“Monsters are real, and ghosts are real too. They live inside us, and sometimes, they win.”
These words are just a taste of why Stephen King became one of the most recognizable names not just in horror fiction but in publishing in general. Stephen King is also one of the most prolific authors of all time, with over 70 published novels and a new one, “Billy Summers,” slated for an August 2021 release date. Aside from novels and novellas, he has also published over 130 horror short stories.
From hardcovers to mass paperbacks, Stephen King’s short stories are as recognizable as his novels.
But which ones are the most terrifying, most bone-chilling and most thought-provoking of Stephen King’s short stories?
Children of the Corn
Perhaps one of the earliest of the horror short stories to receive a film upgrade, “Children of the Corn” regales the reader with a dysfunctional couple driving through Nebraska’s corn fields. They discover the eerie town of Gaitlin and fall headfirst into a world of folk horror and bloodthirsty children.
The story itself ramps up the tension with the increasingly disturbing discoveries about Gaitlin before the shocking finale amidst the corn. The film series that spawned form it is one of the most cringey of Stephen King adaptations. One hopes it will receive a 2017’s “Suspiria”-type remake to revitalize interest in this fearful folk horror story.
The House on Maple Street
Ostensibly a science fiction story and not overtly horrifying, “The House on Maple Street” stands out because it draws inspiration from another work of fiction. King openly promotes and credits Chris Van Allsburg’s book, “The Mysteries of Harris Burdick”, as the source of the story. It’s about siblings who discover something very unusual happening in their home . . . just in time for them to plot a nefarious fate for their abusive stepfather.
Stephen King’s short stories don’t shy away from using traditional horrors like vampires and zombies, but his take on the Boogeyman is particularly chilling. He doesn’t alter the piece’s main villain, the Boogeyman.
So many modern creators alter traditional horrors to spice up their tales, like the monsters in “Cabin in the Woods.” Instead, he focuses on the monster’s protagonist, showcasing their vulnerabilities and sins. The protagonist of the story isn’t a child being tormented by the Boogeyman, rather that child’s parent who is helpless against the horror. It makes a refreshing, frightening and interesting horror short story.
Slasher fiction often revolves around the final girl, the last woman standing against a psychopath. In the story, a woman grappling with loss turns to jogging as an escape. One day, she stumbles upon a serial killer. What follows is a game of cat and mouse as she flees her pursuer but runs to confront her own past. King’s “Gingerbread Girl” has the trappings of a slasher flick, but he invests much more time developing and focusing on the woman in question.
The Road Virus Heads North
King loves creepy paintings. Indeed, he loves them so much that a strange painting is a key plot point of his 1995 novel, “Rose Madder.” Although the painting in that novel is at least helpful, albeit in an upsetting way, the painting in this short story features a murderous psychopath in a car, hell bent on hunting the unfortunate protagonist who bought it. It’s a nerve wrecking tale as you the reader helplessly reads to the finale, just as the protagonist can only watch the painting show the killer getting closer and closer.
Lunch at the Gotham Café
Horror can be a creeping dread, but sometimes it can just spring out of nowhere.
“Lunch at the Gotham Café” follows a man as he meets with his wife and divorce attorney at the titular café. However, their tense meeting is disrupted by the most unlikely and terrifying of homicides. It’s tense, nail-biting suspense from the moment the first signs of terror appear. And you will never read the phrase “EEEEEEEEEEE” again without flinching in fear.
Little Sisters of Eluria
This story belongs to Stephen King’s magnum opus, the “Dark Tower” saga. The hero of the series, Roland Deschain, is injured and take in by what seems like a benevolent order of nurse-nuns. However, all is not what it seems with the Little Sisters of Eluria.
What do they hide beneath their wimples? What does Roland feel under his heavy bandages? And where do the sisters’ patients go when they leave? King kicks the tension up a notch with each night Roland spends under the care of the ominous sisters, weaving a taut masterpiece.
Stephen King short stories rarely venture into science fiction, but when he does, the results can be truly frightening. King has tackled space travel and interdimensional shenanigans, but “The Jaunt” takes the seemingly innocuous notion of teleportation and makes a tale that ends in one of the most shocking twists he has ever written. If this story doesn’t leave you awake afterwards, then nothing will.
Surprisingly, this short story doesn’t deal with visceral horror. Rather, it explores well, morality. A married couple grapples with financial difficulty, only to be told they could have the money they need. But, as always, there is a catch: they must commit a single sin and capture it on video. What seems like a trivial matter escalates until it makes you, the reader, consider what does it mean to be a morally upright person.
The crème-dela-crème of Stephen King’s short stories often make use of first-person narration, and “Survivor Type” does this by being a series of journal entries. The protagonist is a drug-dealing surgeon trapped on a barren island after a shipwreck. His only supplies are the journal, a pencil and a kilo of cocaine. How far would he go to survive? And what length would you go to if you were in the same situation?
Descents into madness are some of the most gripping and visceral of horror short stories, like “Black Swan.” “Survivor Type” manages to frame madness into rationality and add a dose of body horror as you read more and more of the deranged journal entries. As far as horror goes, this is the top shelf stuff.
Stephen King’s short stories may not be as well-known as his novels, but they remain testaments to his skill. So go and check out these ten stories. You will not regret them . . . at least until nightfall.