Stephen King Books Ranked

The Top 20 Books: A Meta-Analysis/ Ranking


I came to Stephen King pretty late in my reading life. As someone who got an MFA and has "literary aspirations" my (uninformed) feeling about King was that he was to literature what the Twinkie is to food. That is to say, empty calories that can give you a sugar rush up front but ultimately leave you with a lacking feeling and maybe a stomach ache.


What I've come to realize is that this is bullshit. But I also see how King perhaps got the reputation of being less than a stellar writer. Because the thing is, Stephen King is a writing machine, having written anywhere from eighty to over a hundred books, depending on how you count things. The man, as we say in the startup world, just f*cking ships.


Anyhow... on account of said shipping, King has written some mediocre and some less than mediocre books. But he's also written a lot of amazing stuff. So then, prospective readers are faced with the dilemma: which Stephen King book should you read? To answer said question one can easily take to Google; however, there are so many different lists and opinions on that matter, that one can hardly know who to believe.


Never fear! Some months ago (before having a child!), when I had a little free time and found data entry/ analysis meditative, I compiled all the different lists I could find and created the one list to rule them all, which is below. This list, aggregated the top 9 lists ranking Stephen King books (according to Google) I found online. If you care to see my methodology feel free to go to the end of this article.


For everyone else, without further ado, here, in reverse order, is a meta list of the top 20 Stephen King books:


20. Christine

Score: 68.6

Highest Ranking: 9

Top 20: 2

Top 10: 1

Top 5: 0

Top 3: 0


What's it about:


"Stephen King’s ultimate evil vehicle of terror, Christine: the frightening story of a nerdy teenager who falls in love with his vintage Plymouth Fury. It’s love at first sight, but this car is no lady."


My take:


Haven't read it. Haven't seen the movie. Not particularly high on my list to do either.


19. Wolves of the Calla


Score: 71.6

Highest Ranking: 4*

Top 20: 3

Top 10: 2

Top 5: 1

Top 3: 0


*Notes on Ranking:


Ranking the Dark Tower books was a bit complicated because some lists thought of them as a single book whereas others broke them out individually. For more on this, check out my methodology on the bottom of the page.


What's it about:


"Wolves of the Calla is the highly anticipated fifth book in Stephen King’s Dark Tower series—a unique bestselling epic fantasy quest inspired many years ago by The Lord of the Rings."


My take:


Wolves of the Calla is the lowest ranked of all of the seven main Dark Tower books, with the exception of Song of Susannah that didn't make King's top twenty at all. That said, to me personally, it roughly correlated with my peak enjoyment of The Dark Tower series. By this point in the series I was heavily invested in the characters and found this book to be a delightful continuation to the series.


Heavily influenced by Kurosawa's The Seven Samurai as well as its remake The Magnificent Seven, Calla is an action packed sci-fi/ fantasy/ western. It also marks the point where The Dark Tower starts to get particularly weird with Father Callahan from Salem's Lot entering the story as a semi major character.


18. Doctor Sleep


Score: 71.8

Highest Ranking: 10

Top 20: 4

Top 10: 1

Top 5: 0

Top 3: 0


What's it about:


"Years ago, the haunting of the Overlook Hotel nearly broke young Dan Torrance’s sanity, as his paranormal gift known as “the shining” opened a door straight into hell. And even though Dan is all grown up, the ghosts of the Overlook—and his father’s legacy of alcoholism and violence—kept him drifting aimlessly for most of his life. Now, Dan has finally found some order in the chaos by working in a local hospice, earning the nickname “Doctor Sleep” by secretly using his special abilities to comfort the dying and prepare them for the afterlife. But when he unexpectedly meets twelve-year-old Abra Stone—who possesses an even more powerful manifestation of the shining—the two find their lives in sudden jeopardy at the hands of the ageless and murderous nomadic tribe known as the True Knot, reigniting Dan’s own demons and summoning him to battle for this young girl’s soul and survival..."


My take:


I recently finished The Shining (more on that below), of which Doctor Sleep is the sequel, and realized that it's much more about the little boy, Danny, than the iconic Stanley Kubrick movie would have suggested. This sequel ostensibly follows Danny and his abilities into adulthood. Based on how I enjoyed reading The Shining, I'll probably give this a go eventually.


