TStephen King, the king of horror fiction (pun intended), has terrified readers for more than half a century. With more than 60 novels and 200 short stories to his credit, the author of It and The Shining is something of a literary machine, and he shows no sign of stopping any time soon: his next novel, Fairy Tale, is out September 6th. With an author as prolific as King, it can be difficult to know which title to pick up first. Here, author and King fan Neil McRobert suggests some good ones to try.
The entry point
The quintessential King-ian ingredients—a writer’s protagonist, a Maine setting, a small-town reality blasted by the afterlife—are all found in Salem’s Lot, his second novel. It is the author’s most representative early work and showcases for the first time his gift for infusing muscular American realism with gothic pulp. For those who might be put off by the sheer madness of King’s later monsters, there is something comforting about the vampire Barlow’s familiar traits (even as he wreaks havoc, many characters that fill the lot).
The Stand was already a big book when it was published in 1978. But in 1990, King restored more than 400 pages that had been excised from the original manuscript and changed the setting from 1980 to 1990. The result was The Complete and Uncut Edition of Der Stand. , a 1,200-page behemoth that swept the continental United States transformed into a chessboard for the forces of good and evil. The story of the plague and post-apocalyptic tribalism is one that many turned to – somewhat masochistically – during the Covid-19 pandemic. But the book’s terminal illness, Captain Trips, is only half the story, a way to make room for the upcoming clash of the titans. It’s a truly immersive journey populated by some of King’s most enduring characters, most notably Randall Flagg, the “Dark Man” who returns to many of King’s fictional worlds as the Agent of Chaos.
The one who will transport you
When we talk about King’s “many worlds,” the eight-volume Dark Tower series is the axis around which so many of them revolve. Although the series focuses on Roland Deschain – the last of the fabled “gunslingers” – on his lifelong pilgrimage to the eponymous tower, it pulls elements and characters from every corner of King’s back catalogue. It all starts with The Gunslinger: part western, part fantasy, and all weird. This first slim volume is a curiosity and not to everyone’s liking, but it’s worth persevering with as it is the first step in a uniquely wondrous quest.
when you are busy
Although people consider King to be the author of very long books, he has published more than a dozen short story and short story collections. It’s hard to pick the best, but Skeleton Crew just stands out and shows an unexpected range. From the uniquely unsettling The Jaunt to Survivor Type’s black comic grand-Guignol to the elegiac tenor of The Reach, the collection is a bite-sized introduction to a grand macabre fantasy.
King begins to write in typically combative style, explaining that “it’s a short book because most books on writing are full of bullshit”. His written guide of memoirs is remarkably free of this outpouring. A relaxed account of King’s early life pulls back the curtain on the man before he becomes a tool kit for those who want to do what he does. It’s a blend of reminder and advice that offers no technical wizardry or an easy path to success, just the compelling affirmation that “You can, you should, and if you’re brave enough, you will.”
The one that deserves more attention
When I interview horror writers, they often mention From a Buick 8 considered one of her all-time favorite King novels, yet it seems to have been all but forgotten by mainstream readers. It’s a little story about a rural police force and a car that’s more than a car; in fact it can be a goal elsewhere. It’s a clever premise, but delivered with such winning seriousness that you can’t resist the charm of the station, its staff, and the surrogate family they’ve created.
If horror isn’t your thing
Not everything King writes is horror. He is able to capture both the beauty and the brutality of being human. Nowhere is this clearer than on 11/22/63. What sounds like a boring idea — a man going back in time to prevent JFK’s death — is actually a plea for a lost American innocence. It’s sci-fi and a thriller with moments of extreme violence, but at its core, 11/22/63 is a love story between a man from the past and a woman searching for her place. It also includes the best ending King has ever written. If you want to try reading King but don’t want to fight ghosts, doomsday plagues, or demonic clowns, this book will warm (and break) your heart.
King incorporated everything he learned about his craft into IT, his 1986 paper on the nature of fear itself. At 1,100+ pages, it’s another crunch, but don’t let that put you off; This tale of kids fighting evil in their small town (and returning decades later to fight it again) is King at the top of his game and at his scariest. Pennywise the Clown, child eater through the ages, is King’s greatest contribution to the monster horror pantheon. The novel’s scope, strangeness, and seriousness pose a challenge, but despite its many atrocities, IT is as much an ode to friendship and childhood fantasy as it is a horror novel.