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Warning: This article contains spoilers for 20 Stephen King book endings. Proceed with caution.
Few writers are as prolific as Stephen King. America’s own Master of Horror has been delighting his Constant Readers ever since he burst onto the scene with Carrie in 1974. King’s body of work can be divided into a few distinct eras depending on which fan you ask. One thing Constant Readers can all agree on, though, is that Stephen King book endings can be a little…hit or miss.
Okay, a lot hit or miss. Reading Stephen King is how I learned what, exactly a deus ex machina ending is. Many King novels and stories suffer from these “God from the machine” endings, in which some higher power or unpredictable supernatural phenomenon steps in to tie up loose ends — usually by smiting the Big Bad.
Now, don’t get me wrong, I love a good popcorn novel, deus ex machina or no. There’s something fun and silly about reading an engaging book, only to find out that it was aliens the whole time, or something equally absurd. Is it a cop-out? Maybe. But the fun of reading Stephen King is in the journey, not the destination.
Below, you’ll find 20 of King’s full-length novels — excluding the Bachman books and those he co-authored (sorry, Gwendy fans) — which rank among the best or worst of King’s work based on their endings alone. If one of your favorite King novels is in the bottom 10, well, take comfort in knowing that mine is, too.
The 10 Worst Stephen King Book Endings, From Bad To Terrible
Honestly, if you’ve ever wished you had a high-fantasy novel written by Stephen King, go pick this one up. Just know that you’re probably not going to enjoy the ending unless you really, really like fairy tales and trick endings. Just as the heroes close in on the evil magician Flagg in the novel’s epilogue, the narrator pulls back, promising to tell the story of their encounter at another time. Until we get a sequel to The Eyes of the Dragon, it’s going to occupy a pretty low position on the Stephen-King-book-ending scale.
I love it when Stephen King gets weird, and you don’t get much weirder than Rose Madder. When Rosie leaves her abusive husband, Norman, and starts over without him, she encounters a mysterious painting that leads to a fantastical alternate reality. There, she meets and forms a tentative alliance with the title character, who later helps Rosie dispose of Norman when he shows up to kill his estranged wife. The problem with this book’s ending isn’t that Rosie lures her abuser into a painting to get rid of him. It’s that she then drugs and gaslights her new partner, Bill, to make him forget about Rose Madder’s world. King’s decision to have a battered wife turn into an abuser herself just doesn’t sit well.
Remember how I said that Stephen King has a deus ex machina problem? Well, The Stand, despite being a must-read sci-fi novel, ends with the literal Hand of God appearing in the sky above a double-crucifixion to set off a nuclear warhead and end the good guys’ epic struggle against evil. Seriously. I don’t know what else I can say about it.
Okay, so I may be a bit biased here. I loved the Dark Tower series, but this book was a slog for me. It took me no less than four times to finish. Part of the reason for this is that the novel’s framing story — which begins with Roland and his ka-tet caught in a deadly game of riddles with Blaine the Mono — is far more intriguing than the lengthy flashbacks to Roland’s youth it surrounds. We’re inundated with Wizard of Oz references as the gunslinger and his posse travel through Kansas, with the Emerald City literally hovering in the distance, but we only get to see the city and the wizard in person at the very end of the novel, at which point they promptly disappear. It’s disappointing, to say the least.
Aliens and interdimensional beings show up in a lot of King’s works, but The Tommyknockers is his definitive alien novel. And it’s yet another work that the author himself doesn’t like. I personally enjoy this book, but the ending is…abrupt. After the spacecraft leaves Earth for good, thanks to the heroic efforts of one hard-drinking, self-sacrificing poet, the remaining Tommyknockers — townsfolk who “became” something else under the aliens’ influence — begin to kill themselves, one by one, until the cavalry arrives. By the time U.S. intelligence and military forces are done with them, only a handful of Tommyknockers remain…and all of them die in the Shop. It’s a rushed, too-tidy ending for such a sprawling novel.
