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The Scariest Stephen King Books by Horror Genre

Stephen King is, without a doubt, one of the most prolific horror writers of all time. He’s written dozens of books (the majority of which have found their way to the screen, making him the living author with the most film adaptations) and has been applauded as almost single-handedly reviving horror in fiction. One of the most remarkable things about his works is that, though they are all for the most part downright terrifying, they all achieve horror in different ways. Ghosts, monsters, serial killers, dark magic — whatever your taste for fear is, King has a book for you. 

With this in mind, I’ve compiled a (completely biased) list of some of the best Stephen King books by their genre of horror. If you’ve never read a King book before, think about what you find scary and use this list as a good place to start!

(Warning: light spoilers ahead!)

Cosmic Horror – The Mist (1980)

If you’ve ever stared up at the night sky and been overwhelmed by the vastness of it all, you’ve experienced a small dose of cosmic horror. Cosmic horror is generally said to have been born in the mind of H.P. Lovecraft (think “The Call of Cthulhu”) and preys primarily on the fear of the unknown. Monsters in this sub-genre are often impossibly huge and ancient, highlighting just how small and inconsequential a human is on a universal scale. The fear stems from powerlessness in the face of something incomprehensible. In many Lovecraftian stories, rather than attempting to face these eldritch horrors, the protagonist simply goes mad.

The Mist is an excellent example of cosmic horror. The protagonist finds himself trapped in a supermarket with his son when a thick mist rolls over town. Everyone who tries to leave is killed swiftly (and by the sounds of it, horribly) by unseen creatures. Not a lot happens in this novella, but King has masterfully crafted a story of unease and increasing hopelessness as the characters trapped together try to come to terms with the sudden destruction of everything they understood about reality. Like many of King’s shorter works, The Mist lacks a satisfying explanation for its events, but its size and the sheer intensity of its plot make it a perfect single-sitting read. 

Psychological Horror – Misery (1987)

Psychological horror is one of the more popular sub-genres of horror, preferred by those who can’t stomach much violence. Instead of jumpscares and gore, psychological horror focuses on cultivating an unsettling atmosphere. Traditional horror preys on human survival instincts (you have to outrun the killer!), but psychological horror aims for a more intimate kind of fear that breeds paranoia and suspense. Characters are often emotionally disturbed and plot twists are abundant, such that the fear stems not from any direct threat, but from all the possibilities of threat. 

King’s Misery is a much-referenced work of psychological horror and is, in my opinion, one of his most frightening works. The protagonist is a popular writer who gets into a car accident that leaves his body completely shattered. When he wakes up he’s been rescued by Annie Wilkes, who just so happens to be his biggest fan. Wilkes, however, has no intention of letting the writer go. What follows is an incredible story of suspense and fear with only two significant characters, one of which hardly leaves his bed. Though there is no immediate danger for the majority of the book, King’s prose is impeccable, creating a palpable tension as the protagonist plans his escape, making the book tough to put down. Misery has also been turned into an excellent film starring James Caan and Kathy Bates for those horror fans who prefer their fear on the screen. 

Body Horror – “The Raft” from Skeleton Crew (1985)

In contrast to psychological horror, body horror throws subtlety completely out the window; it inspires fear with depictions of gruesome and graphic violence, showcasing fates worse than death. Often characters in body horror stories come to harm in uniquely disturbing ways. This genre is massively popular, covering such horror staples as The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and its seven highly-marketed sequels. 

“The Raft” from King’s short story collection Skeleton Crew is short, to-the-point and incredibly gruesome. It follows a group of teenagers who swim out to a diving raft at night for one last taste of summer. Once they’re on the raft, in the middle of a lake with not a soul in sight, the teens realize that there’s something in the water. “The Raft” is one of the most disgusting things that I have ever read, and over the course of its thirty-odd pages I had to put it down multiple times to remind myself that I was not in the middle of the lake with the unfortunate teens. The level of detail in the characters’ deaths was horrific. This is the only King work on this list that I would refuse to reread, but clearly, it stuck with me! 

Gothic Horror – Pet Sematary (1983)

Gothic horror, somewhat similar to cosmic horror, draws its fear from the unknown. It often deals with existentialism, contrasting life and death. A classic example of gothic horror (and one studied to death in English classrooms) is Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Frankenstein’s monster is an embodiment of human temptation and recklessness, showcasing beautifully the consequences of human hubris. A key aspect of gothic horror is its uniquely bleak environment. Traditionally set in crumbling castles, the setting itself adds hopelessness and unease to the story. 

King doesn’t write a lot of specifically gothic works. Pet Sematary, however, encapsulates the genre pretty well. It also happens to be the book that King considers to be his scariest. The protagonist moves to a new town in Maine (where the majority of misfortunes happen in the King universe), into a house situated next to a high-traffic highway. A large number of pets are killed crossing the highway, which leads to a growing collection of graves in the woods. If you go deeper into the woods, however, sometimes the things you bury don’t stay dead. And, sometimes, maybe they should. Pet Sematary somewhat echoes Frankenstein, exploring the human fear of mortality and the irresistible temptation of overcoming it. Classically scary, it’s a must-read for any King fan. 

Horror Realism – Cujo (1981)

All of the horror genres covered thus far deal with some level of the supernatural, or, in the case of psychological horror, at least the very far-fetched. Sometimes, though, the scariest stories are the ones that could be true. Horror realism understands this, and creates fear under totally plausible circumstances. Many serial killer stories fall under horror realism, as well as stories about nature turning against the protagonist. A well-executed realist horror story prompts the reader to imagine just how easily these horrific events could happen to them, and how powerless they are to prevent it. 

As King stories go, few are more realistic than Cujo. The premise is simple: Cujo is a sweet (and quite large) Saint Bernard, who has the great misfortune of being bitten by a sick rabbit. Cujo goes rabid and begins attacking people. The most terrifying part is simply a woman and her young son trapped inside their car as the 200lb dog tries to get inside. The story is heart-wrenching, in part because of how easy it is to imagine. Cujo is an excellent introduction to King’s style, though it’s worth noting that the story is a spiritual sequel to The Dead Zone, so reading Cujo first may cause some confusion. 

If you’re a veteran King fan like myself, none of these recommendations should come as a surprise. If you’ve never picked up a King book, hopefully this crash-course gives you a good idea of where to start! And if you can’t stomach horror, King has also written an amazing selection of thrillers, mysteries and fantasies. What unites all of his books is the depth of humanity he gives all of his characters, making each one a rewarding read even if it keeps you up at night listening for bumps in the dark. 

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Sophia Belyk

Western '21

Sophia is a fourth year student at Western University studying communications and technology. She loves horror books, non-horror video games, cats, and examining how technology and society intersect, for better or for worse.
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