I’ve been a fan of Stephen King books and movies since the 1980s. The funny thing – I hate scary movies these days. But I still read Stephen King.
Getting college credit for reading Stephen King: Not as easy as it sounds
Back when I was in college at the University of Vermont, I was excited to see that one of the summer English courses offered was on Stephen King. I thought it would be an easy A. I had already read several of Stephen King’s best novels so thought I’d have a jump on the reading list. Turned out this class on Stephen King was one of the most challenging college courses I ever took.
Summer course. That means all homework is accelerated. Have you read a Stephen King novel? A lot of words. A lot of pages. And reading for escapism and pleasure is far different than when you’re reading to study, analyze and deconstruct.
This Stephen King class was not some fluff course. Our professor, Tony Magistrale, had actually met Stephen King and published a study and book on his research (Landscape of Fear: Stephen King’s American Gothic), which explored “how King’s fiction transcends the escapism typical of its genre to tap into our deepest cultural fears.”
So yeah. Not a fluff course. We students were definitely challenged. And, if I recall correctly, we were assigned two to three novels a week.
Did I mention I was a non-traditional student and also working full-time?
Oh, and back then my husband traveled 95% of the time.
And that’s not all. We had built a home in semi-rural Vermont – which is nearly next door to Maine (where many Stephen King books are based). And we didn’t really have neighbors yet. So there I was reading Stephen King.
In a house on the outskirts of town.
And before cell phones were a thing.
Yes, I slept with all the lights on that summer.
Not to worry. I’m not going to give an academic thesis on the top Stephen King books. Just my rankings on what I feel are the best Stephen King stories.
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Best Stephen King books ranked
Here are the 12 favorite Stephen King books that I feel are his best – all worthy of 5*.
12. The Stand book review
I know. I know. The Stand is one of Stephen King’s most critically acclaimed books and one of the best Stephen King novels. I feel like I should rank it higher. The thing is I just remember how long it took me to get through it. Not to take away from its brilliance, but this is one Stephen King novel where I struggled a bit. I wanted to like it more. But, hey, The Stand still made my top 5* ratings and considered one of the best – if not the best – Stephen King books.
11. Night Shift book review
If you’re not into reading one of the best Stephen King’s long novels, then I recommend Night Shift. This book is actually an anthology of 20 of King’s first short stories. Several were made into classic horror flicks such as Children of the Corn, The Lawnmower Man, Jerusalem’s Lot and Graveyard Shift.
Other short stories written by Stephen King in the Night Shift anthology include:
- Night Surf
- I am the Doorway
- The Mangler
- The Boogeyman
- Gray Matter
- Sometimes They Come Back
- Strawberry Spring
- The Ledge
- Quitters, Inc.
- I Know What You Need
- The Last Run on the Ladder
- The Man Who Loved Flowers
- One for the Road
- The Woman in the Room
10. The Running Man book review
Yes, The Running Man written by Stephen King is the same story that inspired the Arnold Schwarzenegger movie by the same name. However, this dystopian thriller was first published under King’s pseudonym of Richard Bachman.
The college course I took on Stephen King covered why King wrote under that pseudonym, but I don’t recall why. I’ll need to go back to my notes or do a little online research and get back to you.
Another fun fact is that The Running Man, written in 1982, was set in a dystopian America in 2017-2019.
9. Skeleton Crew book review
This collection of novellas and short stories in Skeleton Crew stayed with me – even when I don’t remember all the details – but I remember how they made me feel. Scared! The Mist and The Monkey are the two that first come to mind. It’s been a couple of decades since I read this Stephen King collection, so may pick up it up again soon. If you love Edgar Allan Poe, then you’ll love Skeleton Crew.
8. Cujo book review
If you’ve seen Cujo the movie, the book is even better – and one of the best Stephen King books. I won’t give away any spoilers, but I highly recommend reading Cujo by Stephen King for a different perspective than the film classic. I found Cujo to be more heartbreaking than scary (although it’s definitely a psychological thriller).
7. Carrie book review
Carrie was the first movie based on a Stephen King novel I saw, which came out in 1976. It was also the first novel published by Stephen King – both which are now classics. His inspiration for this popular story about a telekinetic teenager and bullies came from his second job as a janitor at a high school as well as two girls he knew. Stephen King became so frustrated that he initially threw the script away. However, his wife, Tabitha (also a writer) retrieved it and helped him better develop the characters. So she deserves our gratitude for saving one of Stephen King’s best books and helping to launch so many great tales from the story master.
