It’s no secret that Stephen King is one of the masters of the horror genre. The author has written well over 90 books in his lengthy career as an author, and was happy to be typecast as a horror writer from his early days sending drafts of his first books to publishing houses.
In our humble opinion, the scariest Stephen King book has to be IT. The creepy shapeshifting clown, the incessant stalking of the young characters, and the brutal slayings all all wrapped up in the masterful storytelling of King that will leave you crossing the street to avoid storm drains.
The novel ‘Salems Lot is what catapulted Stephen King into the horror genre, a title of which he has happily taken on his shoulders and produced some of the best, scariest literary works celebrated the world over (many of which are also turned into blockbuster films).
The 10 Scariest, Best Stephen King Books You Have To Read
Enough of the introduction. Let’s get into the specific literature published by both Stephen King and his the works under his pen name, author Richard Bachman. You won’t want to read these books at night…
1. Thinner – Stephen King/Richard Bachman – 1984
Thinner is the last book to be published under Stephen’s pen name. Whether or not he chose to retire Mr.Bachman after releasing Thinner due to its critical reception, or because the pen name was simply outed is still heavily contested amongst horror circles, but one thing is for sure… The scare factor within Thinner takes it time to creep up on the reader, and once it has its grips will take you on a rollercoaster ride of fear.
The book is about Billy Halleck, an out of shape, obese lawyer fighting a lawsuit in which he’s charged with manslaughter. The killed party in question is an old gypsy woman, who’s family curse Billy in court by muttering the words ‘Thinner’. What an introduction! As you can probably tell, the books rapidly takes a dark turn and relentlessly sends the protagonist into a downward spiral of psychological torment and incessant fear.
The way that Thinner is written really highlights the versatility of Stephen King as a writer, and reminds readers why he is arguably the best horror writer of his generation.
2. Misery – Stephen King – 1987
As with many of the novels in this list, you may have already seen the 1990 film with Kathy Bates, and been truly horrified by the chaos that the protagonist and subjected to. But, as with most of Stephen King’s books, the true horror lies in the written word. Rarely can film adaptations ever compete with the sheer lengths that Stephen King goes to in drawing the constant reader in, and springing fantastic scares when you least expect it.
The premise of Misery is simple, and has spawned many copies since it was released. It arguably is one of the finest examples of a book that has an impending sense of dread, much like when watching a scary film waiting for the inevitable jump scare.
The book follows Paul Sheldon, a famous author who upon crashing his car is rescued by Annie Wilkes, a nurse who resides out in the middle of nowhere (unlucky for Paul to say the least).
Annie subjects Paul to her ramblings, her unwavering love for him and the characters he creates, all the while creating an atmosphere on the page that is both gripping and terrifying.
We won’t say too much about this book as, if you’ve not seen the film or read it before, there are multiple occasions that serve to shock, and we implore you to seek these occasions in the literary form.
3. The Shining – Stephen King – 1977
Everyone has seen the famous ‘Here’s Johnny!’ scene, and may have already seen the film…. but the book really takes the scares to the next level. Stanley Kubrick did a fantastic job of making the words of The Shining leap of the page and into our nightmares, but there was something missing. Something that cannot be described unless you read the book at night…
Often alluded to as an ode to Stephen King’s anxiety related to being a recovering alcoholic (and the feelings of isolation and terror that came with it), The Shining takes place in the ominous Overlook Hotel, a secluded, sprawling building that was once a booming paradise for the rich and famous. The Overlook is now in its winter season, requiring the help of Jack Torrance and his family, who move into the hotel whilst Jack is a caretaker for the season.
Extreme isolation aside, the novel immediately turns up the scary-factor with mind reading children, cursed hallways and a suspect set of twins… We won’t ruin this for you, just to be sure to get the book and we guarantee you’ll be too scared to put it down.
4. Cujo – Stephen King – 1981
Cujo is another Stephen King book that opened up a whole new arena of horror, by being based in largely the same place for the entire novel.
The novel is based on Cujo, a giant St.Bernard dog who is the best of Brett Camber, who witnesses Cujo get bitten by rabid rabbits when exploring a rabbit hole. One happens next is where the true horror begins…
Cujo goes on a rampage across the whole town, with the novel culminating in a frightening show down with a mother, her son, and the once sweet (now terrifying) rabid beast. It’s very hard to pinpoint why this novel is scary, with many readers often reporting that Cujo is the scariest Stephen King novel of all time. We’ll leave that one up to you, but it definitely makes the top 5 of this list.
5. IT – Stephen King – 1986
The introduction to this guide has already covered this novel, so let’s leave you with this terrifying snippet of what we consider to be the scariest Stephen King novel of all time:
“Want your boat, Georgie?’ Pennywise asked. ‘I only repeat myself because you really do not seem that eager.’ He held it up, smiling. He was wearing a baggy silk suit with great big orange buttons. A bright tie, electric-blue, flopped down his front, and on his hands were big white gloves, like the kind Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck always wore.
