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20 Best Stephen King Books That Will Hook You from Page One

From horrid paranormal tales to eerie sci-fi thrillers, these titles are some of the best Stephen King books to add to your bookshelf

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Get lost in the best Stephen King books—if you dare

Stephen King is one of the most iconic names in horror. Over his 55-year career, he’s made the darkest and most haunting nightmares comes to life, giving us some of the best thrillers and scary books to ever see a printer. While horror and the supernatural are his bread and butter, he’s also known to explore the science fiction, time-travel, fantasy and even Western genres. The best Stephen King books are sprinkled over various categories, but they all have two things in common. One, they thrill you into turning page after page. Two, they put you on high alert—especially if you hear something go bump in the night.

How many books has Stephen King written?

Stephen King has written 65 books so far. King’s first professional sale came when he sold a short story to Startling Mystery Stories in 1967, and he’s brought intricate and twisted worlds to life ever since. His first published novel was 1974’s Carrie, and his latest work is 2022’s Fairy Tale, already a bestseller.

How we chose the best Stephen King books

We rounded up the best Stephen King books based on a number of factors, including but not limited to:

  • The work’s influence on the horror and fiction genres
  • The story’s popularity and relevance in pop culture
  • Overall ratings, along with critical and commercial success

Ready to dive into King’s frightening tales? If so, start with these 20 best Stephen King books. There are enough frights to go around, whether you’re into a classic horror tale like The Shining (which made our list of the best books ever written) or a sci-fi series like The Dark Tower books.

For more book trivia and inside info on authors and book news, follow the Reader’s Digest Select Editions page on Facebook. 

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1. The Shining

It’s no surprise the twisted horror classic The Shining kicks off our list of the best Stephen King books. His third published novel is about a writer named Jack Torrance who moves his young family to a remote hotel after landing the role of winter caretaker. It’s not long before the ominous forces in the Overlook Hotel—as well as Jack’s personal demons—send him down a path of pure madness and rage.

Published in January 1977, The Shining cemented King as a master of horror writing. His ability to vividly bring paranormal and personal terror to life truly shines (no pun intended) in this page-turner. The story came to life on the big screen in 1980, with the chilling film adaption giving us Jack Nicholson’s iconic performance as Jack Torrance. Today, it’s one of King’s most popular novels. It’s also tied with his novel IT as his top-rated book on Goodreads.

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2. The Green Mile

King’s 1996 serial novel The Green Mile tells the haunting Depression-era tale of John Coffey, an inmate on death row for the horrific crimes he committed against two girls. Coffey, perceived as this brutal being, will meet his fate once he walks the “Green Mile.” However, as death row supervisor Paul Edgecomb learns, not all is as it seems with gentle giant Coffey—and his newest inmate may have powers humankind simply can’t understand.

Gripping and gut wrenching, The Green Mile was a hit for King upon publication. It took home the Bram Stoker Award for Best Novel in 1996 and was made into a riveting drama movie starring Tom Hanks and Michael Clarke Duncan just three years later. Snag it now and see what makes it one of King’s best.

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3. The Institute

Science fiction and suspense blend masterfully in The Institute, one of the best Stephen King books to come out in recent years. The 2019 novel follows the story of telekinetic child genius Luke Ellis as he’s kidnapped and brought to the Institute, a remote place where other gifted children are used for their abilities. Desperate to escape the ruthless facility, Luke tries to craft an escape plan—but the Institute is anything but easy to slip away from.

Similar to IT and the smash-hit Netflix show Stranger Things, The Institute pits kids versus the unknown in epic fashion. Fair warning: You won’t be able to put it down once you read that first page.

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4. 11/22/63

Question: If you had the ability to go back in time, what would you do? The options are endless, really. You could hug a long-lost relative, give your younger self much-needed advice … or, you know, try to prevent a history-altering assassination. King’s 2011 novel 11/22/63 dives into that latter scenario, following along as Jake Epping, an English teacher from Maine, travels back in time and attempts to stop John F. Kennedy’s assassination on that fateful day in Dallas.

