Picture this: it’s a dark, chilly September evening, much like tonight. You are curled up on the couch in your comfy sweats and favorite long-sleeved tee, wrapped in a soft, cozy afghan. A cat is napping lazily beside you. An over-sized mug of tea sits steaming gently on the coffee table in front of you. The scent from a “twilight woods” candle wafts subtly about as the light from the flame flickers on the walls. The wind blows noisily outside, and a branch taps gently at your window.
What is missing from the perfect evening described above? The perfect book, which will make your heart race, your pupils dilate, the hair stand up at the back of your neck. Enter Stephen King.
I’ve been a fan of The Master of Horror since I was a little girl. And by “fan,” I mean hardcore, dedicated, the-only-thing-that-makes-my-life-complete-is-owning-every-King-novel-in-hardcover, nonviolent stalker. And by “little girl,” I mean from approximately seven, when I watched, for the first time, a movie based on a King book. It was certainly a mistake for my parents to allow a child to see an R-rated horror film, admittedly, yet one which began a lifelong obsession with “catching the fear” that few authors or even movie directors are able to provide.
Thus, from one professional fear-searcher to another, I bring you my choices for the top scariest Stephen King books. I’ve ordered these novels from “scary enough to make you jump” down to “sleeping in Mom’s bed tonight.”
12. Pet Sematary: A magical place exists where you are able to bury your loved ones and they return to you. In what condition would you be willing to accept them when they come home? How high is the price you would pay for this ability? Would you sacrifice your reputation, your friends, your sanity? While there is a movie for this popular novel, I read the book in only a few days in college, because I couldn’t put it down. It was one of the first King novels I ever read, and I remember being simultaneously sad and scared for the majority of the book.
11. Thinner: It seems like a dream come true when a morbidly obese man is told by an aging traveler that he will start to lose weight and it actually happens. (If only, am I right?) However, as is typical of curses placed on those who murder a gypsy’s wife and cover it up without punishment, life soon becomes quite unbearable and the rapidly shrinking man finds himself making difficult and dangerous choices in order to reverse his fate. I’ve read this book four times and have loved it each and every one.
10. Gerald’s Game: This novel could quite convincingly be placed under another author’s name in the bookstore, as it is drastically different from King’s typical style. It is fairly short and more verging on terrifying realism than supernatural terror. I read this in a weekend in college and am still deeply disturbed by it. An abusive husband dies after handcuffing his wife to a bed in a secluded cabin. Her subsequent time dealing with the aftermath of her situation is truly chilling. Furthermore, I loved catching the connections this novel has to others in the King universe.
9. The Tommyknockers: This is the King novel I read most recently, and also one which plays to my inner conspiracy-theorist. Imagine, if you will, your town is suddenly and irrevocably changed by an invasion we are all completely incapable of fighting off. “Late last night and the night before, Tommyknockers, Tommyknockers, knocking at my door.”
8. Delores Claiborne: This monologue is, in effect, a confession by the title character of a murder she committed. While this stylistic choice is commonly reserved for poetry and short stories, it is an underused — though, in this case, highly effective — format for a novel. I found this realistic book to be an exceptionally quick read. It provides an incredibly satisfying tying up of loose ends in Claiborne’s life, as well as a very obvious (and intentional) link to several events described in Gerald’s Game.
7. Night Shift: So many of the short stories in this collection are genuinely disturbing. A few of my favorites are “Sometimes They Come Back,” “Quitters, Inc.,” and “Children of the Corn.” If a full-length King novel seems too much to commit to, try this one out and just read those three first — I promise you’ll want to devour the other stories in the book as fast as possible.
6. ‘Salem’s Lot: I was too scared to sleep in my room in the basement while reading this one summer during college. I remember vividly the anxiety I felt lying alone in the dark, and deciding instead to run up the stairs to sleep on the couch each night. My mom never laughed at this, but instead explained it was a novel by which she, too, had been frightened. The moral of this book is that strangers are dangerous — a valid life lesson, it seems.
5. Needful Things: Few books have left a mark on me the way this one did. I read this in a couple of days, despite its intimidating length. I still grapple with the deep issues raised by the reading. What am I willing to trade to get what I want? Who would I be willing to betray to fulfill my own dreams? Am I strong enough to avoid the temptations to which others would fall prey? Can we truly stand against evil?
4.The Stand: A devastating plague known as “Captain Trips” wipes out most of the world. Those remaining alive must rebuild society but are forced to choose which side to aid: Randall Flagg (a recurring character in King’s novels with a flair for both leadership and destruction) or Mother Abagail, who brought survivors together to begin building “the Free Zone.” This novel is most horrifying in the contemplation of a preventable mistake leading to an unstoppable apocalypse.
3. Misery: A fanatical follower with an untreated mental illness and questionable past captures and cripples the writer of her favorite book series. This story line is literally the biggest hurdle I face when penning my own novel. I just know that some snowy day I’ll crash my car and find myself at the mercy of Kathy Bates.
2. The Shining: The ultimate psychological meets supernatural horror story, this novel has been at the top of my “I must reread this before I die” list since I finished it the first time. Despite its immense size, this book was so engrossing that I finished it over a weekend home from college and actually slept in my mom’s bed because I was so afraid. Allow me to reiterate. I was a grown adult woman in my early twenties who slept in my mom’s bed while Dad was forced to sleep on the living room couch. Apparently, even as a college student, I needed my parents’ protection from a fictional character. Let that sink in.
1.It: Of course the novel about a supernatural evil entity who takes the form of a murderous clown tops my list. This is the movie I was, for some inexplicable reason, allowed to watch before I’d even turned double-digits. As though that wasn’t bad enough, I had several unfortunate run-ins with a real-life clown that were highly unpleasant. While I may seem a bit biased, this book is hyped for a reason. It really is as good as people make it out to be. This novel is one of King’s longest, yet best written. I owe my phobia of circus freaks as well as my loathing of balloon popping to this story; you owe it to yourself to take the time to read it. Soon. Just make sure your spouse is cool with sleeping with the lights on for a while.
Peace and love.