Yes, sure,’ George said, looking into the stormdrain.
And a balloon? I’ve got red and green and yellow and blue…’
Do they float?’
Float?’ The clown’s grin widened. ‘Oh yes, indeed they do. They float! And there’s cotton candy…’
Time to reach for that IT novel like Georgie reached for the boat…
6. Pet Sematary – Stephen King – 1983
No, we didn’t type the above title wrong. Pet Sematary is so named because of how the children of the town decided to name their cemetery, a place to bury pats with seemingly magical results.
The novel centres around Louis Creed, a doctor who has to move from the city to Maine, taking his family with him. Louis notes the road outside of their new house, and how trucks tend to emerge from a corner at frightening speeds, and worries about his children’s beloved pet. And, with this, we don’t want to ruin the novel and it’s very clear about the tangent this novel takes.
Be sure to also check out the trailer for the upcoming Pet Sematary film, which appears to be incredibly true to the novel. The book is in fact based on King’s similar experiences of living opposite a busy road that claimed the lives of multiple family pets when he was working at the University of Maine as a writer in residence. This book is gripping, truly scary, and not one you will want to put down.
7. ‘Salem’s Lot – Stephen King – 1975
‘Salems’s Lot truly revitalised the vampire horror sub genre upon its release. One of the early Stephen King books that solidified his status as one of the best (if not the best) horror writers of his generation, the novel gripped readers across the globe with a vampire tale that hadn’t terrified audiences since the release of Dracula.
The book takes place in a small town in Maine, as most of Stephen King’s books often do. The story revolves around Ben Mears, a novelist who returns to the town of Jerusalem’s Lot after a 25 year hiatus, to find that the town has changed, and not for the better.
At the same time, a mysterious business owner has purchased the Marston House, a mythical residence which the townsfolk claim is haunted. And, things quickly spiral out of control. There will be no spoilers here, this vampire tale is truly one for the ages and one we highly recommend if you like to scare yourself reading by candlelight!
8. Carrie – Stephen King – 1974
Carrie is the first novel by Stephen King, and arguably one of his scariest. An iconic tale of revenge mixed with frights and surprises, the book centres around Carrie White, a girl in high school who is mercilessly bullied and picked on due to be an outcast. The book sets up an incredible part one by outlining the degrees of torment of suffering which Carrie undergoes, making the following parts all the more satisfying.
Carrie discovers she has telekinetic powers, and uses said powers to dish out revenge to her tormentors. Whether you’ve seen the films or read the book, most people know how this story ends as Carrie is such an iconic tale. If you don’t know, we won’t ruin it for you.
Strap in and be prepared to be taken along a ride that merges storytelling in the traditional sense alongside newspaper clippings and magazine articles to even further immerse the reader into the terrifying tale.
9. The Dark Half – Stephen King – 1989
The Dark Half was a response by King for the outing of his pen name Richard Bachman, of who he wrote under to create a much more real type of horror book, such as those covered in this list. Bachman allowed King to explore darker realms, with The Dark Half seeing King return to his more well-known style of writing, much to the acclaim of critics and fans alike.
The Dark Half revolves around Thad Beaumont, a recovering alcoholic author residing in Ludlow, Maine (notice any parallels to King already?). Thad writes under the pen name of ‘George Stark’ when, upon being outed, decides to stage a mock burial with his wife to ensure that the idea of George Stark is dead and buried. However, George emerges from the grave as a very real entity, which is when the fun begins…
The Dark Half is a beautiful reaction to the Bachman outing by King, and may not be the scariest book on this list, but it’s certainly up there whilst remaining true to the horror writing style of King that fans of his original work know and love.
10. The Dead Zone – Stephen King – 1979
For the time it was published, The Dead Zone explores some very new themes which were not seriously explored in the way that King made come alive on the page. The Dead Zone is based on the events following Johnny Smith’s accident, which leaves him in a coma for 5 years. Upon recovering from the coma, Smith finds he has clairvoyant powers due a ‘dead zone’ that was left in his brain following the accident.
Smith quickly finds that these powers come with severe consequences, and burdening Smith with the premonitions that are broadcast to him upon interaction.
This book has spawned multiple copycats including the Final Destination series, with even The Simpsons ripping off the premise and exploring the themes within. A fantastic read, with some truly terrifying twists and turns.
From terrifying tales to slow, creeping psychological stories, there’s plenty of material within this list to leave you sleeping with the light on. Aside from horror, Stephen King often strays outside of the genre lines particularly with his recent publications, which is way you may find that the true horror classic from King tend to be his older work. And, with good reason.
It is these novels and his initial work which kickstarted King’s career as a horror writer, and solidified him as a master scary story teller, one of the best of all time.
Leave a comment below with what the scariest Stephen King book is that you’ve ever read. If we agree, we will read it and add it to the list!