Here I will attempt to list the scariest, creepiest, most frightening work that Mr. King has to offer. I will also attempt to embellish the list using free images from Pixabay.
Feeling pigeonholed as just a horror writer after reader backlash against his (excellent) fantasy novel The Eyes of the Dragon, Mr. King got his sweet, savory revenge by releasing Misery, a… horror novel. Take that, readers! That said, Misery is an excellent book, with its pages crawling with the heebie-jeebies; a shiver-inducing tension materializes whenever antagonist Anne Wilkes appears. It’s a testament to King’s ability to write characters that out of all the supernatural monsters and serial killers that he’s created, a lonely nurse is quite possibly the most frightening.
Just After Sunset: Stories
The first of King’s short story anthologies on this list, Just After Sunset collects 13 horrific tales, starting with Willa, the ending of which veteran horror readers can probably guess before the halfway point of the story but is delightfully spooky nonetheless. Other standouts include the not-Lovecraftian but kinda-Lovecraftian N., the enjoyable-but-vile A Very Tight Place, and my favorite, Mute. This collection of bite-sized scares is a great start for those unfamiliar with Stephen King’s short works.
Now, Saint Bernards are generally dogs that are content to sit there drooling while toddlers yank on their ears and tug on their tails, but the titular canine character in Cujo is the stuff of nightmares. Rabid and bloodthirsty, Cujo terrorizes a pair of families in Castle Rock (also the setting for The Body and Needful Things), making readers see old Fido in a completely new and frightening light.
Lisey’s Story is disarmingly sweet; unexpected for a Stephen King horror story. Also unexpected is that one of the main characters in the book is a successful writer and that traits of other characters in the novel include psychosis and other signs of mental illness. Despite this all being completely brand-new literary territory for Mr. King, Lisey’s Story ends up being a great horror book with the perfect amount of romanticism.
The setting of The Shining — the isolated, empty Overlook Hotel in the middle of a cold winter — isn’t the scariest part of the book. The thing that frightens me the most about The Shining is the slow, methodical build-up, the ratcheting up of tension until the entire hotel seems to drip with something sinister and you can’t help but keep turning the pages until boom, things happen and you inadvertently and spontaneously develop a bunch of new phobias. A truly scary story and one of Stephen King’s best works.
While The Shining‘s scares were accentuated by a slow, anxious accumulation of tension, its direct sequel, Doctor Sleep, has much more vicious and palpable scares. The story follows Jack Torrance’s son, now a grown man and dealing with his own alcoholism and internal demons as he wrestles with his ability to shine; this is an ability, he finds, is not his alone. The struggles are still psychological and there are still ghostly dangers abound, but Doctor Sleep is scary in a much different, non-claustrophobic way.
People find clowns scary. The painted-on smiles, the unnaturally white makeup, the bright costumes — it all speaks to some innate fear that we have. Within the psychological horrors of King’s IT, this fear is compounded by the demon-like mysticism of the titular character. IT is a spooky, spooky book, and is one of Stephen King’s must-read works.
Teenage girls are scary enough, but when you combine their hormone-fueled bodies with supernatural powers, the scare factor reaches a whole new level. Just imagine an emotional teenage girl, give her superpowers, and fill her with rage: this is Carrie. Carrie is all at once a horror novel, a commentary on bullying, and a peek into the lives of high school pre-adults.
For me, the standout story in Skeleton Crew is the novella The Mist, which has been re-published as a standalone edition. The Mist has everything I could ever want from a lovecraftian horror story, with just the right amount of creepiness and tension interrupted periodically by fantastical eldritch monsters. Other great stories are included in this collection, including the not-quite-horror-but-still-horrific The Word Processor of the Gods and two fantastic stories about a psychotic milkman called Morning Deliveries and Big Wheels: A Tale of the Laundry Game.
Just like The Shining, much of ‘Salem’s Lot‘s scares come from a slow, methodical build-up of tension that increases steadily until it reaches a boiling point. ‘Salem’s Lot tells the story of Ben — a writer, of course — in the fictional town of Jerusalem’s Lot as mysterious events unfold. ‘Salem’s Lot is one of King’s best and scariest books.