Best Stephen King novels, ranked: scariest King books revealed
The master of horror and his scariest novels revealed.
There is something about Stephen King. Whether it’s watching a movie based on his work, or reading one of his the best Stephen King novels, he really is the master of horror.
We at ShortList are huge fans of King. He’s a storyteller like no other, able to conjure up abject terror in his tales, through characters that hook into your mind and never let go. If you haven’t heard it yet, there is a brilliant Stephen King podcast called the Kingcast and each week they bring a notable entertainment figure on to talk about their favourite King movie or book.
And the question they always ask first is: how did you get into Stephen King? Well, for this writer it was a well-thumbed copy of Needful Things handed down to me by my gran - not his best work, but it was enough to keep on reading him some 30 years later. Not many authors have that power but King certainly has.
In celebration of all-things King, here we highlight his scariest books - the ones that send a real chill down your spine when reading them.
The scariest books of all time, revealed.
Additional writing: Paul Cunliffe.
Best Stephen King novels,
1. Pet SemataryBuy now from Amazon
A book so bleak and terrifying that it’s said King himself kept it in a drawer for three years as he didn’t think it should be published. It eventually was and it’s a dark book, about a family that moves into a seemingly idyllic home, only for it to have a pet cemetery nearby where things that are buried there come back to life. It’s unrelenting in its horror but at the heart is the uncompromising, unrelenting feeling that true grief brings.
2. ITBuy now from Amazon
Beep, beep, Ritchie! Ah, who doesn’t love Pennywise the clown? IT made clowns scary for a whole new generation, and through the recent film adaptations, continues to do so. This might be King’s second longest work (the Complete and Uncut version of The Stand is the longest), but it’s chock full of brilliant scares: Georgie and the sewer, the house on Neibolt Street, the bird after Mike, IT talking to Beverley through the drain, etc. Now ... the less said about the orgy scene the better (what were you thinking, Steve?) but there’s no doubt this is one of King’s best, and scariest novels.
3. The ShiningBuy now from Amazon
What a run King had at the start of his career, with Carrie, Salem’s Lot, and then this horror masterpiece. The story of Jack Torrance, slowly losing the plot in the Overlook Hotel, was influenced by King’s own struggle with the booze. No doubt about it, Kubrick’s version really cemented the look of the hotel in people’s minds - and the old woman in the bath in room 217 (shudder) - but this is very much King’s world, and it’s packed full of truly terrifying scenes.
4. Salem’s LotBuy now from Amazon
King’s second novel - and the first one that really reads like King - is a brilliant take on vampire mythology. In a setup that King would use more than once, a writer returns to his home-town only to find that something isn’t quite right. In this case, the residents are being turned into vampires. Most memorable scare? Has to be the recently deceased Danny Glick, appearing at his best friend Mark Petrie’s window, begging to be let in. Don’t do it, Mark! Don’t do it!
5. The StandBuy now from Amazon
M-O-O-N. That spells moon! A fan favourite, The Stand might just be King’s most accomplished work. It tells the story of rival groups of survivors following a devastating pandemic. Some are drawn to the mysterious 108 year-old Mother Abagail in the fields of Nebraska, others to the terrifying dark-man, Randall Flagg, who makes his home in Las Vegas. Pre Covid, the idea of a global pandemic wiping out most of humanity was scary enough, now it seems horribly prescient. Note, a new TV series adaptation, starring Whoopie Goldberg, James Marsden and Amber Heard, is due to land in December, and we can’t wait.
6. MiseryBuy now from Amazon
Inspired by the backlash to his previous book - the YA fantasy, Eyes of the Dragon - Misery gives us one of King’s greatest, and scariest villains. How lucky romance writer Paul Sheldon is, to be rescued after crashing his car by a nurse, and his number one fan, Annie Wilkes. What follows, as he is kept prisoner until he writes the book she wants to read, is a brilliant exercise in tension. But it’s the ‘hobbling’ scene that will give you nightmares. Hint: there’s an axe and a blowtorch involved.
7. The Dark HalfBuy now from Amazon
King loves to write about writers but The Dark Half goes even more meta, as it’s about a writer who is being haunted by his pen name George Stark. It’s loosely based on King’s own time, when he used the pen name Richard Bachman and was eventually found out, but in this book Stark is manifested as a vicious serial killer. It’s a terrifying novel, packed with sinister moments and one of King’s best.
8. CarrieBuy now from Amazon
Carrie is the novel that started it all and is still well worth a read. It’s a powerful tale about abuse and ultimately revenge. Carrie is a teenage girl who is abused by her god-fearing mother and the kids in her class. Things look like they are getting better, though, when she is invited to the prom - and, well, the rest is history. A slim novel that ratchets up the terror from page one and will stay with you long after you’ve finished the book.
9. RevivalBuy now from Amazon
While King’s later work has veered, rather successfully, into crime fiction Revival is a brilliant nod to his horror past. King himself has called it “a nasty, dark piece of work”. And he’s right. The story is about a washed-up rockstar who comes into contact with a pastor who had helped him when he was a child. What ensues may well be light on the gore but boy does it pack a gut punch or two as the story descends into true, maniacal horror.
10. CujoBuy now from Amazon
A rabid dog may sound like the hokiest premise for a novel but in King’s hands it’s a delight. Cujo is a lovely St. Bernhards dog that is bitten by a rabid bat - oh, hello Covid-19 connotations - and, well, terrorises the poor people of Castle Rock as well as its owners who spend most of the novel in a locked car. It’s a book King doesn’t remember writing as he was neck deep in addiction, which makes the story about a thing taken over by force it cannot control all the more scary.