Fall is upon us, and this time of year, many of us love nothing more than to cozy up with a good book, a warm blanket, and a cup of tea.
Others, however, prefer to pass the chilly season with a book that sends chills down their spines. And no one knows how to produce that effect better than Stephen King.
We’ve compiled a list of the 10 best Stephen King books to read this fall for a good spook. (But really, you don’t need the excuse of a season to enjoy The King’s work. These stories are great any time of the year—though you may wish to leave the light on, and not just for your eyesight.)
10. The Long Walk
Before there were The Hunger Games, teens battled it out in The Long Walk. In this dystopian novel, 100 teenage boys participate in a walking competition each year. Sounds, literally, like a walk in the park, right? Not quite.
Participants must keep a pace of 4 miles per hour without stopping. But instead of walking toward a finish line, the winner will be the last boy standing. If a participant falls under the required minimum speed of 4 miles per hour more than 3 times, they’re “ticketed”—which we soon learn means shot dead.
Originally published under King’s pen name, Richard Bachman, The Long Walk was actually King’s first book, though Carrie would be the first published. Many have interpreted the book as a metaphor for the Vietnam War, as a country sends its youth to their inevitable deaths in an unwinnable fight.
9. ‘Salem’s Lot
Yes, even Stephen King tried out vampire literature once. But you’ll still find his usual hallmarks, including a writer, a small hometown filled with horrors, and, of course, murder.
Ben Mears hast returned to Jerusalem’s Lot to work on his next book. After a pretty slow first half spent setting the scene in ‘Salem’s Lot by unfolding the personal dramas of its residents, a young boy dies mysteriously after venturing into the woods.
From that point, Mears and some of his friends take it upon themselves to stop the vampire frenzy that has descended upon their hometown.
Regina George is lucky she never crossed paths with Carrie, the titular character of King’s first published novel who discovers her telekinetic powers after being picked on by her schoolmates.
When prom night rolls around and Carrie finds she is the victim of another cruel practical joke, she uses her newfound powers to enact revenge on her peers in a terrifying massacre.
Unlike many of King’s other masterpieces of horror, the person doing the killing in this case in not necessarily the antagonist. We can sympathize with her, and King has even described the book as an allegory for feminism—yet another reason to check out this classic.
7. Pet Sematary
After his daughter’s cat was killed by a truck along a major road near his home, King buried the pet, but then got to thinking about what might happen if the cat would come back to life—only a bit different.
That’s essentially what happens in Pet Sematary, although we soon learn that the “sematary” is actually an ancient burial ground for the Mi’kmaq tribe, and when our protagonist, Louis, buries his son there in hopes of resurrecting him, we see things take a terrifying turn.
As another character concludes, “sometimes dead is better.”
Stephen King has identified Pet Sematary as the novel that scares him the most, so you know you’re onto some horror gold when you pick this one up.
6. The Green Mile
Not all King novels were written with the intent to terrify. In fact, The Green Mile brings us one of King’s most beloved characters: John Coffey, a man who has been wrongly accused and sentenced to death for the murder of two young girls.
Despite the gross injustice and racism that John faces inside the Green Mile (the name given to the penitentiary for its linoleum floors), his spirit never breaks, and he continues to use his mysterious healing powers to help those around him (including a cute mouse named Mr. Jingles).
While this book likely won’t give you nightmares, it will tug at your heartstrings with moments of great sadness, but pick you back up with reminders of human goodness. It’s a must-read (and watch, with Tom Hanks and Michael Clarke Duncan playing the leads in the film adaptation) for any honest King fan.
Another example of King’s diverse talents, 11/22/63 takes readers, and our protagonist, high school teacher Jake Epping, back in time with a mission to prevent JFK’s assassination.
This isn’t really one of those “what would the world be like if…” books. As much as we might crave that kind of tale, this book focuses on the mission at hand, and King’s masterful use of suspense will leave you wanting for nothing.
This fall will mark 56 years since that fateful day, and anyone who loves history, suspense, and a little bit of fantasy will delight in this 849-page gem.
In case you weren’t already terrified of clowns, this ought to do the trick. (And you shouldn’t rely on just the film version to get your scare.)
It is widely considered one of King’s greatest masterpieces. Coming in at over 1,000 pages, It represents the fears that dwell inside all of us, children and adults alike.
If you haven’t actually read the book or seen the films, trailers and promos might lead you to think that “It” is simply a demonic clown who goes around killing children in sewers. (Oops. Did I forget to say “spoiler alert?”)
While those terrifying scenes take up a good deal of the book, “It” is actually an evil entity that takes the form of whatever horrifies its victims the most. Though that often takes the form of Pennywise the Dancing Clown, it also includes a number of other nightmarish creatures—so rest assured that you’ll have plenty to keep you up at night.
In Misery, Paul Sheldon finds himself in the middle of a writer’s worst nightmare. After being injured in a car accident in a remote area of Colorado, he is taken in by (coincidentally?) his “number-one fan,” Annie Wilkes.
Annie refuses to take Paul to the hospital, instead nursing him back to health in her home and getting him hooked on her stash of painkillers. Oh, we should mention that Annie isn’t satisfied with the ending of Paul’s latest book, and she strongly insists he bring his protagonist back to life in his next novel.
Annie “motivates” Paul to finish the novel using a few choice tools, including an axe, a blowtorch, and an electric knife. King has admitted that Misery was partly about the pressure he felt from his own fans, but also about his dependence on cocaine in the 1980s.
After you’ve read the book, be sure to also check out the film adaptation that earned Kathy Bates an Oscar for her portrayal of Annie.
2. The Shining
No Stephen King list would be complete without The Shining. Though if you’re expecting those often parodied scenes of a crazed Jack Nicholson screaming “Hereeeee’s Johnny!” or creepy undead twins roaming the halls, you should know you won’t find many of those scenes here.
But once you start reading, you’ll find you don’t really need them anyway. Unlike Stanley Kubrick’s film adaptation, King’s novel paints a much more sympathetic picture of Jack Torrance, yet another alcoholic writer.
If you’re completely unfamiliar with the plot, it goes something like this:
Jack Torrance is hired as the off-season caretaker of the Overlook Hotel and takes up residence there with his wife and young son. High in the Colorado Rockies, the hotel is large, empty, and surrounded by nothing but snow. If that wasn’t enough to drive someone (especially a recovering alcoholic) insane, the hotel is also haunted.
While not really a horror novel, The Stand paints an eerie yet gripping picture of life on Earth after a virus kills off 99.4% of the population and is often listed as King’s greatest work.
The remaining survivors of the super flu will have to choose between two potential leaders: Mother Abagail, the 108-year-old woman who wants to build a peaceful community in Colorado, and Randall Flagg, the “Dark Man” who thrives off evil and chaos.
At almost 1,500 pages, this masterpiece will surely help you to pass those chilly autumn afternoons.
Bonus: On Writing
He’s known for being the king of horror, but Stephen King’s talents reach far beyond the genre that have made him one of the most successful writers of the last century.
Eager to know how he does it? King dives into the experiences, views, and habits that have shaped his work and his life in On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, giving fans a close-up look at his process. This is a bonus must-read for any King-lover or aspiring writer.
What’s your favorite Stephen King novel? Share your thoughts in the comments below!