Newly updated to include King’s newest novel, Billy Summers! The reigning master of suspense is the author of more than 50 books and audiobooks, all of which have been international bestsellers, and many have been translated to the screen. The names are instantly recognizable: It. Pet Cemetery. Misery. Thinner.
All instant classics, and yet King’s craft seems to sweeten with age, with King still churning out some of his best work in recent years:
Mr. Mercedes. Doctor Sleep. The Outsider. The Institute. 11/22/63.
For audiobook fans, King’s recent catalog is a treasure trove. I’m making it my personal mission to listen to every Stephen King novel published so far this century, which given King’s propensity for very long books, is a far bigger job than you might imagine. It is, however, immensely rewarding.
Without further ado, here’s my list of the best Stephen King audiobooks published in this century.
This list will be updated continuously as I finish each successive book.
Weighing in at around 1,000 pages, King’s masterpiece is a historical thriller, crime novel and time-travel fantasy in one essential read. This happens to not only be our favorite King novel of this century, but of all time. (It has also been developed into a mini-series starring James Franco).
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.
King sweeps readers back in time to another moment—a real life moment—when everything went wrong: the JFK assassination. And in the process, he introduces readers to a character who has the power to change the course of history.
2) Finders Keepers
A more-than worthy follow-up to King’s Mr. Mercedes, Finders Keepers is an intense, addictive and even touching morality tale.
Finders Keepers begins with the tragic story of John Rothstein, an iconic author who created a famous character, Jimmy Gold, but who hasn’t published a book for decades (he seems obviously modeled after JD Salinger).
Morris Bellamy is livid, not just because Rothstein has stopped providing books, but because the nonconformist Jimmy Gold has sold out for a career in advertising.
Morris kills Rothstein and empties his safe of cash, yes, but the real treasure is a trove of notebooks containing at least one more Gold novel.
Morris hides the money and the notebooks, and then he is locked away for another crime.
3) The Institute
Stephen King’s thriller The Institute is in no way a sequel to Dr. Sleep (which itself was a sequel to The Shining), but thematically speaking, it’s a close cousin.
In the middle of the night, in a house on a quiet street in suburban Minneapolis, intruders silently murder Luke Ellis’s parents and load him into a black SUV. The operation takes less than two minutes. Luke will wake up at The Institute, in a room that looks just like his own, except there’s no window. And outside his door are other doors, behind which are other kids with special talents—telekinesis and telepathy—who got to this place the same way Luke did: Kalisha, Nick, George, Iris, and ten-year-old Avery Dixon. They are all in Front Half. Others, Luke learns, graduated to Back Half, “like the roach motel,” Kalisha says. “You check in, but you don’t check out.”
In this most sinister of institutions, the director, Mrs. Sigsby, and her staff are ruthlessly dedicated to extracting from these children the force of their extranormal gifts. There are no scruples here. If you go along, you get tokens for the vending machines. If you don’t, punishment is brutal. As each new victim disappears to Back Half, Luke becomes more and more desperate to get out and get help.
But no one has ever escaped.
Brave readers will not be disappointed.
With The Shining and select other stories, Stephen King practically invented the subgenre of paranormal thriller centered around children’s ability to see dead people. In Later, he delivers a fresh take on the concept with a novel that manages to be suspenseful, fun and touching all at once.
Jamie Conklin, the son of a single literary agent, can see deceased people and interact with them in the hours and days after they die. To the highly intelligent nine-year-old, this ability is mostly a burden. Even his mother doesn’t believe him until a deceased neighbor tells him where to find her wedding rings and the facts check out. As is the convention for stories like this, adults can’t see what Jamie does.
But his gift becomes suddenly useful when Jamie’s mother suffers a series of financial catastrophes. In the financial meltdown of the great recession, his mother loses her money to a Ponzi scheme. Her disabled brother requires ever-increasing levels of care, which she is on the hook for. Then the IRS comes after her for back taxes. Finally, the last author who is a reliable money maker dies at his desk without completing his magnum opus.
Jamie’s mother pulls him out of school to rush him to the dead author’s home, where she hopes he can question the deceased about the novel he intended to write. Along for the ride is his mother’s lover, a cop who is immediately skeptical of Jamie’s abilities. At this point, the novel becomes a bit of a crime caper, with Jamie and the two adults in his life conspiring to create the unfinished novel and cash in big.