11/22/63 isn’t just a time travel book; it’s an ode to the 1960s that brilliantly weaves key elements of the decade into its storytelling. And, in true King fashion, Epping goes through several scenarios before getting to his JFK mission, such as running interference in tragic murders and falling head-over-heels in love. But, as Epping learns, time always gets its way—no matter how much you try to change it. History buffs, this one’s for you.

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5. ‘Salem’s Lot

King’s sophomore novel, ‘Salem’s Lot, may have been published in 1975, but make no mistake—it’s still a must-read for any horror story enthusiast. Writer Ben Mears returns to the Maine town where he spent part of his childhood, only to find that the town, and its residents, are being dominated by vampires. It’s up to him, and a few other courageous souls, to take them down.

This gripping vampire book proved that King could take an established horror subgenre to a new, and terrifyingly real, level. He writes it in a way that makes you feel as though you’re actually in Jerusalem’s Lot fending off creatures of the night. No judgment if you sleep with the lights on after turning the last page.

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6. Carrie

Carrie was King’s breakout debut, putting his distinct style of writing and horror genius on the map. Published in 1974, the 199-page novel is about social outcast Carrie, a bullied high schooler who discovers she has telekinetic powers. After her classmates pull a cruel prank on her at prom, Carrie uses her abilities to inflict some horrific (and seriously gory) pain on them in turn.

While Carrie is considered a horror classic by many, not everyone was thrilled with King’s tale of teenage torment, rage and revenge. It’s a frequently banned book in schools across the United States, given the book’s vivid description of violence and other themes. However, others were captivated by King’s debut—so much so that Carrie was made into a film starring Sissy Spacek in 1976. You can pick a side after giving it a read.

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7. IT

Ah, IT—the book that introduced us to Pennywise the Dancing Clown and undoubtedly inspired a case or two of coulrophobia. 1986’s IT is one of the best Stephen King books out there, taking readers on a nightmare-inducing trip for 1,000-plus pages (seriously). The novel tells the story of seven adults who come back to their hometown of Derry, Maine, to face off against an evil force known as IT, an entity they bravely battled as children.

IT has several elements that make it a horror masterpiece, but two stand out. First, King’s incredible attention to detail, which brings the terrifying events easily, and clearly, to life. Second, the theme at the center of the story: good versus evil, in more ways than just the supernatural. Horror fans couldn’t get enough of this spine-chilling story. In fact, the Losers Club and Pennywise made their way to both small and big screens over the years, first with a 1990 miniseries, then with a 2017 box office success and its 2019 sequel (both are great Halloween movies to stream). Before you watch the films, though, read the ominous tale and let your mind bring it to life.

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8. Pet Sematary

1983’s Pet Sematary is one of King’s scariest, most disturbing works to date. It’s about a family that moves to Maine and discovers two graveyards near their property—one for pets that have passed, and the other a Native American burial ground with seemingly unreal powers. When tragedy strikes the family, the patriarch debates using its powers to bring back the dead … but as he learns the hard way, going against nature has dreadful consequences.

Pet Sematary (a great book to read around Halloween) expertly combines supernatural terror with authentic horror, like unimaginable loss and pure desperation. The story is so good it was nominated for a World Fantasy Award in 1984. And of course there were movie adaptations, one in 1989 and one in 2019. Rumor has it, King himself had trouble finishing it because the story was so frightening. Think you can handle a few chapters before bed?

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9. Doctor Sleep

Thrilling and downright distressing, 2013’s Doctor Sleep is enough to make seasoned horror fans jumpy. King’s stellar sequel to The Shining follows an adult Dan Torrance, who, while still seeing dreadful ghosts from the Overlook Hotel, works in a hospice facility where he uses his otherworldly abilities to help the dying. Everything seems as normal as it can get, until Dan meets a young girl who has stronger abilities than his own. Soon, the two must fight to keep their lives (and their souls) from the clutches of something evil.