17. The Dark Tower


Score: 73.8

Highest Ranking: 4*

Top 20: 3

Top 10: 2

Top 5: 1

Top 3: 0


*Notes on Ranking:


Again, some lists considered the Dark Tower books as a single book whereas others broke them out individually. For more on this, check out my methodology on the bottom of the page.


What's it about:


"Entwining stories and worlds from a vast and complex canvas, here is the conclusion readers have long awaited—breathtakingly imaginative, boldly visionary, and wholly entertaining... Roland Deschain and his ka-tet have journeyed together and apart, scattered far and wide across multilayered worlds of wheres and whens. The destinies of Roland, Susannah, Jake, Father Callahan, Oy, and Eddie are bound in the Dark Tower itself, which now pulls them ever closer to their own endings and beginnings...and into a maelstrom of emotion, violence, and discovery.."


My take:


Successfully ending a series/ story as sprawling and as epic as The Dark Tower isn't easy. And this book is by no means perfect. There are certainly some shaky parts and some of the plot threads/ confrontations I really wanted to see don't come to pass. Still, King does a pretty solid job of sticking the landing.


16. The Dead Zone



Score: 74.2

Highest Ranking: 6

Top 20: 5

Top 10: 3

Top 5: 0

Top 3: 0


What's it about:


"[A] reluctant clairvoyant who must weigh his options when he suddenly sees the terrible future awaiting mankind."


My take:


My only real impression of this book come from the early 2000s TV series starring Anthony Michael Hall and a vague recollection of the movie with Christopher Walken in the 80s. I think I remember liking it?



15. 11/22/63




Score: 75.6

Highest Ranking: 6

Top 20: 5

Top 10: 4

Top 5: 0

Top 3: 0


What's it about:


"On November 22, 1963, three shots rang out in Dallas, President Kennedy died, and the world changed. What if you could change it back? Stephen King’s heart-stoppingly dramatic new novel is about a man who travels back in time to prevent the JFK assassination—a thousand page tour de force."


My take:


I haven't read this one either, but I remember when it came out there was a lot of buzz about Stephen King being "back." I'll probably want to give this one a go at some point. For some reason though, the fact that James Franco was heavily involved in the Hulu series makes me slightly less enthusiastic.



14. The Drawing of the Three



Score: 76.5

Highest Ranking: 4

Top 20: 5

Top 10: 3

Top 5: 1

Top 3: 0


What's it about:


"Beginning just less than seven hours after The Gunslinger ends, in the second installment to the thrilling Dark Tower Series, Roland encounters three mysterious doorways on a deserted beach along the Western Sea. Each one enters into a different person’s life in New York—here, he joins forces with the defiant young Eddie Dean, and with the beautiful, brilliant, and brave Odetta Holmes, to save the Dark Tower."


My take:


This is the book where the Dark Tower Series really finds its footing and goes from a weird fantasy western to the sprawling world-hopping behemoth it eventually becomes--and where Roland the gunslinger goes from being lone hero to leader of an unlikely band of allies and friends on par with Tolkien's fellowship.


To be honest, as I started the book, I was a little turned off because it felt like such a departure from the book that preceded it and I ended up putting it down for a few years. When I eventually did pick it back up though, I realized that I just had to get past that initial feeling of disorientation to settle in to the series that would become one of the most enjoyable reading experiences of my life. The Drawing of the Three wasn't my absolute favorite of the Dark Tower books, but it is the book where the series begins to take form.



13. Cujo



Score: 77.1

Highest Ranking: 4

Top 20: 5

Top 10: 2

Top 5: 2

Top 3: 0


What's it about:


"The #1 New York Times bestseller, Cujo “hits the jugular” (The New York Times) with the story of a friendly Saint Bernard that is bitten by a bat. Get ready to meet the most hideous menace ever to terrorize the town of Castle Rock, Maine."


My take:


By all accounts this is a terrifying, Stephen King classic. But something about horror books involving animals just turns me off. And for that reason, this book (as well as the even more highly regarded Pet Sematary) aren't high on my list.


12. The Waste Lands



Score: 77.9

Highest Ranking: 4*

Top 20: 5

Top 10: 4

Top 5: 2

Top 3: 0


*See previous note on ranking Dark Tower books


What's it about (leaving out any details that might be major spoilers for previous books):


"The third volume in the #1 nationally bestselling Dark Tower Series, involving the enigmatic Roland (the last gunfighter) and his ongoing quest for the Dark Tower, is “Stephen King at his best” (School Library Journal)."