That’s just the beginning of the book’s suspense. It’s also hardly the beating heart of the book. Jamie’s life as an only child with a single mother is beautifully written, filled with uncomfortable moments and unimaginable tenderness.
Once again, King proves that he only gets better with age. Later is easily one of King’s best novels of the past 20 years.
5) Under the Dome
Made into a TV series, Under the Dome begins on an entirely normal, beautiful fall day in Chester’s Mill, Maine, the town is inexplicably and suddenly sealed off from the rest of the world by an invisible force field.
Planes crash into it and fall from the sky in flaming wreckage, a gardener’s hand is severed as “the dome” comes down on it, people running errands in the neighboring town are divided from their families, and cars explode on impact. No one can fathom what this barrier is, where it came from, and when — or if — it will go away.
Dale Barbara, Iraq vet and now a short-order cook, finds himself teamed with a few intrepid citizens — town newspaper owner Julia Shumway, a physician’s assistant at the hospital, a select-woman, and three brave kids. Against them stands Big Jim Rennie, a politician who will stop at nothing — even murder — to hold the reins of power, and his son, who is keeping a horrible secret in a dark pantry. But their main adversary is the Dome itself.
Because time isn’t just short. It’s running out.
6) Gwendy’s Button Box
Despite thousands of Amazon reviews, this gem, with audiobook narration by Maggie Siff, is often overlooked. The little town of Castle Rock, Maine, has witnessed some strange events and unusual visitors over the years, but there is one story that has never been told…until now.
There are three ways up to Castle View from the town of Castle Rock: Route 117, Pleasant Road, and the Suicide Stairs. Every day in the summer of 1974, 12-year-old Gwendy Peterson has taken the stairs, which are held by strong (if time-rusted) iron bolts and zigzag up the cliffside.
At the top of the stairs, Gwendy catches her breath and listens to the shouts of the kids on the playground. From a bit farther away comes the chink of an aluminum bat hitting a baseball as the Senior League kids practice for the Labor Day charity game.
One day a stranger calls to Gwendy: “Hey, girl. Come on over here for a bit. We ought to palaver, you and me.”
7) Mr. Mercedes
Without warning, a lone driver plows through the crowd in a stolen Mercedes, running over the innocent, backing up, and charging again.
Eight people are killed; fifteen are wounded. The killer escapes.
In another part of town, months later, a retired cop named Bill Hodges is still haunted by the unsolved crime.
When he gets a crazed letter from someone who self-identifies as the “perk” and threatens an even more diabolical attack, Hodges wakes up from his depressed and vacant retirement, hell-bent on preventing another tragedy.
Mr. Mercedes won the prestigious Edgar book award.
9) Billy Summers
The Bottom Line: A masterfully told assassination thriller about about vengeance, love and redemption.
Billy is a killer for hire with a strong moral compass. To hire Billy, he has to believe that his target is truly a bad person.
But Billy has decided to hang up his rifle, so to speak. But not before one last hit.
This last job promises to pay $2 million, and the relationship with his employer sours. Soon, a rape victim who Billy rescues becomes his confidante.
King has always loved to write about writing and writers, and the theme turns up again here, as Billy begins writing his autobiography as he writes his own autobiography. In the process, King delivers two novels for the price of one. Billy’s backstory is nearly as compelling as what happens in the present.
Even the most straightforward King crime novels, such as Mr. Mercedes and Later, have paranormal elements. That is mostly absent from Billy Summers, but even diehard King fans won’t miss it. As in his novel Joyland, King returns to the language of noir, but with much better results. Highly recommended, and a worthy addition to the list of tremendous Stephen Books books over the past 20 years.
10) End of Watch
If you’ve read the first two books in King’s Bill Hodges trilogy, you can’t possibly miss the finale. If you haven’t read them, shame on you.
In Room 217 of the Lakes Region Traumatic Brain Injury Clinic, something has awakened. Something evil. Brady Hartsfield, perpetrator of the Mercedes Massacre, where eight people were killed and many more were badly injured, has been in the clinic for five years, in a vegetative state. According to his doctors, anything approaching a complete recovery is unlikely. But behind the drool and stare, Brady is awake, and in possession of deadly new powers that allow him to wreak unimaginable havoc without ever leaving his hospital room.
