Welcome back Stephen King Fans, to the exciting conclusion of our Nightmare and Dreamscapes ranking of Kings best short stories. Previousy we looked at some of the best scary stories from the maestro of horror, although it would be easy to pigeonhole the writer’s work into the horror genre. King has a plethora of non-horror works in his illustrious career and this list takes a look at some of the short stories that don’t have his usual horror elements attached to them.
Note: The list showcases SHORT STORIES, not novellas. Therefore you won’t see Rita Hayworth and The Shawshank Redemption, The body, The Green Mile or anything like that here.
10. “The Last Rung on the Ladder” (Night Shift, 1978)
A guilt-ridden man remembers a game he played with his little sister in their family barn when they were children.
The Last Rung on The Ladder is the first of five stories on this list that don’t actually contain any supernatural elements. Really this story is an excellent example of King’s command of language; many people think of him as a great storyteller, but he’s also a great writer who knows how to create raw emotion with the simple power of words — or in this case, a repeated sentence. Larry, a grown man, talks about the dangerous game he used to play in his childhood home with his sister. When their parents weren’t home, they’d go into the family barn, climb a ladder to the loft and swan dive off, landing in a pile of hay. It’s the grief/guilt emotions elicited in this story that really gives the reader a punch in the gut.
9. “Premium Harmony” (The Bazaar of Bad Dreams, 2015)
A man and wife argue in a car – they stop off at a convenience store and she dies from a heart attack
Like The Last Rung on the Ladder and The Woman in the Room, this is another story with no supernatural elements. There’s death, sure – but there’s a mundane element of every day life scattered throughout the narrative that makes you interested in the lives of Ray and Mary Burkett – that you could be these people in a few years…or maybe this is you, now.
8. “The Lawnmower Man” (Night Shift, 1978)
A man enlists a gardener to maintain his lawn.
Some people would argue that this would consist of horror, but I’d disagree. I think The Lawnmower Man is actually a comedy. An absurd comedy, at that. Harold Parkette hires a potbellied lawnmower man to cut the grass in his back garden. He dozes off and when awakes, finds the lawnmower running by itself and the naked lawnmower man following it on all fours, eating the grass. This ends with the lawnmower chasing Harold through his living room before brutally slaughtering him.
When the police arrive, they conclude that Parkette was murdered and dismembered by a schizophrenic sex maniac. As they leave, the scent of freshly cut grass hangs strongly in the air. Maybe this one should have gone under horror…
7. “Word Processor of the Gods” (Skeleton Crew, 1985)
A writer discovers that the word processor given to him by his teenage nephew has the mysterious ability to affect reality, but the electronics in the patchwork machine are brittle and will not function for long.
There’s supernatural elements at play here, but the real lynchpin of the story is the relationship between the writer and his nephew. He can delete his obnoxious son and his wife, and effectively change his life for the better. Is it a metaphor for having our cake and eating it? Or that it’s never too late to better oneself and make a change? Possibly a story that hasn’t aged very well – certain parties may find this story overtly misogynistic and predictable today.
6. “The Man in the Black Suit” (Everything’s Eventual, 2002)
A boy encounters the devil and recounts his story as an old man
One could argue that this story would fit nicely well into the horror category, however the real message on display here is simple: it’s a tale about mortality. The story is narrated by Gary, looking back from his perspective as an elderly man. He is haunted by his belief that he escaped from the devil by sheer luck and by the end, we learn that he’s frightened by the thought of his approaching death and the possibility of a second encounter with the man in the black suit. Gary knows that he won’t be able to outwit him or outrun him in his old age.
5. “The Woman in the Room” (Night Shift, 1978)
Narrated from the perspective of a man burdened with deep remorse, pain, and his demons, the story concerns his decision to euthanize his terminally ill mother with painkillers.
The Woman in the Room was the first story I remember reading of Stephen King’s that affected me in a way unlike his previous other works of fiction. It was the realism of emotional torment, of the mystery of illness, of real-world pain. Sometimes in life there are no easy choices, and every option carries a heavy consequence. King portrays that magnificently here.
4. “Umney’s Last Case” (Nightmares and Dreamscapes, 1993)
Stephen King does Raymond Chandler!
There’s a sci-fi element to this one, but on the whole it’s a mix of hard-boiled detective and multi-verses. This story was particularly fascinating because it is so different from what an avid fan might expect from King. The story is different as well as the style. King mixes Raymond Chandler with Philip K. Dick. It may not be for everyone, but something alternative to sink your teeth into.
3. “The Death of Jack Hamilton” (Everything’s Eventual, 2002)
Homer Van Meter, a member of John Dillinger’s gang, tells of the slow, painful death of fellow gang member Jack Hamilton.
If you’re a fan of Bonnie and Clyde and that whole era or gangsters and renegades, then you should check out The Death of Jack Hamilton – if only for the dialogue and interplay with the characters in a time when the good guys were the good guys and the bad guys looked cool robbing banks. At its heart, it’s a story of friendship.
2. “Blockade Billy” (Everything’s Eventual, 2002)
The story is told through a framing device, where an old man in a retirement home, George “Granny” Grantham, is telling the story to Stephen King. Granny tells of the 1957 Major League Baseball season, when he was the third base coach for a now-defunct team, the New Jersey Titans.
If you love baseball and the sentimentality of The Green Mile, then look no further than Blockade Billy – The baseball fans will enjoy King’s use of actual baseball players from the era, Yogi Berra and Ted Williams, but if you’re not so much a sports enthusiast than you can hopefully pick up on the psychological-thriller aspects. Like an overactive kid on Christmas Eve, shaking his presents but still having no clue what it could be, you’ll be following and rooting for Blockade Billy during his games but at the same time knowing that there is some deep dark secret that is going to be revealed.
1. “Drunken Fireworks” (The Bazaar of Bad Dreams, 2015)
Alden McCausland and his mother are what they call “accident rich”; thanks to an unexpected life-insurance policy payout and a winning Big Maine Millions scratch card. Alden and his Ma are able to spend their summers down by Lake Abenaki, idly drinking their days away in a three-room cabin with an old dock and a lick of a beach.
Drunken Fireworks pulls two warring families who try to one-up each other every July 4. Shenanigans ensue and laughs are had. It’s light-hearted and intended to make you walk away with a smile on your face. As usual, there’s more than meets the eye in these ridiculous characters and their private lives, as they fight an epic battle using fireworks.
And there you have it. The 10 No-So-Scariest Short Stories of Stephen King. Did you find your favourite on the list? If not, let us know your favourite short story from the master of horror over on Twitter, in the Nightmare on Film Street Subreddit, and on Facebook in the Horror Movie Fiend Club!