Few names are more closely linked with the horror genre than Stephen King. The astonishingly prolific writer still towers over the horror genre like a colossus. With at least one new book out every year since the seventies, it can be daunting to know where to start. So for the uninitiated, here’s a list of the best paperbacks to settle down with after a long night’s trick or treating.
For me this was the gateway drug into the world of King. This was the first of his books that I dared to read as a young teeneager and I spent the majority of a family holiday devouring it. It was the first book that I read that made me feel like a proper grown up. A creepy tale of grief and the undead. Gory and shocking in places, this is a real meaty horror story and a great place to start.
Although he’d already written some outstanding books, I’d argue that It is where King really came into his own. The most successful of his previous novels were riffs on existing horror classics. Almost every one of It’s 1000 or so pages is trademark King. A group of children in a small town are terrorised by Pennywise The Clown — now a shapeshifting pop-culture icon thanks to Bill Skarsgård and Tim Curry’s on-screen performances. Without this there would be no Stranger Things and all manner of 80s horror. We all owe a debt to It.
THE DEAD ZONE
1979’s The Dead Zone was already brilliant, but has become more of a hit in recent years after having gained a new relevance during the Trump era. This book features King’s best villain — the shifty, psychotic president-in-waiting Greg Stillson. The book spawned a TV spin-off but it’s the David Cronenberg screen adaptation starring Christopher Walken that really sticks in the memory. In the movie Martin Sheen puts in one of his best performances as Stillson- a stark contrast to years later when he went on to become everyone’s favourite president in The West Wing.
King likes to write BIG books — some arguably a tad too long. This was the first real brick in the King cannon, and one of the most effective. The Stand is a remarkably ambitious epic culminating in a biblical style battle between good and evil in a world ravaged by a killer virus. This already weighty book was subsequently released in an even longer “uncut” version in the 90s. It’s my personal favourite and well worth diving into if you have the arm muscles to pick it up.
In 1999 King was struck by a minivan and sustained multiple injuries. This close brush with death led King to write this nonfiction book — The whole thing pulls off a brilliant mix of memoir and writing manual, along with King coming to terms with the devastating accident. It was recently named by the Guardian as one of the 100 best books of this century so far.
A controversial choice- Despite a few forays into pulp fiction, this was the first novel which saw King as a traditional thriller writer. Mr Mercedes is a cut above the usual police procedural, outlining a deadly and gripping game of cat-and-mouse between some of King’s best drawn characters in recent years. This was the first part of the “Finders Keepers” series of novels and although the trilogy eventually descends into the supernatural realm, this is a real page-turner that can hold its own against even the most polished of the thriller genre. Sadly, events in the novel have since been eclipsed by real life terror atrocities, which may make this uncomfortable reading for some, but it’s still worth checking out.
And there you go — and I’m sure there will be several of you out there that will disagree with my picks, screaming “What? No Dark Tower??!” or shedding a tear at the absence of Salem’s Lot. And you’d be justified; with such a huge cannon of work it’s almost impossible to whittle down King’s bibliography to a handful of essential titles. Trust me when I say this list kept me awake at night — and sleepless nights are something that Stephen King sure loves to give his readers.