Retired police detective Bill Hodges, the unlikely hero of Mr. Mercedes and Finders Keepers, now runs an investigation agency with his partner, Holly Gibney—the woman who delivered the blow to Hartsfield’s head that put him on the brain injury ward. When Bill and Holly are called to a suicide scene with ties to the Mercedes Massacre, they find themselves pulled into their most dangerous case yet, one that will put their lives at risk, as well as those of Bill’s heroic young friend Jerome Robinson and his teenage sister, Barbara. Brady Hartsfield is back, and planning revenge not just on Hodges and his friends, but on an entire city.
In End of Watch, Stephen King brings the Hodges trilogy to a sublimely terrifying conclusion, combining the detective fiction of Mr. Mercedes and Finders Keepers with the heart-pounding, supernatural suspense that has been his bestselling trademark.
The result is an unnerving look at human vulnerability and chilling suspense. No one does it better than King.
10) If It Bleeds
If It Bleeds delivers more proof that Stephen King has only gotten better with age.
The book’s eponymously named story features eccentric investigator Holly Gibney, the character who stole some of King’s best scenes in the Mr. Mercedes trilogy and in The Outsider.
While Holly was twisted into a savant-like character by the HBO production of The Outsider, fans will be pleased that she returns to form in If It Bleeds, where she once again tracks a grief-eater with a worldview that is without equal.
But the book’s high-water mark is the first story in the collection, Mr Harrigan’s Phone.
The story follows the lifelong relationship of a boy living in one of King’s favorite fictional Maine towns. After being hired to read for Mr. Harrigan, the town’s wealthiest man, they develop a close relationship, leading Mr. Harrigan to leave him a considerable trust.
At the funeral, which King manages to make terrifying using nothing more than a typical young child’s experience at such an occasion, the boy places the old man’s iPhone in his inside pocket just before the coffin is closed.
Needless to say, the phone doesn’t stay quiet after the old man us buried six feet under.
In a small New England town, over half a century ago, a shadow falls over a small boy playing with his toy soldiers. Jamie Morton looks up to see a striking man, the new minister.
Charles Jacobs, along with his beautiful wife, will transform the local church. The men and boys are all a bit in love with Mrs. Jacobs; the women and girls feel the same about Reverend Jacobs—including Jamie’s mother and beloved sister, Claire.
With Jamie, the Reverend shares a deeper bond based on a secret obsession. When tragedy strikes the Jacobs family, this charismatic preacher curses God, mocks all religious belief, and is banished from the shocked town.
Jamie has demons of his own. Wed to his guitar from the age of thirteen, he plays in bands across the country, living the nomadic lifestyle of bar-band rock and roll while fleeing from his family’s horrific loss. In his mid-thirties—addicted to heroin, stranded, desperate—Jamie meets Charles Jacobs again, with profound consequences for both men.
Their bond becomes a pact beyond even the Devil’s devising, and Jamie discovers that the word “revival” has many meanings.
12) Doctor Sleep
This audiobook is required for The Shining fans, and a must for even casual Stephen King fans. Here King returns to the character and territory of one of his most popular novels ever, The Shining, in this instantly riveting novel about the now middle-aged Dan Torrance and the very special twelve-year-old girl he must save from a tribe of murderous paranormals.
On highways across America, a tribe of people called the True Knot travel in search of sustenance. They look harmless—mostly old, lots of polyester, and married to their RVs. But as Dan Torrance knows, and spunky twelve-year-old Abra Stone learns, the True Knot are quasi-immortal, living off the steam that children with the shining produce when they are slowly tortured to death.
Haunted by the inhabitants of the Overlook Hotel, where he spent one horrific childhood year, Dan has been drifting for decades, desperate to shed his father’s legacy of despair, alcoholism, and violence. Finally, he settles in a New Hampshire town, an AA community that sustains him, and a job at a nursing home where his remnant shining power provides the crucial final comfort to the dying. Aided by a prescient cat, he becomes “Doctor Sleep.”
Then Dan meets the evanescent Abra Stone, and it is her spectacular gift, the brightest shining ever seen, that reignites Dan’s own demons and summons him to a battle for Abra’s soul and survival.
Doctor Sleep won a Bram Stoker book award.
13) Joyland (Hard Case Crime)
King’s pulpy crime novel is a slight departure in style from King’s normal fare, and feels decidedly “light” compared to the sheer tonnage-per-novel King has churned out since the turn of the century.
Like all King books, however, Joyland is full of characters that you can’t help but root for. It’s still a great audiobook, however.
