Where to Start with Stephen King

By Amanda Pagan, Children's Librarian
October 24, 2019
Stavros Niarchos Foundation Library (SNFL)
Critical Insights by Stephen King book cover

You would be hard-pressed to find someone living in contemporary America who has not seen at least one film or television adaptation of Stephen King’s work. While horror films like Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining and Andy Muschietti’s It are instantly recognizable as Stephen King material, many movie fans are surprised to learn that Oscar-nominated films such as Stand By Me, The Shawshank Redemption, and The Green Mile are also adaptations of King’s fiction. Known primarily as the Master of Horror, King can surprise you with the versatility of his storytelling. 

Although the following is primarily a reading list, we felt it prudent to mention that the films of King’s career are almost inextricably linked to his career as an author. His work is a constant source of inspiration for filmmakers and artists, with the appearance of a new movie or TV series adaptation every few years. Many of these films have become classics in their own right (Carrie, The Shining, Pet Sematary), and it’s safe to assume that many readers have probably seen at least one King-based film adaptation before deciding to turn to King’s fiction. 

With at least 90 novels and more than 200 short stories under his belt, Stephen King has a bibliography that can look very intimidating to new readers. But fear not! We’re here to guide you on where to start! Even if you are not a horror fan, we’re sure one of these titles will end up on your favorite reads list. (All summaries adapted from the publisher.)

A Brief History of Stephen King's Life (so far)

Stephen King's Creepshow book cover

Stephen Edwin King was born in Maine in 1947. This is important to know, as many of King’s stories take place in fictional towns in his home state. The Shining and Misery are a couple of his well-known novels based instead in Colorado, where King and his family also lived for a time.

Growing up, King was a fan of classic horror writers such as H.P. Lovecraft, and horror comics like Tales from the Crypt, which he later paid homage to in his screenplay for the film Creepshow. King wrote short stories for fanzines throughout his youth, but it was not until 1967 that he sold his first story, The Glass Floor, to a published magazine, Startling Mystery Stories.

Carrie book cover

King met his wife Tabitha while they were students working at the Folger Library at the University of Maine. They married in 1971, and are still married to this day. Tabitha is also a novelist and has continuously supported her husband’s career. As newlyweds, the couple struggled to make ends meet, with King taking odd jobs and selling short stories to support their growing family. It was while living in a trailer that King finished what would become his first published novel, Carrie. According to King, he initially threw out his manuscript for Carrie, but Tabitha saved it and encouraged him to finish. 

Carrie was published in 1973 and became a bestseller. In 1976, the film version, directed by Brian De Palma, was released and is now considered a horror film classic. King's career flourished from that point on, with movie adaptations following closely behind his latest book releases. 

A Memoir of the Craft book cover

Many of his characters either suffer from substance abuse or deal with the repercussions of living with addiction. This stems from King's own experience. He developed a severe drug addiction in the 1980s, which coincided with the release of some of his most popular novels. According to King in his memoir, On Writing, his addiction was so severe, he hardly remembers writing Cujo. His family staged an intervention in the late 80s, and King has been sober ever since. Needful Things is the first novel he published after becoming sober. 

In 1999, King was hit by a van and survived despite severe injuries. He published his memoir On Writing while recovering. 

The Institute book cover

King has continuously published new material ever since Carrie’s publication, sometimes under his pen name, Richard Bachman. Under the Bachman name, King released several manuscripts he worked on before Carrie including The Long Walk and Rage. His son, Joseph Hillstrom King, also publishes horror under the pen name Joe Hill. King and Hill have collaborated on several short story collections. In 2017, King collaborated on the novel, Sleeping Beauties, with his other son, Owen King. Stephen King's latest novel, The Institute, was released this year to rave reviews. 

King has won a multitude of awards including the American Library Association award for Best Books for Young Adults, first for 'Salem's Lot in 1978 and again for Firestarter in 1981. 

If you ever go to a Boston Red Sox baseball game, you might catch a glimpse of King in the stands, as he is a huge fan. His love for the Red Sox was transplanted into his novel The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon, and a cameo in the Jimmy Fallon-Drew Barrymore movie, Fever Pitch. (Coincidentally, the 1984 film adaptation of Firestarterstarred a young Drew Barrymore.) Much like Stan Lee, King often appears in film adaptations of his work (and sometimes other media), so keep an eye out for him!  

Where to Start 

Forty Years of Fear from the Master of Horror

If you want to get a taste for King's style, we recommend checking out a collection of his short stories or one of his novellas. If you are looking for full-length novels, consider that Carrie and The Long Walk were both written at the start of his career, while Misery and Pet Semetary were released at the height of his popularity in the 1980s. 

The following novels occupy a shared universe and are pretty hefty reads for King beginners: Hearts in Atlantis, Desperation, It, Dreamcatcher, Duma Key, The Stand, The Tommyknockers, Rose Madder, Insomnia, and The Dark Tower series. The novel, Doctor Sleep, is a sequel to The Shining. The Mr. Mercedes trilogy consists of Mr. Mercedes, Finders Keepers, and End of Watch.

Many are tempted to start by reading It and The Stand due to their popularity (The Stand is largely considered to be King's magnum opus). Keep in mind that both novels are near 1,000 pages and require a great deal of commitment to properly enjoy them. For that reason, we recommend beginners start with one of King’s shorter novels and then work up to the larger ones—and we've even categorized his work below by length for this reason.

Please also bear in mind that King is the Master of Horror for a reason. Some of his work features topics that readers may find triggering or simply distasteful. When in doubt, please contact your nearest librarian for assistance. With that, we wish you luck with your trip into the macabre, grotesque, and horrifying world of Stephen King.