My take:


If the Drawing of the Three is where the Dark Tower series takes form, The Waste Land is where it gets going full speed. This is where the band of protagonists (Roland's ka-tet) fully comes together and is a fast paced adventure novel with lots of memorable antagonists/ villains.


King is often (rightfully) spoken of as the master of horror fiction, but what I don't think he gets anywhere near enough credit for is for being one of the absolute best at depicting friendship. Whether it's Roland's ka-tet or the Losers Club from It or the bands of travelers in The Stand, King is able to write realistic portrayals of close-knit friends unlike any other writer I can think of--and this is the book in the Dark Tower series where this begins to fully be on display.



10/11. (tie) Wizard and Glass



Score: 79.1

Highest Ranking: 4*

Top 20: 6

Top 10: 4

Top 5: 1

Top 3: 0


*See previous note on ranking Dark Tower books


What's it about:


"While following the deserted I-70 toward a distant glass palace, Roland recounts his tragic story about a seaside town called Hambry, where he fell in love with a girl named Susan Delgado, and where he and his old tet-mates Alain and Cuthbert battled the forces of John Farson, the harrier who—with a little help from a seeing sphere called Maerlyn’s Grapefruit—ignited Mid-World’s final war."


My take:


One of the things I so admire about the Dark Tower books is that they are messy. The plot doesn't always feel structured and the books aren't afraid to take risks--from characters showing up from King's other books to Stephen King himself becoming an important character in a huge meta-fictional move. Wizard and Glass is another of those risks where the vast majority of the door-stopper-thick tome is a flashback told by Roland as he and his ka-tet venture westward through an alternate universe Kansas.


The story of Roland's young life and love for a woman named Susan Delgado is criticized by some as being a too-long diversion from the central thrust of the series, but to me the detour was a story full of adventure and nostalgia and tragedy that is worthy of telling on its own, and, in the context of the broader series, deepens our feeling for Roland as a protagonist.


Perhaps my favorite of the Dark Tower books.


10/11. (tie) Different Seasons



Score: 79.1

Highest Ranking: 3 (2X)

Top 20: 5

Top 10: 4

Top 5: 2

Top 3: 2


What's it about:


"This gripping collection begins with 'Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption,' in which an unjustly imprisoned convict seeks a strange and startling revenge—the basis for the Best Picture Academy Award-nominee The Shawshank Redemption.


"Next is 'Apt Pupil,' the inspiration for the film of the same name about top high school student Todd Bowden and his obsession with the dark and deadly past of an older man in town.


"In 'The Body,' four rambunctious young boys plunge through the façade of a small town and come face-to-face with life, death, and intimations of their own mortality. This novella became the movie Stand By Me.


"Finally, a disgraced woman is determined to triumph over death in 'The Breathing Method.'"


My take:


The only one of the novellas I've read is "The Body" and, in general, I liked it and thought it another great portrayal of friendship by King. As far as the others, you'll see one ongoing problem I have with some of King's work as we pull into the home stretch of his greatest books, which is that some of his writing has been turned into such iconic films that it's hard to even think about coming at the written version with a fresh perspective. Such is the case with the novella here that was turned into the Shawshank Redemption.


I love the movie so much, that I don't really want a different take on the story.


9. The Gunslinger



Score: 80.9

Highest Ranking: 1

Top 20: 6

Top 10: 5

Top 5: 2

Top 3: 1


*See previous note on ranking Dark Tower books


What's it about:


"In the first book of this brilliant series, Stephen King introduces listeners to one of his most powerful creations: Roland of Gilead, The Last Gunslinger. He is a haunting figure, a loner on a spellbinding journey into good and evil. In his desolate world, which frighteningly mirrors our own, Roland tracks The Man in Black, encounters an enticing woman named Alice, and begins a friendship with the boy from New York named Jake."


My take:


In many ways The Gunslinger feels apart from the other Dark Tower books. This makes sense given that King wrote this book long before the others and likely prior to conceiving of the series as a whole. Taken on its own The Gunslinger is an excitingly strange, but flawed book that I could easily imagine becoming a kind of cult classic had it been written by some no-name author rather than one of the most famous writers in the world. For despite some of its shortcomings The Gunslinger feels fresh and unlike anything else I've read, and does a masterful job of creating mood. Also, it has the best first sentence I've ever read:


The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed.