Set in a small-town North Carolina amusement park in 1973, Joyland tells the story of the summer in which college student Devin Jones comes to work as a carny, and confronts the legacy of a vicious murder, the fate of a dying child, and the ways both will change his life forever.
Fans of King’s earlier work looking for lots of paranormal flavor may be disappointed. Despite its pulpy exterior, this is a love story that’s long on suspense and short on action.
14) Duma Key
Duma Key’s plot is an enticing one: after a wildly successful entrepreneur loses a limb in a horrific accident, he takes up painting as a way to stave off suicidal depression.
In the process, he discovers that his paintings reveal things that others cannot see, including events that may happen in the future. But the future is dangerous, and attempts to control it may do more harm than good.
As in all King’s audiobooks in recent years, the depth of characterization is simply superb, and the plot unpredictable and exciting.
Unlike his best work (Finders Keepers, 11/22/63, etc) from this period, however, a great deal of time is spent fleshing out secondary characters. At times, this drags down the pacing and plot.
Nevertheless, Duma Key is still not to be missed for any true King fan.
Bonus points for the Duma Key audiobook narration by Mad Men’s John Slattery!
15) Bazaar of Bad Dreams
The master of horror returns to his core genre with great success.
In my view, many of Stephen King’s greatest books over the past two decades have not in fact been in the horror genre, but rather his crime fiction.
In The Bazaar of Bad Dreams, a collection of short stories, King goes back to his roots. There are a lot of gems here, some of which are appearing in print for the first time. My favorite is “The Dune,” the story of a judge who, as a boy, canoed to a deserted island and saw names of the s00n-to-be-departed written in the sand. It’s a truly perfect short story with a brilliant reveal in the very last line that most won’t see coming. If you’re in need of a truly simple and brilliant campfire story, this one is guaranteed to ensure the kiddies won’t get a wink of sleep.
Honorable mention goes to “Obits,” a story about a columnist who kills people by writing their obituaries.
King introduces each with a passage about its origins or his motivations for writing it. “I made them especially for you,” says King. “Feel free to examine them, but please be careful. The best of them have teeth.”
16) The Outsider
The Bottom Line: Although not officially a part of King’s Mr. Mercedes series, there’s enough left of the original trilogy’s magic here for one more good story. King’s marriage of the police procedural and horror genres pays off once again.
In The Outsider, a small town is rocked when a longtime little league baseball coach is publicly arrested for the rape and murder of a young boy. The crime seems wildly out of character with what the town knows about Terry Maitland. And yet, fingerprints, blood samples, eyewitness testimony and even DNA samples found within semen point to Maitland as the killer.
Meanwhile, video footage, additional eyewitness testimony and firsthand accounts make clear that Maitland was in another city at the time of the murder.
How can this be?
In Stephen King’s world, anything is possible. Enter Holly from Finder’s Keeper’s investigative services, whom fans of King’s magnificent Mr. Mercedes trilogy will remember as the socially awkward, morally admirable and clever sidekick to Detective Bill Hodges. As Holly knows all too well, paranormal activity is real, and it’s up to her to open the minds of these small town investigators.
King’s marriage of the police procedural and horror genres pays off once again. While The Outsider isn’t one of King’s finest novels, the first half is superb and provides more than enough momentum to push most readers through to the end.
17) Sleeping Beauties
Almost every egg King lays is made of pure gold, but not this one. Still, that shouldn’t deter King fans from devouring every page.
Sleeping Beauties, a collaboration between King and his son, Owen, is unlike any other Stephen King book. While just as brutal as anything King has ever written, it seems to come from a particularly feminist point of view that often feels forced. Still, the book contains the master’s signature wordcraft, and may still be enjoyable to many fans.
Set in a small Appalachian town whose primary employer is a women’s prison, something happens when women go to sleep: they become shrouded in a cocoon-like gauze. If they are awakened, if the gauze wrapping their bodies is disturbed or violated, the women become feral and spectacularly violent. And while they sleep they go to another place, a better place, where harmony prevails and conflict is rare.
One woman, the mysterious “Eve Black,” is immune to the blessing or curse of the sleeping disease. Is Eve a medical anomaly to be studied? Or is she a demon who must be slain? Abandoned, left to their increasingly primal urges, the men divide into warring factions, some wanting to kill Eve, some to save her. Others exploit the chaos to wreak their own vengeance on new enemies. All turn to violence in a suddenly all-male world.