A Beginners Guide to Stephen King
Stephen King is one of the most prolific authors in the world, with a career spanning decades. With new novels, novellas, collections, film and TV adaptations seemingly coming out all the time, I imagine it must be a little overwhelming for newcomers, looking to get into Stephen King, to know which book to read first or where to start!
I love a lot of authors, but if I had to choose, my favourite author would undoubtedly be Stephen King. We have a long (not always harmonious) relationship going back to my accidentally reading The Shining and “It” at waaay too young an age. (Which to be honest, probs explains a lot!). In fact, I have read pretty much every book Stephen King has ever written.
So I hope that I am at least somewhat qualified, to point anyone interested in starting out reading Stephen King in the right direction. And for those of you who perhaps don’t like horror, I’ll include some books he has written in other genres (although they are all dark in tone) like Dystopian, Fantasy and even Crime and Thrillers. Note – if you don’t like to be scared, for God’s sake don’t read “It”!
So Where to Start!
Although I love many of Stephen King’s later books I don’t think I would be alone in saying that his early fiction is some of the best. In my option, you can’t do much better than starting with these straight up horror classics. I’ve listed them by date published, as I think it makes sense to tackle reading them in this order.
Stephen King – The Classics – Top Ten
Carrie White is an unpopular and bullied 16-year-old high school girl. Her situation is no better at home where she lives with an unstable and vindictive mother. A fanatical Christian fundamentalist, who psychologically and physically abuses Carrie. When Carrie develops telekinetic powers…well, shit happens. This is the book that made King famous.
Inspired by Dracula and what would happen if Dracula came back in the twentieth century, ‘Salems Lot tells the story of a writer named Ben Mears. Who returns to the town of Jerusalem’s Lot (‘Salem’s Lot for short) in Maine, where he had lived as a child. Only to discover that the residents are becoming vampires. Note – These vampires most definitely do not sparkle. Stephen King is quoted as saying that, of all his books, ‘Salem’s Lot is one of his favourites.
The Shining is the story of Jack Torrance, an author and recovering alcoholic who takes a position as the off-season caretaker of the isolated Overlook Hotel in the Colorado Rockies, bringing his wife Wendy, and their five-year-old son Danny with him. His young son Danny possesses psychic abilities called “the shining” that lets him see the hotel’s horrific past. His abilities also make the supernatural activity more powerful. Trapped by a winter storm Jack’s sanity slowly begins to crumble as he succumbs to the supernatural forces inhabiting the hotel. A sequel Doctor Sleep was published in September 2013.
Fun fact – Stephen King famously dislikes the Stanley Kubrick film version of the Shining.
The Stand is an epic, post-apocalyptic horror story which takes place during and after a Flu epidemic that wipes out most of the world’s population. The survivors face an epic battle of good vs evil – The Final Stand.
Possibly my favourite – but it’s a whopper! It was re-released in an “uncut” edition in 1990 with an additional 400 pages of material. You should probably read the uncut version.
Explores what we might do to bring back someone we love. And what if it becomes obvious that what we’ve brought back is not the same as before (and not in a good way). This one will scare the shit out of you.
King has gone on record stating that of all the novels he has written, Pet Sematary is the one which genuinely scared him the most, so much so that he originally considered not publishing it.
The story follows seven children “The Losers club” as they are terrorised by a shape-shifting entity that exploits the fears of its victims, resurfacing every 27 years in the town of Derry, Maine, to hunt its prey. “It” primarily appears in the form of a creepy clown known as Pennywise who lurks in the sewers of Derry, Maine.
I suppose I should probably mention that scene with well, basically a massive orgy that is a bit– shall we say controversial.
Misery is a psychological horror novel featuring Paul Sheldon a popular romance writer who, after a bad car accident, finds himself in the clutches of his highly unstable (read batshit crazy) fan Annie Wilkes. The 1990 film adaptation is also excellent with Kathy Bates winning a Best Actress Oscar for her performance.
Stephen King had originally intended to publish this under his pseudonym Richard Bachman (see next section) but the identity of the pseudonym was discovered before he could do so. Misery definitely has that darker and more cynical Bachman tone.
The Bachman Books
In the late 1970s and early 1980s, with the idea of wanting to publish more than one book per year and also to test if he could replicate his commercial success Stephen King published a handful of novellas and novels under the pseudonym Richard Bachman. These are Rage (1977), The Long Walk (1979), Roadwork (1981), The Running Man (1982) and Thinner (1984) and later after he had been outed The Regulators (1996) and Blaze (2007).
Short Story Collections
Stephen King books are often massive tomes. “It” comes in at a massive 1,138 pages! If you find that a bit intimidating and want to dip your toes in the water, why not start out with some of Stephen King’s excellent short story collections? Here is a complete list of short story collections by Stephen King
Also worth noting some of these might actually be familiar to you, for example, the Different Seasons collection contains the short story Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption, which was made into the classic film The Shawshank Redemption. To be honest, you can’t go wrong with his short stories so you might as well just read them in order. If that’s not particularly helpful(!) I’ll maybe look at writing a separate article.
The Dark Tower Series
The Dark Tower: The Gunslinger (1982); The Dark Tower II: The Drawing of the Three (1987); The Dark Tower III: The Waste Lands (1991); The Dark Tower IV: Wizard and Glass (1997); The Dark Tower V: Wolves of the Calla (2003); The Dark Tower VI: Song of Susannah (2004); The Dark Tower VII: The Dark Tower (2004); The Dark Tower: The Wind Through the Keyhole (2012).
I love, love, love The Dark Tower, Stephen King’s epic Multidimensional, Spaghetti Western, Arthurian, Fantasy series (yup, that’s a thing) based on a famous Victorian poem by Robert Browning, “Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came”. I don’t want to spoil it by going into too much detail, but the basic premise – Gunslinger Roland Deschain and friends are on a quest to find the Dark Tower and to save the world(s) by defeating The Man in Black and The Crimson King.
The Gunslinger has my favourite opening of any King novel “The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed.” I’d read the classics first. Then clear some room in your diary for The Dark Tower. You’re gonna need it.
If you get obsessed with the Dark Tower you might want to try The Talisman and The Black House next.
The Eyes of the Dragon (Also takes place within the Dark Tower Universe)
Crime and Thriller
- Dolores Claiborne
- Gerald’s Game
- The Green Mile
- The Colorado Kid
- Mr Mercedes, Finders Keepers, and End of Watch
What to Read Next…
Now, this is where it all gets a bit subjective. So I have tried to include a list of the books I think you might want to look at next (once you’ve ploughed through all the above) Either because I have personally enjoyed them, or they have been positively received. Or because they expand on the King Universe in some way (interconnecting stories and recurring characters/themes)
- The Dead Zone
- Needful Things
- Gerald’s Game
- Bag of Bones
- The Girl who loved Tom Gordon
- Lisey’s Story
- Duma Key
- Under the Dome
- Doctor Sleep
Anyway, happy reading. I hope you get as much out of these wonderful books as I have over the years. Maybe even become a new constant reader (as King calls his fans)