6. The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon book review
Some of Stephen King’s scariest stories don’t rely on horror or the supernatural. The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon is one of them. This novella is about a nine-year-old girl who gets lost on the Appalachian Trail. I go solo hiking quite a bit and sometimes walking through old woods I get the vibe I did when reading The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon. Especially when I’m chasing daylight and running on the trails while the sun is setting as I’m still in the woods. If you’re a baseball fan (especially the Boston Red Sox like Stephen King), then you’ll love this book also.
5. On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft book review
Are you a writer? A wannabe writer? Or just want to write better? Then I recommend On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft by Stephen King. It’s one of his best books and also one of the greatest gifts to give yourself.
This is nonfiction so no scary stories; but such great stories from one of the greatest storytellers of our time. Even in this genre, Stephen King is a storyteller and provides practical ideas and insights to his craft and where his story ideas come from. Pure brilliance and authenticity!
4. The Shining book review
When asked which movie I’ve seen the most, I’m pretty sure it’s The Shining – the 1980 version that starred Jack Nicholson. I was so disappointed to learn that Stephen King hated Stanley Kubrick’s (the director) adaptation of his horror novel of the same name.
I didn’t fully understand why until I read The Shining more than a decade later. They are two entirely different works of art. While many details are the same – the hotel, the characters, Stephen King’s The Shining book is soooooooo much better. Of course, it is. And so different. Highly recommend you read it.
Fun fact: Doctor Sleep is Danny Torrance all grown up. You can see my star rating in my 2019 Reading Challenge round-up.
3. Misery book review
You may be familiar with the Oscar-winning performance of Kathy Bates in the movie of the same name, Misery (she also won the Golden Globe for best actress). This psychological thriller by Stephen King doesn’t need any supernatural help as it showcases the horror of human nature. It’s in my top three of the best books written by Stephen King. I loved both the novel and the film adaptation – and pretty sure they were similar in content. I don’t recall too many differences.
2. Different Seasons book review
While the book Different Seasons by Stephen King may not ring a bell, one of the four novellas will: Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption.
Yes, the classic Shawshank Redemption movie is based on a novella written by Stephen King. And it’s runner-up to the best books one-movie-reviews.
Not-so-fun fact: Shawshank Redemption was initially a box-office disappointment (it was competing against other great films such as Pulp Fiction and Forrest Gump). But once Shawshank Redemption started receiving award nominations (including seven Oscar nominations), it was re-released and became a top rental and now considered one of the greatest films of the 1990s.
Oh, but that’s not the only reason why Different Seasons is my second-ranked Stephen King book.
While the title of that novella may not sound familiar, the classic film adaptation based on it should. Stand By Me. Many are surprised to learn that this coming-of-age story, Stand by Me, was written by the king of horror, Stephen King. Another reason why he’s the master storyteller.
Fun fact: Castle Rock is a familiar place for all Stephen King fans (it’s where several of his stories, novels and novellas, including The Body, take place). It’s also the name of Rob Reiner’s production company, Castle Rock Entertainment. Reiner directed Stand by Me and named his company in that film’s honor.
1. Pet Sematary book review
Pet Sematary is my all-time favorite Stephen King book. It was the first novel I ever read of his. And it still remains at the top of my list of the best Stephen Kng books. At age 18 in the summer of 1984 living in my parent’s basement while going to college, I slept with all the lights on. My husband hasn’t read many Stephen King books, but he did read this one and was blown away. While it has some disturbing, gory and frightening details, you’ll feel so many more emotions than just being scared.
Best Stephen King books that didn’t make the top 12 list
I know without a doubt that I have disappointed someone whose favorite Stephen King book did not make my top 12 list / best books. This list was difficult to narrow down to the top 12 and several of my favorites didn’t make my top 12 either (e.g., Dolores Claiborne). Maybe in the future, I’ll create a longer list the best Stephen King books ranked with 5* ratings. Next up on my Stephen King #tbr stack is 11.22.63 and I’m fairly certain that will be a new addition to my best Stephen King books list.
What is your favorite Stephen King book and why? Let me know in the comments.