Anyone who wishes to tackle Stephen King’s selection of horror novels may be more shocked by the sheer amount of them than their content. Google lists his book count as “at least 87”! Are you ready to read something spooky for Halloween, but are unsure of where to start? Keep reading to discover five of King’s scariest works. Beware: these stories might keep you up at night.
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Pet Sematary is arguably the bleakest horror novel King has ever written. While the supernatural aspects terrify on their own, the realistic tragedy that drives the plot is perhaps even scarier. He asserts that it is his most frightening book because he based it on the near-death experience of his own young son (who is now grown up and an author is his own right-look up Joe Hill to find his work). Our protagonists, the Creed family, cannot help but feel that their fresh start in rural Maine is not as idyllic as advertised. The strange graveyard in the woods and the interstate that interrupt the countryside only reinforce their unease.
“Sometimes, dead is better…”
Whereas Pet Sematary was inspired by a tragic concept, King was in a dark place when he wrote The Shining. Once again, the supernatural elements augment the unpleasant reality this family experiences. Before the Torrances ever reach the Overlook Hotel, where Jack has secured a job as the winter caretaker, they must contend with alcoholism and abuse. As the nasty influences of the hotel seep into the isolated family, they are also forced to grapple with insanity and the horrifying idea that we all might have some evil inside of us. Fortunately, the youngest Torrance, Danny, has a special ability—a shine—that helps him navigate the danger. The Shining also has a sequel, Doctor Sleep, that gives the Torrances a happier outcome if the former is too dark for your tastes.
“This inhuman place makes human monsters.”
It terrorizes the psyche with ambiguity. King certainly makes use of the creepy clown trope, as this is It’s default form, but It’s true horror lies in their ability to become anything and prey upon our deepest insecurities. As with many of King’s novels, adult readers will fear for the child protagonists. In the case of the self-proclaimed Loser’s Club, grown-ups are useless—It causes them to ignore the kids. They are utterly alone as they face an eldritch monster—twice. The story is also presented out of chronological order, which adds to the plot’s unsettling nature.
“We all float down here.”
The Stand has only become more horrifying and relevant during the current pandemic. 99% of the US population succumbs to a super-flu after a desperate, infected civilian escapes from a military base. The scariest part of the novel depicts the general public unwittingly spreading the disease by touching doorknobs, exchanging money, shaking hands, etc. The surviving one percent are inexplicably immune, and not all of them are good people. As survivors rally against one another in growing camps across the post-apocalyptic America, a supernatural entity stakes their claim. Do not read this one while sick—it will make you incredibly paranoid.
“The place where you made your stand never mattered.”
As the other examples in this list have hinted at, King doesn’t need to rely on the supernatural to scare us. Misery invokes psychological horror. We want to believe that we control our lives, but Misery illustrates that this idea is often an illusion. After a car accident, writer Paul Sheldon finds himself at the mercy of Annie Wilkes, a psychotic fan. Unhappy with his latest book, she demands that he rewrite it, withholding medicine and treatment unless he caters to her whims. The title reflects both Sheldon’s emotional state and the name of the protagonist he is attempting to resurrect.
“In a book, all would have gone according to plan…but life was so…untidy.”