One doesn’t write over forty novels without falling into the trap of repeating oneself, but one will also inevitably develop as a writer over such a long course of putting pen to paper.
Stephen King’s early books led him to be typecast as a horror writer, but his interests have broadened and matured over the years, and of late he has given us thoughtful if fantastic grownup works such as 11/22/63 and Hearts In Atlantis. Despite his maturity, horror remains an element in nearly all of his fiction, and he handles it as deftly as any other writer in the genre; without it, he would have been every bit as skillful a storyteller, but he might not have flown up the bestseller’s lists so fast. Fear, as King has noted, is the oldest emotion, even a necessary and healthy one, agreeing with John Lennon that all you need is love...so long as you keep the alligators in your mind fed.
This is a list of King’s top ten horror novels, and in considering it I had to cast aside certain novels which I would include if this were merely a top ten list of all of King’s books. For instance, The Stand, which is certainly one of his most popular and greatest novels, is more of an adventure-epic tapestry with horror threads woven in than a pure horror novel, and has no place on this list, though on a top-ten-best-ever would be in the top three.On the other hand, no one would call Hearts In Atlantis a horror novel, but the horror element in that book’s opening novella is so powerful (and the story itself such a superior piece of writing) that I could not help but include it. All of King’s novels are exemplars of first-rate story-telling, entertaining and frequently insightful, but these are the horrormeister’s most frightening tales of all, brimming buckets of raw bloody flesh for you to throw to the alligators.
10. The Shining. The classic King novel, probably the one people most commonly associate with King, is a terrifying tale of a family trapped in a haunted hotel. It’s a good read, but it bottoms out this particular list for one reason: the movie by Stanley Kubrick, so different in tone and texture from the novel, is, in my opinion, the superior version of the story, more inventive, suggestive, and chilling than the book. This is the only case where a film of a King novel is actually better than the book, rather than a merely good adaptation or, more commonly, a terrible one; Stephen King himself was disappointed in Kubrick’s film, but over time he seems to have come to appreciate Kubrick’s icy interpretation of his story.
9. The Mist. A novella from Skeleton Crew, this is the purest distillation of the essence of King’s horror. Here’s the recipe: take a group of average people, trap them within a confined space, introduce incomprehensible and hostile forces, stir well, and let stew in its own juices until the worst show their true colors and the best have their courage tested. Frank Darabont’s film version was actually bleaker than King’s story, but also more conclusive; as befits its genre, the novella ends without resolution, and is much more effective for it.
8. Cell. These days when the Zombie Apocalypse is supposedly just around the corner, one would expect Stephen King to give us his take on the walking dead, and this intense novel starts out with the ultimate cloudburst of horror: without warning, people become raving, murderous animals, their brains fried by a mysterious signal sent via cell phone. The metaphor is blunt, but King keeps a sharp focus on his unaffected main character, whose own focus on reaching and saving his son carries us along.
7. Cujo. I almost didn’t include this half-forgotten novel about a rabid St. Bernard on the grounds that it lacked a supernatural element, but looking back on it I remember it being that much more effective for being bound to realism. Horror comes out of nowhere, this book says, for no good reason, and in ways that seem personal, horror can change our lives forever—if we survive it, and sometimes, as this book reminds us, the ones we need most to survive during those macabre travails, don’t.
6. From a Buick 8. Horror can be realistic, or it can be supernatural, but not predictable. This story of a Pennsylvania police troop with an alien teleportation device disguised as a Buick 8 in their back shed presents the uncanny as something to be studied but never comprehended, and sudden violence as something which may overwhelm us but which it may be more dangerous for us to read meaning into. This is one of King’s subtlest and most insightful books about American society post-9/11, even though it’s in no way related to the attacks.
5. Desperation. A tour-de-force of horror that kicks off without delay, plunging reader and characters into a desert-dry nightmare where the evil entity at its core shifts without warning from body to body and ends with an awful lesson hammered into the youngest protagonist’s mind: God is cruel. Doubling up the sheer audacity of it all is the fact that this novel has a companion by King’s pseudonym, Richard Bachman, titled The Regulators, which takes funhouse-mirror-images of the same characters and plunges them into a different nightmare in a different setting.
4. Low Men In Yellow Coats. If I were compiling a list of the top ten works out of all of Stephen King’s oeuvre, this novella from Hearts In Atlantis would rank number one. It’s the best piece of writing King’s ever done, a lucid examination of a boy’s relationship with his abusive mother and an elderly friend; what’s more, when the supernatural elements are brought into play late in the story, King handles them with a freshness and vividness which lifts them out of the self-referential purpose of the scene and gives them a terrible life of their own. The story asks what may be the most terrifying question I’ve ever contemplated: are there in fact any grownups, or at heart is the world just a big game played by delusional children?
3. ‘Salem’s Lot. Carrie, King’s runaway best-selling first novel, was a good first book, but he didn’t really hit the ground running until his second, this classic tale of vampires infesting a small town in Maine. At one point in his career, King called this his favorite among his own books, and whether that is still true or not, it nevertheless deserves such affection. Infamously, this novel was obliquely censored at the time by the editor; King was forced to replace a character’s death by hundreds of squirming rats with a more prosaic demise by a booby-trap of knives. It was, I believe, the last time King did not get his way in his own work.
2. Pet Sematary. Far and away King’s most disturbing, gut-wrenching horror fiction, preying upon our fears of death and our obsessions with tragic fate. Most of all, the story is about an aching inability to deal with grief, and the anti-life consequences of that inability. The film version had its moments but ultimately suffered from the fact that the final act, when enacted bluntly on a screen, was too absurd to really terrify. On the page, though, playing out in the reader’s mind, the horror is almost too dreadful to bear. I used to re-read this particular book a lot when I was younger; since I’ve become a father, I haven’t touched it, for fear it might hit me too close to where I live. That’s the mark of a great writer.
1. It. If Stephen King’s real magnum opus is the multi-novel series The Dark Tower, which has plenty of horrific stuff but isn’t itself straightforward horror, then this massive novel about a shape-shifting monster in the sewers under a small city in Maine is King’s horror magnum opus in a single volume. At the time King tried to pack everything he knew and loved about horror into this book, and he succeeded in doing so, but he also succeeded in so much more. The book’s central theme is imagination, its power in the lives of children and its relative paucity in adults; the theme is even implicit in the headsman’s-axe-chop-syllable of the title—consider how the very word “it” suggests both a lack of imagination in the speaker and an invitation for the listener to fill such a vague noun up with all manner of fearsome ideas. What’s more, King examines the imagination’s relationship with memory, and in doing so deploys a striking narrative structure which shifts back and forth in time and consciousness, until the brilliant conclusion which brings the two time streams together. There’s even a moment, late in the book, which will either offend you or illustrate for you the true power of what real magic could only be like. The characters, as in most of King’s fiction, are types, but they are deeply felt; you can tell King really loves his “Loser’s Club,” both as children and as adults, since they love each other so much, and the reader loves them too. The hard-won but bittersweet ending always makes me cry. There has been no novel so influential on my own fiction-writing as It, and even though I’m perfectly willing to concede there are many greater, better-written, worthier novels out there, this one is my absolute favorite. In his dedication, in It, to his children, King wrote, “Kids, fiction is the truth inside the lie.” Those words have been engraved on my heart ever since...and sometimes the implication scares me.