Written while King was recovering from the 1999 accident that almost claimed his life, Dreamcatcher isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. Not even King himself likes it very much. The story has a lot of parallels to IT — and that’s ignoring the fact that the main characters hail from Derry, Maine. Unfortunately, Dreamcatcher also shares some of the problems found in The Green Mile. Namely, that a marginalized character with magical powers — in this case Duddits, a telepathic young man with Down Syndrome — sacrifices himself to save a world that has, largely, been nothing but cruel to him.
The vast majority of the time, the reason a Stephen King book ending is “bad” is because it comes completely out of left field. That’s not the case with Under the Dome, however. One of the earliest theories as to why Chester’s Mill, Maine has been encapsulated turns out to be the correct one. It’s aliens — and teenagers at that. The issue here, then, is not that readers can’t see the ending coming, but that the town’s redemption comes when someone gets the bright idea to just…ask their captors nicely to let them go. Ultimately, it’s a real shame Under the Dome has such an anticlimactic ending, because the rest of the novel is a tautly drawn work of small-town drama.
Wrongfully convicted death row inmate John Coffey’s life reads like a Greek tragedy, but he’s too forgiving to be angry about what’s happened to him. Instead, he devotes himself to healing white people who hold power over him. As Nnedi Okorafor points out in “Stephen King’s Super Duper Magical Negroes,” just before his execution, “Coffey basically thanks his jailers who have not questioned his guilt until it’s too late and done nothing to help him get out of jail…or even convince him to try.” Charming as the fact that the mouse lives to be 60-some-odd years old may be, King’s most famous — and most literal — use of the Magical Negro trope leaves a bad taste in the mouth.
Cujo is one of those rare Stephen King books where there is no malevolent entity hunting humans as its prey. Just rabies — a terrifying virus that’s almost universally fatal once the patient is symptomatic — and the dangers of a closed car in the summer heat. The real problem here is the “patient.” Cujo, the eponymous Saint Bernard, is a good dog who turns vicious when he’s bitten on the nose by a rabies-carrying bat. He’s doomed to shed his good-boy persona for that of a slavering beast. Worse, he’s doomed to die. At the end of the day, Cujo isn’t a horror novel. It’s a tragedy.
IT is a shining example of how a great book can have a terrible ending. Regardless of how you feel about the Ritual of Chüd, or Audra’s memory-restoring ride on Silver’s handlebars, we can all agree that Stephen King crossed a line when he wrote That Scene™. You know, the flashback to all the boys in the Losers Club having sex with Bev…in 1958…when they’re 11 years old? Sure, we were cool with a whole bunch of things we shouldn’t have been back then, but this one wasn’t okay even when IT came out in 1986.
The 10 Best Stephen King Book Endings, From Good To Great
Sometimes, they come back; sometimes, dead is better. Despite its use of the Indian burial ground trope, which is more than a little problematic, Pet Sematary has one of the best endings of any Stephen King novel. After he’s forced to kill his son and the family cat, both of whom have already died and been resurrected before, Louis Creed makes one last foolish attempt at using the Pet Sematary. This time, he’s out to revive his wife, Rachel, and he’s convinced she’ll fare better than poor Gage and Church, since her body is — for lack of a better word — fresher. Rachel turns up to put Louis’s foolish theory to rest, just as the novel ends. This is one of King’s most chilling endings, and if you haven’t yet experienced it for yourself, you absolutely should.
It’s an old story: a malevolent entity moves into an idyllic small town and shakes things up by sowing discord and turning neighbor against neighbor. Under King’s pen, the entity turns out to be a demon — or something like it — who sells trash and weapons in exchange for buyers’ souls. Although a few good people in Castle Rock, Maine manage to see through the evil shopkeeper’s ruse and run him out of town, the book’s the-end-or-is-it epilogue proves that you can’t keep a bad man down, and deliciously so.
