with an author, this is the only place to do it: Carrie is the book that made King a star and launched his career. But, at least for me, I don't think it's the best place to start. For one thing, the movie version directed by Brian De Palma is one of the rare cases where the film actually is better, and the book itself relies too much on documentary-like devices like police reports and newspaper clippings to hold you under its spell in the same way King's later work does. Still, it's an impressive debut, but King quickly found more engrossing -- and terrifying -- ways to tell a story.
For the professorial type... Danse Macabre (1981)How many pages is it? 400
What's it about? The history of horror.
Is it scary? Some creepy citations throughout.
Why you'll like it: If you follow King on Twitter, read any of his interviews, or enjoyed his old columns for Entertainment Weekly, you know he has eclectic taste. Just last week, he was going to bat for Garth Risk Hallberg's 1,000 page literary novel City on Fire and praising Natalie Portman's widely reviled western Jane Got a Gun. He likes what he likes, and, there's no better record of King's taste than this deeply personal, idiosyncratic history of the horror genre as seen in movies, television, radio, and literature. It's cheaper than a college course and a hell of a lot more fun.
For the aspiring novelist... On Writing (2000)How many pages is it? 291
What's it about? It's called On Writing, so….
Is it scary? Yeah, it's scary… scary good!
Why you'll like it: Even if you don't wanna pen your own novel, King's combination of an instructional manual and personal memoir is essential reading for anyone interested in the creative process. Unsurprisingly, King is a disciplined thinker, and his no-nonsense tips are actually helpful: "Avoid adverbs," "Don't use passive voice," and "Read, read, read." As for that last one, well, this list should give you a few good ideas of where to start.
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