King’s 1986 horror-slash-coming-of-age novel is currently enjoying a resurgence following a 2017 film adaptation, and the release of a new edition with a particularly striking cover.
Set in small-town Maine, the novel follows a group of men and women who were teenagers when they first discovered the horror that lurked in Derry. Now they’re grown-ups, out in the big wide world in pursuit of success and happiness. Yet none of them can withstand the force that has drawn them back to their hometown to face the nightmare without an end, and the evil without a name…. It.
It takes on the form of everyone’s deepest dread - shifting shape and biding time before exploding out and killing. This is often described as King’s scariest novel as he’s not writing about a single terrifying thing that could harm you, but about everything in existence that possibly could. It’s a enrapturing, shock-filled story about the death of youth, being alone, confronting childhood trauma and obscene teenage suffering.
11.22.63 is about a time traveller who attempts to prevent the real-life assassination of President Kennedy, which occurred on November 22, 1963. King started writing it just a few years after Kennedy’s death but felt America’s pain was too raw, and it wasn’t published until 2011.
The story stars a likeable but lost divorcee schoolteacher, Jake Epping, as he discovers a portal to the past and makes the altogether bonkers decision to go back in time and change the course of history. Average Joes from small-town America pushed beyond the limit of conventional human understanding are King’s bread and butter, and Epping fits the mould perfectly. He’s this novel’s real strength.
Whilst 11.22.63 still has a strong supernatural element, it’s a departure from King’s usual offering. This is a conspiracy thriller at heart, intelligent and imaginative and riddled with questions that ask What If? It is at once deeply romantic and a deeply pessimistic look at human nature.
3. Salem’s Lot
First published in 1975, King’s second novel sits firmly in the horror genre, and with vampires to boot. It is set in a small New England town not unlike many others, except for the odd whispers of strange happening. Ben Mears, a moderately successful writer, returns to the town of his childhood to write a novel about his experiences growing up and banish his demons over an event he once witnessed there.
It’s a slow burning book in which the plot takes time to gather momentum, but where hints about the waiting dangers set alarm bells ringing increasingly loudly as the pages flick by. It’s a testament to King’s skill - his ability to lull you into a false state of security whilst still holding your interest - and it makes what follows all the more horrifying. This novel is in part a metaphor for dying small-town life and in part one about the evil that's always there, lurking in the shadows, waiting to return…
2. Pet Semetary
The legend goes that when King first wrote his infamous 1983 horror novel, he was so terrified of what he’d produced, he put it in a drawer and swore never to publish it. Then he reached the end of his contract and with nothing else to show for it, his wife persuaded him it should see the light of day. Nothing like theatrics to set the mood!
In Pet Semetary, the Creed family move to remote, rural Maine in search of a better life, away from smoggy, dangerous Chicago. Their new home is quiet and peaceful, with only the occasional truck passing along the two-lane road out front. But behind the house is a carefully cleared path, one that leads through the woods to a place where generations of local children have buried their precious departed pets. It’s a sad place, but it’s not unsafe, is it?
They couldn’t be more wrong! This novel isn’t just scary, it is one that makes you question your emotional and moral responses - your entire system of beliefs. How far will you go to protect those you love? The subtle, brooding malevolence that creeps slowly upon you as King teases his way to the big reveal is utterly timeless, and will make your skin crawl.
1. The Stand
This is a post-apocalyptic fantasy horror novel, first published in 1978 and at over 1300 pages long, it's not for the weak willed. When King described The Stand he said, “I wanted to do The Lord of the Rings with an American background” - and Bookaxe readers think he’s nailed it.
In this novel, the US military accidentally unleash a strain of flu that has been modified into a biological weapon, and it ends up killing 99.4% of the world’s population. What follows is those few survivors trying to raise themselves from the ruins and start again Guided by prophetic dreams, they gravitate to one of two camps - one good and hopeful, one pure evil.
The Stand is chilling in it’s sheer plausibility (who hasn’t had the flu?), and asks classic King questions about good versus evil, and the lengths we’ll go to in order to survive. In this terrifying, exciting, deeply layered novel, every character has their own unique purpose and it is undoubtedly the book that turns Stephen King fans into genuine superfans, who’ll follow him to the darkest depth of hell and back.