As an avid SK fan, I often read random articles that are related to him and his work. I recently read the Rolling Stone interview he gave where he touted his upcoming book “Revival,” and highlighted his personal favorite work, “Lisey’s Story.” He said:
That one felt like an important book to me because it was about marriage, and I’d never written about that. I wanted to talk about two things: One is the secret world that people build inside a marriage, and the other was that even in that intimate world, there’s still things that we don’t know about each other.
Rolling Stone followed up this “Revival” marketing tour article by a reader-survey about which of SK’s books were their favorite. They compiled the results into a “10 Best Stephen King Books.”
Unfortunately, their list was wrong. Dead wrong.
While “Revival” hasn’t come out yet, and it could be the BEST STEPHEN KING NOVEL EVER, it’s a pretty hard sell for a dyed-in-the-wool fan like myself. As for the Rolling Stone crowd, “The Stand” might be the number one book for people who basically saw the movie one time, but it’s not the best of his books by far. So, in my righteous rage, I decided to create a Top 10 list that is factually correct.
How These Scores Were Tabulated
When deciding which were the best of SK’s books, I took 5 things into consideration:
- Pacing – It must be appropriate to the style of writing. Not too fast, not too slow.
- Character – Realistic, human (or inhuman as the case may be), and evokes empathy.
- Plot – Engaging, surprising, and satisfying in the end.
- Fear Factor – The book must literally scare a person, or put creepy thoughts into their minds when they go to turn out the lights.
- The Gotta – It’s the thing that makes you want to read a book over and over, the haunting quality of a book’s images, ideas, and characters.
In addition, I gave him points on a 5-point scale, where 0 means the element was so poor as to be non-existent, and 5 meaning that only God himself could have done a better job.
Top 10 Best Stephen King Books of All Time
The last of the Bachman Books, this novel was the last written before Bachman was outed as Stephen King. It tells the story of Billy Halleck, a fat, self-centered lawyer who accidentally kills a gypsy man. He is cursed with one word: “Thinner.” He loses weight, which is all good, until he begins to emaciate. Helpless, he must track down the gypsy band that cursed him and pay the ultimate price for his lack of moral integrity.
Fear Factor: 4
Themes: Gluttony, revenge, infidelity, irony.
Overall: (18/25) Although it’s not the best work of SK’s fiction, it has a staying quality that is very powerful. The characters are easily forgettable, but the ending is phenomenal and haunting. It really is like a 300-page joke with a one word punchline. And, I promise that it kills.
9. The Long Walk
Written as a Bachman Book, this was the first novel that SK ever finished, almost 8 years before Carrie was written. It is about a young boy who participates in a yearly competition – to walk down the East Coast. It’s a tough competition, and the stakes are high. The winner gets wealth and fame while the loser gets severely punished. It is not overtly frightening, but perhaps the most poignant (and overlooked) of SK’s works.
Fear Factor: 3
Themes: Brotherhood, patriotism, coming-of-age.
Overall: (19/25) I love this book, because I became so personally attached to the adolescent characters. They are each so unique, and the contest is truly so horrible in scope. It also deals with the concept of growing up and death in a single breath. An amazing story that could be interpreted as a metaphor for war.
8. The Talisman
This book was written in tandem with Peter Straub, and is my favorite of SK’s books. It tells the story of Jack Sawyer, a boy whose mother is dying of cancer. He comes to realize that there is a parallel universe where she is a queen and he may have an opportunity to save her life. This sends him on a journey filled with magic, adventure, and an evil villain, Morgan of Orris, who is trying to kill him in both worlds.
Fear Factor: 3
Themes: Adventure, friendship, religion, cancer, messianic heroism, parallel dimensions.
Overall: (20/25) My favorite SK book of all time, but not much real frightening stuff in it. True, there are demon goats, werewolves, and insane dudes with electric keys, but there are also people who can fly and two-headed parrots. It is a fantastic read for an early adventurer. Plus, this has one of the most satisfying endings of any Stephen King novel of all time. MUST READ.
You’ve all seen the movie, so there’s no need to explain this one. Suffice it to say, Annie Wilkes is one of the most truly frightening villains in any King novel because she doesn’t think she’s a villain. In her addled mind, poor Paul Sheldon is just a wayward writer who needs a little TLC from his biggest fan to put him back on the right track. Her methods – breaking his legs, cauterizing and feeding him his thumb – are all just necessary means to an end.
Fear Factor: 5
Themes: Drug abuse and recovery, fandom, fame, insanity, writing.
Overall: (21/25) I think this is one of the more autobiographical books that SK has written, mainly because of his personal trials with alcohol and cocaine abuse. What I truly love about this book is that the writer is forced into recovery and ends up writing his best work through fear. Also, some amazingly grotesque riding-lawn-mower-related homicide.
6. The Shining
Optimistic writer Jack Torrence takes his little family for a winter siesta in the Colorado mountains. Little does he know that he’s walking into a murderfest where he’ll face man-eating hedges, ghosts that pour drinks, and a croquet mallet from Hell. Perhaps one of the scariest novels SK has written, it is based on the real life Stanley Hotel in Estes Park, where SK was sequestered one winter and had his very own ghost experiences.
Fear Factor: 5
Themes: Psychic ability, alcoholism, writing.
Overall: (21.5/25) Definitely towards the top of the “Scary List,” this book has some scenes that really stick with you, such as the lady in the bathtub and Jack holding a bloody croquet mallet. Still, some of the scenes are slow, and a large portion of the middle section is totally forgettable. But, you’ll be so impressed by the end that it doesn’t even matter.