Doctor Sleep became a New York Times bestseller and earned King the Bram Stoker Award for Best Novel in 2013. Once you read it, you understand why. King expertly weaves elements from The Shining into this tale as Dan deals with his traumatic past and tries to put up a fight against evil. Pick up the book now to see if he prevails—or perishes.

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10. The Dark Tower series

Dystopian fantasy meets Western in an odd-yet-captivating fashion in King’s The Dark Tower series. The beloved series boasts eight novels that dive into the dark and fascinating world of The Man in Black, Roland Deschain, and of course the Dark Tower. The first book, 1982’s The Gunslinger, masterfully introduces us to the Dark Tower world, where lone-man Roland searches for the Man in Black and meets interesting characters along the way.

While The Dark Tower may seem like a mismatched bag of genres, King makes the fascinating elements of each book work together beautifully, creating a world we can’t help but get lost in—figuratively, of course. The series is a true testament to King’s storytelling abilities and keen attention to detail.

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11. The Stand

We couldn’t talk about King’s post-apocalyptic works without mentioning his classic 1978 novel The Stand. Set in a world ravaged by a ruthless pandemic, this 823-page story sucks us into a ghastly realm that makes us question everything we know about good and evil. It’s a tale of survival and sinister wonders, neatly wrapped up with King’s distinct writing style.

Critics and fans adored The Stand, and the eerie tale remains a must-read more than four decades after its publication. It was even voted the best Stephen King book in Rolling Stone by devoted fans and adapted into two miniseries. Read the haunting epic and see what the chilling hype is about.

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12. Under the Dome

2009’s Under the Dome is another King sci-fi thriller you’ll want on your organized bookshelf. It’s about a group of Maine townsfolk who come together after their town gets cut off from civilization by a mysterious dome-like force field. They work together to figure out what it is—and how to get out of it. The 1,000-plus page book was actually inspired by an unpublished King work called The Cannibals, about residents trapped in their apartment building.

Under the Dome’s story was so gripping it was turned into a successful CBS drama that aired for three seasons (now available to stream on Paramount+). Seemingly normal U.S.A. being turned into an isolated, transparent prison does make for good TV … and an even better novel. Snag the book and dive in before watching the show.

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13. Mr. Mercedes

Stephen King’s 2014 novel Mr. Mercedes was his first real crime book—and boy, did he deliver the thrills. The page-turner follows a former cop and his unlikely allies as they try to thwart a killer looking to strike again after driving a Mercedes into a crowd. It’s the first novel in King’s Bill Hodges Trilogy, followed by Finders Keepers and End of Watch.

Gripping and heart-thumping, Mr. Mercedes proved King could write a compelling detective tale that left readers wanting more. He even took home the Edgar Award in 2015, the No. 1 honor in crime writing. The Bill Hodges Trilogy also inspired the crime show Mr. Mercedes, which ran from 2017 to 2019. The hype around Mr. Mercedes is warranted for both die-hard King fans and crime novel enthusiasts, but if real-life crime is more your thing, check out these must-read true crime books.

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14. Misery

Obsession embodies a gnarly human form in Misery, one of the best Stephen King books ever published. It’s about a famous novelist getting into a terrible car crash and being rescued by his biggest fan. That “fan” ends up using twisted means to care for him. It’s a fascinating tale of captivity, isolation and delusion that makes your skin crawl and heart race simultaneously.

Misery was published in 1987 and made into a ’90s movie starring James Caan and Kathy Bates, with Bates taking home the Best Actress Oscar for her role as deranged fan Annie Wilkes. Something that makes Misery stand out both in print and onscreen is how human the horror is. Many of King’s works feature a supernatural element as the root of evil, but in Misery, evil has a human face. Knowing it’s someone’s own thoughts and actions causing the terror makes it that much scarier.

