Stephen King is one of the greatest writers of his generation—not necessarily because of his scintillating prose, but because of his masterful ability to tell a story. While he is primarily known for his novels, Stephen King’s best work might be done in the form of the short story. While he has more than a few collections of short stories published, his best horror short stories were in his first few publications released. Here are five of his best:
From his collection Skeleton Crew. This counts more as a novella, as it really is too long to be considered a short story, but it is included in this short story collection. The story centers around a man and his son, who live next to a lake in a small town in Maine. After a particularly nasty thunderstorm, the two notice a curious mist hanging over the lake. As they leave for town to collect supplies to repair their home, they find themselves trapped in a grocery store as the mist has spread to the town and seemingly swallowed up those who venture into it.
The story ambles through the conflicts of those trapped in the store, the rapidly depleting food supplies, and the monsters that lurk in the mist. As wonderful and macabre as the story is, the story has an abrupt and dissatisfying ending. Despite the careful balancing of narrative and horror, the ending of the story can leave a bitter taste in the mouth of a reader. King himself admits in the preface that he—despite being a master storyteller—was unable to bring the conflict to a satisfying conclusion.
The ending notwithstanding, the story is an excellent example of what King is best at: taking a simple idea—a group of people trapped in a grocery store surrounded by monsters—and turning it into a horrifying narrative.
From his collection Night Shift. This short story is about a man who meets an old friend who has quit smoking and “looks great.” The man—a smoker himself—wonders how his friend quit such an aggravating addiction like smoking. His friend credits a company called “Quitters, Inc.” and hands him the business card. The man eventually follows up with the company and learns they can help you quit smoking, but at a terrible price.
This short story is effective because unlike many of King’s stories, the premise does not rely on any supernatural elements. The company “Quitters, Inc.” is a completely plausible company that might exist—although extremely far-fetched. This story relies on our own fear of commonplace addictions like smoking and the toll it takes on our loved ones around us.
From his collection Nightmares & Dreamscapes. This story begins with a distraught woman coming into a police station at 2 AM on a sleepy, quiet side of town. She recounts to the officers her terrifying night, claiming she lost her husband on a street entitled Crouch End. After the woman departs, the officers decide to check the street out for themselves. The story ends after the officers realize too late that the woman was not lying about Crouch End.
This story—told mostly in a flashback—is thoroughly creepy and tense. As to be expected with a short story by King, the story is taut with no extraneous details mucking up the story’s arc. The story wraps up nicely, as the officers themselves confront the same terror the woman did in her flashback.
Another from his collection Night Shift. The story is very brief and involves a group of men drinking at the local bar on a blustery winter night. The young son of a local man bursts in, claiming his father has transformed into something terrible at their house. After listening to the impassioned pleas of the young boy describing his father’s slow transformation at the hands of alcohol, the men the travel to the house. The story ends as the men finally confront what the boy’s father has become.
This very brief story is simple and highly effective. It takes the simple concept of how alcohol abuse changes a person and puts a horrific spin on it. Like the above mentioned “Crouch End,” King demonstrates how flashbacks and the like are effective tools to scare readers, as it allows the reader’s imagination to fill the gaps in the characters’ retelling of a story.
From his collection Nightmares & Dreamscapes. This story involves a beleaguered man traveling across the desert in Nevada. He chances upon a gas station during a sandstorm and while fueling up, finds a big set of wind-up teeth. He purchases the trinket for his son and makes the ill-fated decision to give a lift to a hitchhiker before resuming his jaunt across the desert.
“Chattery Teeth” is a bit longer than most of his short stories, but extremely well-done and executed flawlessly. The premise of a hitchhiker-cum-bloodthirsty rogue is nothing fresh, but the introduction of the wind-up walking teeth certainly is a new and strangely terrifying spin on the old saw. Unlike some of his other short stories, this one has a clear beginning and end, with the protagonist chancing upon the same gas station a year later at the end.
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