I often wonder what it would be like if one of my favorite authors wrote a Magnificent Seven Samurai story. When it comes to Stephen King, I don’t have to wonder. The fifth Dark Tower book, Wolves of the Calla, follows Roland and his ka-tet to Calla Bryn Sturgis: a small town unable to defend itself from the Wolves’ child-stealing raids. Tired of losing half their children to the Wolves, who return them “roont,” the people of Calla Bryn Sturgis are ready to mount a counter-assault, but they need the gunslingers’ help to do it. Not only does Wolves of the Calla feature a climactic battle between the forces of good and evil, but it also introduces Stephen King as a writer character in the Dark Tower canon and hearkens back to Roland and Eddie’s earliest adventures with Susannah, who goes missing at the end of the novel.
Constant Readers had to wait six years after the publication of The Waste Lands to get their hands on Wizard and Glass. That must have been absolute torture, seeing as the third Dark Tower book ends on one of the most epic cliffhangers in speculative fiction. After completing their ka-tet, Roland and his allies travel to Lud — an ancient city run by rival gangs who are deeply entrenched in a years-long war. There, they meet Blaine the Mono: a sentient high-speed train who became mentally ill following his companion’s suicide. Planning to go down in a blaze of glory, Blaine agrees to take them as far as they need to go, but only if they can beat him in a game. If they fail, he’s going to take them out of this world with him.
“Stephen King” and “tearjerker endings” aren’t exactly synonymous. But King pulls out all the stops in 11/22/63, which follows one young man attempting to right one of history’s most dreadful wrongs — John F. Kennedy’s assassination — using a time-travel portal located in a burger joint. It doesn’t sound like a recipe for a touching love story, but King makes things work here. If you liked “The Inner Light” and Captain America’s MCU story arc, you’re going to love Jake and Sadie’s story.
Misery is one of those books that does exactly what it says on the tin. This story of a newly disabled writer trapped in a house of horrors with a serial killer who claims to be his biggest fan is a true thrill ride. Annie’s systematic torture and mutilation of Paul is far more gruesome here than in the 1990 film adaptation, and Paul’s final flight from his captor keeps readers on the edge of their seats, even if they already know what’s coming ’round the bend.
Lisey’s Story succeeds where Rose Madder failed. Yet again, King presents us with a single woman — in this case, a famous writer’s widow — who lures the man stalking her into a magical otherworld to die. Only this time, the world is connected directly to the woman’s late husband, who died with many painful secrets about his own past. The result is a profound meditation on the depths of grief, enduring love, and human connection.
This might be King’s most controversial book ending. I mean, it’s preceded by a lengthy warning from the author, telling readers to close the book if they don’t want to be disappointed. Roland has finally reached the Dark Tower, only to realize that he has been there many, many times before. Opening the door of the Tower leads him back to the desert. This time, however, Roland has the Horn of Eld — an artifact that he lost in his youth, which may hold the key to completing his mission. The Dark Tower ends where The Gunslinger began, more than 20 years before: “The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed.”
It’s no secret that Stephen King’s writing has been heavily influenced by that of H.P. Lovecraft, but even his weirdest novels can’t hold a candle to Revival. The story here follows the lifelong relationship between Charlie, a young preacher obsessed with finding electricity’s untapped potential, and Jamie, one of his earliest parishioners and patients. After renouncing his faith following the deaths of his wife and son, Charlie comes to realize the same power that heals his patients could open a window onto the afterlife…but all he finds are horrors beyond comprehension.
Honestly, I flip-flopped a little about whether to give top honors to ‘Salem’s Lot or Revival, but ‘Salem’s Lot won out in the end. Here, King perfectly nails the kind of open endings that caused banana-peel faceplants in The Eyes of the Dragon and Cell. One year after they watched everyone in town succumb to the vampiric invasion, survivors Ben and Mark return to Jerusalem’s Lot, Maine — now a ghost town in the light of day — to finish what they started. It’s a pitch-perfect close to a chilling vampire story.