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15. The Dead Zone

The Dead Zone is a 1979 King science fiction work that stands the test of time. The story is about a man named Johnny Smith who, after waking from a nearly five-year coma, discovers he has the ability to see people’s pasts and futures by simply touching them. His morals are tested when he shakes the hand of a politician and sees a horrific vision. Does he take matters into his own hands to save the future?

The Dead Zone was a hit for King, and the book was made into a 1983 movie starring legendary actors Christopher Walken and Martin Sheen. If you want an enthralling thriller featuring a healthy dose of moral ambiguity, grab this book ASAP.

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16. Firestarter

Fans of King’s novel The Institute should give Firestarter a read. The 1980 novel tells the story of two test subjects for a government organization who develop psychic abilities. They fall in love and have a daughter who is born with pyrokinesis, meaning she can start fires with her mind. The organization wants the girl for themselves, while her parents will protect her at all costs … but can they protect her from herself?

Firestarter is one of King’s sleeper hits that will have you up all night. The fast-paced story sucks you in from the beginning and reels you back just when you think you can put it down for a minute. King himself said Firestarter was fun to write, telling Vanity Fair it was liberating to craft since it’s a chase story that could have gone anywhere. The book was also made into two movies—one in 1984, the other in 2022.

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17. Lisey’s Story

Lisey’s Story is unlike anything else King has written. The story follows a widow who, after sorting through her writer husband’s things, travels to a dark place to face his demons once and for all. It’s a story that takes a frank look at marriage and the unknown demons a spouse can bring to the union.

The 2006 novel is one of King’s most personal. He wrote it after getting out of the hospital following a bout of pneumonia. His office was being redone, so his books and works were packed up, and he thought about how his beloved wife would have to go through his boxed-up belongings if he were to die. He revealed on Late Night with Stephen Colbert that Lisey’s Story is one of his favorite books he’s penned, along with Misery, The Stand and The Body. Pick it up if you’re craving horror sprinkled with romance.

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18. Cujo

It’s hard to picture man’s best friend turning viciously evil. But if there’s one thing Stephen King can do, it’s take the unimaginable and bring it to life in terrifying fashion. 1981’s Cujo is the story of a great family dog that turns into a deadly killer after contracting rabies. A mother and son, both fighting some form of demon, are trapped by the evil canine. Will they make it out alive, or will Cujo get to them first?

The story of a killer pooch captured the attention of audiences and industry pros. Cujo earned King the British Fantasy Award in 1982, a testament to the story’s unescapable suspense. And it showcases one of the things King does best: blending human horrors with pure evil.

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19. Gerald’s Game

1992’s Gerald’s Game is terrifying and spine-chilling—but not for supernatural reasons. Rather, it’s a story of someone stuck in an impossible situation where, if they don’t do everything right, they die. Gerald’s Game is about a woman who’s left handcuffed to a bed after her husband dies during a bedroom game. Stuck in a secluded lake house, it’s up to her to escape—if she doesn’t fall victim to the voices inside her head first.

Gerald’s Game forces readers to put themselves in this petrifying situation—isolated, handcuffed and left with nothing but one’s own wits to escape. It taps into that innate flight-or-fight response, which you’ll definitely feel as you flip the pages. Don’t forget to stream the Netflix adaption after you close the book.

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20. The Outsider

The Outsider is another of King’s suspense/crime stories. The 2018 book follows the disturbing tale of an investigation into the brutal murder of a young boy. The prime suspect? One of the town’s most upstanding citizens. DNA and fingerprints trace it back to him … but could there be something much more sinister afoot?

The novel drew critical praise and was made into an HBO TV show (meaning you can stream it on HBO Max), cementing its status as one of King’s best published works. Crime and thriller have never come together so eerily—or masterfully.

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Sources:

Kelly Kuehn
Kelly Kuehn is an associate editor for Reader’s Digest covering entertainment, trivia and history. When she’s not writing you can find her watching the latest and greatest movies, listening to a true crime podcast (or two), blasting ‘90s music and hiking with her dog, Ryker, throughout the Finger Lakes.