5. Needful Things
Made into a basically terrible movie in 1993, it is actually one of the best-plotted books that SK has ever written. Not only does it stray from the Awesome Book-Boring Middle Part-Awesome Ending structure that SK’s work was so plagued by in his earlier writing, but the awful little side stories all connect together and create a really satisfying ending. Also, Mr. Gaunt is SUPER-CREEPY and reminds the reader a lot of Randall Flagg (Dark Tower, The Stand, Eyes of the Dragon).
Fear Factor: 4
Themes: Lust, greed, arthritis.
Overall: (22/25) Although most of the characters are completely unmemorable, some of the scenes will stick with you. Specifically, no one but SK knows how to write a real-as-spit Elvis scene or show how some dirty sheets can lead to a mass explosion. So fun and fast to read!
4. Pet Sematary
Louis Creed moves to a small Maine town with his wife, daughter, son and their cat Church. When the cat meets an untimely end, a neighbor man shows Louis a secret burial ground used by the ancient Micmac indians to bring dead things back to life. In a horrible turn, Louis’s son, Gage is hit by a truck and Louis can’t help but use the cemetary’s power to ease the loss. What happens then? A lot of blood.
Fear Factor: 5
Themes: Regret, magic, death, zombies.
Overall (23/25): This book has fear and compulsion to spare. Not only are you unable to put it down, you’re a little afraid of cats forever. It also includes some of the most haunting scenes and images that SK has ever written, including the final few pages which still come back into my mind every time I cross the phrase “gravelly voice.”
3. The Stand
Stephen King’s most notable book, and the one that Rolling Stone fans call his “best,” this novel is over 1150 pages, making it the longest novel he ever published. Of “The Stand,” King said, “I had wanted to write a fantasy epic like The Lord of the Rings, only with an American setting. Only instead of a hobbit, my hero was a Texan named Stu Redman, and instead of a Dark Lord, my villain was a ruthless drifter and supernatural madman named Randall Flagg. The land of Mordor (‘where the shadows lie,’ according to Tolkien) was played by Las Vegas.”
Fear Factor: 4
Themes: Biochemical warfare, survival, spiritual war, destiny.
Overall: (23.5/25) Utilizing the fear of contagion in the mid-80s was a huge boon for this book. Captain Tripps was the AIDS of the SK pantheon, and his portrayal of the infection and resulting collapse of society is impressive. Fast-paced, there are a few spots where the story lags, but fantastic characters like Randall Flagg, Mother Abigail, and lovable Tom “Moon” Cullen make it all worthwhile.
This entry is not actually a novel, but that fact must be overlooked in light of its technical and fictional prowess. From the boy-next-door psychosis of “Apt Pupil” to the adventuring lads of “The Body,” SK knows perfectly encapsulates the fears and failings of attempting to grow up and be a man. “Shawshank” is in a category by itself. Not horror, but a wonderful story of how one innocent man deals with his wrongful incarceration by using his wits. If it wasn’t for the lame duck addition of “Breathing Method,” this would be the clear winner of the best book SK has ever written.
Fear Factor: 5
Themes: Coming-of-age, regret, death, hope, redemption, fear, war, mentorship.
Overall: (24/25) These four novellas represent the best writing that SK has ever done, and I will stand by that fact to my grave. Three of the four have been made into movies: “Stand By Me,” “Shawshank Redemption,” and “The Apt Pupil,” with “Shawshank” earning 7 Academy Award nominations alone. Each story embodies a different season, bringing horror, hope, and reflection in a rainbow of ways. I read this collection at least once a year, just to be inspired.
Making it regularly into the American Library Association’s (ALA) list of the “Top 100 Banned/Challenged Books,” there is no better YA Horror book than Carrie. Talk about the worst things about being a teen: going through puberty, having an overbearing mother, and accidentally killing everyone at your prom. OOPs. At 272 pages, it’s a short, fast, and creepy tale about how awful kids (and parents) can really be.
Fear Factor: 5
Themes: Adolescence, ESP, teenagers, revenge.
Overall: (25/25) The truth is, this is the book that started it all, and it was a good one. It’s a short, fast-paced read that activates almost everyone’s deepest fears: What if I’m different? What if they’re all talking about me? What if I can’t ever be a normal person? Also, the mother is a phenomenal villain, using her own traumatic psychosis as a springboard for bringing about her own end.
Although this isn’t a fiction book and can’t be categorized by traits such as “Fear Factor,” it would be a travesty not to include it as one of the finest books that SK has ever written. Although it is clearly a book written for writers, it is also a fantastic look into the life and mind of one of the most influential novelists of this generation. It’s replete with wisdom like:
“Say what you see, then get on with your story.”
“Sometimes you have to go on when you don’t feel like it, and sometimes you’re doing good work when it feels like all you’re doing is shoveling shit from a sitting position.”
“Sooner or later, every story comes out somewhere.”
“Some people don’t want to hear the truth, but that’s not the problem. The only real problem is a writer that won’t shoot straight.”
“When you write a story, you are telling yourself the story. When you rewrite, you are taking out all the things that are not the story.”
Willow Dawn Becker is an author, voice personality, marketing maven, and entrepreneur. She co-founded Weird Little Worlds Press in 2020 despite a raging pandemic and huge personal losses. Her work can be found at Black Fox Literary Magazine and Space and Time Magazine. She lives in Utah with her family and pug-huahua, Indiana Bones.