8. The Green Mile



Score: 83.2

Highest Ranking: 1

Top 20: 6

Top 10: 5

Top 5: 2

Top 3: 2


What's it about:


"Welcome to Cold Mountain Penitentiary, home to the Depression-worn men of E Block. Convicted killers all, each awaits his turn to walk “the Green Mile,” the lime-colored linoleum corridor leading to a final meeting with Old Sparky, Cold Mountain’s electric chair. Prison guard Paul Edgecombe has seen his share of oddities over the years working the Mile, but he’s never seen anything like John Coffey—a man with the body of a giant and the mind of a child, condemned for a crime terrifying in its violence and shocking in its depravity. And in this place of ultimate retribution, Edgecombe is about to discover the terrible, wondrous truth about John Coffey—a truth that will challenge his most cherished beliefs…"


My take:


I haven't read the book, but this is another case of me loving a movie so much that I don't really feel particularly motivated to read the book. Still, the reviews online do seem rather stellar, so maybe I'll get to it some day?


7. Salem's Lot



Score: 84.6

Highest Ranking: 4

Top 20: 8

Top 10: 4

Top 5: 3

Top 3: 0


What's it about:


"Ben Mears has returned to Jerusalem’s Lot in hopes that exploring the history of the Marsten House, an old mansion long the subject of rumor and speculation, will help him cast out his personal devils and provide inspiration for his new book. But when two young boys venture into the woods, and only one returns alive, Mears begins to realize that something sinister is at work—in fact, his hometown is under siege from forces of darkness far beyond his imagination. And only he, with a small group of allies, can hope to contain the evil that is growing within the borders of this small New England town."


My take:


After I finished the Dark Tower Series, I was so much craving other material related to King's magnum opus that I picked up Salem's Lot simply to get more of Father Callahan--a character of medium importance in King's vampire horror novel. That was probably not the best angle through which to embark on reading this book. In the end, my feeling was that it was a competently crafted horror novel that felt a whole lot like every horror movie I watched in the 80s as a kid. Fine, but not particularly memorable.


6. Carrie



Score: 86.6

Highest Ranking: 1

Top 20: 6

Top 10: 6

Top 5: 3

Top 3: 3


What's it about:


"Stephen King's legendary debut, about a teenage outcast and the revenge she enacts on her classmates. Carrie White may be picked on by her classmates, but she has a gift. She can move things with her mind. Doors lock. Candles fall. This is her power and her problem. Then, an act of kindness, as spontaneous as the vicious taunts of her classmates, offers Carrie a chance to be a normal...until an unexpected cruelty turns her gift into a weapon of horror and destruction that no one will ever forget."


My take:


I'm sure it's good (haven't read), but the plot doesn't seem to really be my jam. As a writer though, it would be interesting to read King's debut.


5. Pet Sematary




Score: 89.9

Highest Ranking: 3

Top 20: 7

Top 10: 6

Top 5: 4

Top 3: 1


What's it about:


"When Dr. Louis Creed takes a new job and moves his family to the idyllic rural town of Ludlow, Maine, this new beginning seems too good to be true. Despite Ludlow’s tranquility, an undercurrent of danger exists here. Those trucks on the road outside the Creed’s beautiful old home travel by just a little too quickly, for one thing…as is evidenced by the makeshift graveyard in the nearby woods where generations of children have buried their beloved pets. Then there are the warnings to Louis both real and from the depths of his nightmares that he should not venture beyond the borders of this little graveyard where another burial ground lures with seductive promises and ungodly temptations. A blood-chilling truth is hidden there—one more terrifying than death itself, and hideously more powerful. As Louis is about to discover for himself sometimes, dead is better…"


My take:


Like with Cujo, I'm sort of out on animal/ pet horror, although the top 5 ranking here makes me curious to give it a shot.


4. Misery



Score: 94.7

Highest Ranking: 4

Top 20: 9

Top 10: 8

Top 5: 3

Top 3: 0


What's it about:


"The #1 New York Times bestseller about a famous novelist held hostage in a remote location by his “number one fan.” One of “Stephen King’s best…genuinely scary” (USA TODAY).


My take:


I haven't read the book yet, but damn, Kathy Bates was good in the movie. Based on said movie, I can see how this would make a really good book.



3. The Stand


Score: 95.4

Highest Ranking: 1 (2x)

Top 20: 9

Top 10: 7

Top 5: 4

Top 3: 3


What's it about:


"Stephen King’s apocalyptic vision of a world blasted by plague and tangled in an elemental struggle between good and evil remains as rivetingeerily plausibleas when it was first published. The New York Times called it "the book that has everything. Adventure. Romance. Prophecy. Allegory. Satire. Fantasy. Realism. Apocalypse. Great!"


My take:


The Stand is a great novel that I'm pretty sure people will be reading a hundred years from now. It's not only big in terms of its page count, but it feels vast and when you're on the road with the characters you get that feeling of being on some epic journey in a way that only Lord of the Rings has given me previously. King inhabits each character wonderfully and, be they good or evil, you're forced to see things from each one's perspective. Also, Randall Flagg is probably one of the most perfectly crafted villains in all of literature (name a better one!). Yes, the ending is a literal deus ex machina (and that's sort of disappointing), but other than that, I can't levy too many criticisms.


2. It


Score: 98.4

Highest Ranking: 1

Top 20: 9

Top 10: 8

Top 5: 8

Top 3: 7


What's it about:


"Stephen King’s terrifying, classic #1 New York Times bestseller, “a landmark in American literature” (Chicago Sun-Times)—about seven adults who return to their hometown to confront a nightmare they had first stumbled on as teenagers…an evil without a name: It."


My take:


I had a middling recollection of the TV mini-series that played when I was a kid and knew that there were two halves to the story (when the characters are kids, and again when they're adults) as they face off against a murderous demon clown. Still, despite being generally aware of the plot of the book, I was both surprised and delighted by reading the actual book. First, the structures of the film and book versions are very different. While both have "two halves" the film versions (both the mini-series and the more recent feature films) show things in roughly chronological order where viewers see everything about the childhood narrative before seeing all of the adult narrative. The books on the other hand jump back and forth between the timelines, which in turn inform one another. The second thing I really enjoyed about the book version was, again, how well King depicts the friendship between the protagonists. Some have said that It is the greatest horror novel ever written, but I disagree. I actually think it's a coming-of-age novel and a novel about the close bonds we forge during those years, simply disguised as a horror novel.




1. The Shining


Score: 100

Highest Ranking: 1 (3x)

Top 20: 9

Top 10: 9

Top 5: 8

Top 3: 7


What's it about:


"Jack Torrance’s new job at the Overlook Hotel is the perfect chance for a fresh start. As the off-season caretaker at the atmospheric old hotel, he’ll have plenty of time to spend reconnecting with his family and working on his writing. But as the harsh winter weather sets in, the idyllic location feels ever more remote . . . and more sinister. And the only one to notice the strange and terrible forces gathering around the Overlook is Danny Torrance, a uniquely gifted five-year-old."


My take:


The Shining is quite a good book that is both better and different from the iconic movie of the same name (which is a good movie in its own right). Whereas the movie very strongly centers on Jack Nicholson's portrayal of Jack Torrance, the book makes Danny and his strange gift (or shining) much more central. On the sentence level, The Shining may be King's best work, yet the to me at least the characters and plot don't feel nearly as engrossing as my three favorite King works: It, The Stand, and the Dark Tower series. Also, it didn't help that due to the movie, I essentially knew how things were going to end.


***

So there you have it. The one ranking to rule all Stephen King rankings.For the record, here's my own personal list:


  1. The Dark Tower (w/ books 3, 4, 5 being my favs)

  2. The Stand

  3. It

  4. The Shining

  5. On Writing

And here are the books I'm most interested to read in the future:

  1. Doctor Sleep

  2. 11/22/63

  3. The Green Mile

  4. Misery



A NOTE ON METHODOLOGY:


  • There were nine lists that made up the raw data for my ranking.

  • 75 different books were found across these lists. The individual lists themselves didn't all rank that many books though. One ranked as many as 74 books, and one ranked as few as ten.

  • I assigned ranking scores for each book for each list (i.e. 1 for best book, 2 for second best, etc.). Where a book was not ranked, I assigned it the midpoint for all unranked books. For instance, one list ranked 13 books. Every book not on that list received a 31, or (75-13)/2 = 31.

  • The Dark Tower Series was sometimes considered seven individual books and sometimes considered one. In cases where it was considered one book, I gave all seven books in the series the same score.

  • I then sorted all the books based on the sum of their rankings numbers across the nine lists and indexed the scores so the top ranking book (The Shining) would get 100.

The original lists:






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