A horror story, as King wrote in the preface to his first collection Night Shift, “must tell a tale that holds the reader or the listener spellbound for a little while, lost in a world that never was, never could be”. By the time Night Shift, was published he was 30 years old and already the author of three classic horror novels: Carrie, Salem’s Lot and The Shining. King is a master of the short story form, not only scaring audiences with horror but also weaving astounding sci-fi, fantasy and heartfelt dramas in his rich tapestry of woven words and vivid imagery. I doubt that there’s a genre he hasn’t tackled in some form or another during his illustrious career.
And so we come to this list – The 10 Best Scary Short Stories by Stephen King. I know, right? Quite a tall order. I mean, there’s just so many to choose from. For this list, I’ve selected the stories that linger in the back of your mind, occasionally scratching with a sharpened talon, demanding to be let out of the dark shadows of the cranium. You may scoff at some of the decisions on the list, and that’s okay because the thing about Stephen King’s work is that there is something for every horror aficionado.
Note: this is a list of short stories, NOT novellas. Therefore stories like ‘The Body,’ ‘The Langoliers,’ ‘Rita Hayworth and The Shawshank Redemption,‘ and ‘1922,’ won’t be included. They are great, so you should check them out when you get the chance, but we’re focusing on the short stories here.
10. “Graveyard Shift” (Night Shift, 1978)
A crew of men are tasked with cleaning out the abandoned basement of a textile mill that’s been infested with rats for years. As they descend into the depths of the mill they encounter horrors of epic proportions…
His first short story collection, Graveyard Shift embellishes the core elements that made King a household name. The author takes seemingly ordinary situations and turns them around on their heads to create taut, tension-filled nightmare fuel. It’s the lurking inevitability of where the story heads that makes this story gruesomely fun – it reminded me of one of the classic Creepshow short films that King also wrote, and you can tell he’s having a blast doing it. If you’re scared of rats, you may not want to find out what’s lurking at the bottom of the mill when the men find a hatch leading to a sub-basement…
9. “Grey Matter” (Night Shift, 1978)
A young boy runs into a convenience store, during a snowstorm, deathly afraid. The men there decide to take the boy home but encounter a lot more than they bargained for when they meet the boy’s father…
If you’re a fan of John Carpenter’s The Thing, or The Blob – then you’ll get a real kick of out this short. As the young boy Richie tells the story of how he’s arrived at the convenience store, King paints a picture of a grotesque creature that eats cats and loves warm beer. It could be the lingering subtext of domestic abuse rallying throughout the story, or it could simply be the slow build of dread as the men go to the house that makes this story stand out, but with an ambiguous ending, Grey Matter certainly deserves your attention for narrative structure and sheer entertainment value.
8. “The Jaunt” (Skeleton Crew,1985)
A family is going to travel to Mars; we’re in the future and water is one of Earth’s most precious commodities. They’re getting there by “jaunting”, a process by which you travel through time and space to arrive at your destination instantaneously. Things don’t go to plan.
Although King has dipped his toe from time to time in the sci-fi genre, The Jaunt stuck with me for several reasons. Firstly, although the setting is in the future, we’re grounded in reality with the kind of thing we see occasionally from time to time: a family relaxing in a departure lounge, waiting for their trip. The father tells his kids about how the Jaunt was discovered. Secondly, King has always been excellent at fooling you into thinking things are heading one way, before veering in an even darker direction. The story is essentially exposition until the kicker, which is terrifying because you don’t see it coming. You expect mishap, sure, we’ve been set up for it – but…damn.
7. “Lunch at the Gotham Cafe” (Everything’s Eventual, 2002)
Steven Davis comes home one day to find a letter from his wife, Diane, coldly stating she has left him and intends to get a divorce. He finds himself baffled as to what led her to do this, and over time becomes increasingly depressed. Diane’s departure prompts him to give up cigarettes, and he begins to suffer nicotine withdrawal. Diane’s lawyer, William Humboldt, calls Steve with plans to meet with the two of them for lunch. He decides on the Gotham Cafe, and sets a date. Steve’s lawyer is unable to attend due to a family crisis. Despite his lawyer’s warnings, however, Steve is determined to keep the date and see Diane again.
A lot of this story is exposition – setting up the scene between Steve and the complicated relationship with his wife. Once again, King guides us down a path and although it’s hinted that something isn’t quite right about the maître d’ of the cafe, it’s the sheer homicidal insanity of what happens when they meet to discuss divorce proceedings that skewers the reader’s mind. You’ll never look at a waiter in a restaurant the same way again. “Eeeeee!” Indeed.
6. “The Raft” (Skeleton Crew, 1985)
A group of four friends go night swimming in a lake, only to get trapped on the wooden raft by a mysterious sea creature.
The Raft (at its heart) is really a condensed version of Cujo or Misery – a couple of people stuck in a cramped location with seemingly no way out. And it’s something King does very, very well. We’re introduced to four teenagers celebrating the end of their summer, hanging out at a lake in the middle of Pennsylvania. There’s a plywood raft in the middle of the lake and the kids swim out to it to hang out and drink. But one of the kids notices a weird-looking oil slick-like substance floating on the surface and it definitely isn’t a regular old oil-slick. The horror from this story derives from three fears: firstly, and most commonly feared – water. The second is the creature itself and the way King describes how it attacks the teenagers, and the third is the relationships between the characters and the ‘what if’ scenario if you found yourself in such a situation. The Raft, for want of a better term, is King’s answer to Jaws – once you read this short story you’ll think twice about going in the water. It’s gory, but in a hellishly good way.
5. “Survivor Type” (Skeleton Crew, 1985)
Read in an epistolary fashion, this story is a diary of a surgeon named Richard who was trying to smuggle a large amount of heroin on a cruise ship, but now finds himself marooned on a tiny island in the Pacific. The entries document his minute day-to-day experiences (SEAGULLS! CRABS! AMPUTATION!) and you follow the surgeon’s journey as he slowly delves into complete insanity.
Another trait of King’s literary style is taking a protagonist or antagonist and slowly unravelling the character’s psyche to the bare bones. And in Survivor Type, I literally mean that. The fear in this short is the fascination of glimpsing into the fantasy of being the castaway on a remote island with no food or shelter to speak of, and how you would survive in such conditions. At its heart, it’s a story delirium and what lengths people will go to in order to survive.
4. “Children Of The Corn” (Night Shift, 1978)
Dangers of organised religion, terrifying children, murderous monsters and a pretty vile use for corn husks
There’s a quiet tension that reverberates throughout the majority of Children Of The Corn – from the bickering Burt and Vicky at the very beginning, on a road trip to save their failing marriage, to the ghost town of Gatlin – there’s just something ‘off’ about the whole scenario. There’s a reason why corn fields have been depicted in horror movies as ‘areas to stay away from,’ and I don’t think I’d be judged too harshly to say that ‘He Who Walks Behind the Rows,’ had something to do with it.
3. “Quitters Inc” (Night Shift, 1978)
In this story, Richard finds an organisation that guarantees he will quit smoking, and he better had, for his family sake…
As a smoker myself, this story really had an impact at the time I read it years ago – it’s a bit of a kitsch morality tale, but an effective one, none the less. The fear factor with Quitters Inc. stems from round-the-clock surveillance, brutal enforcement and the shock value of ‘if you don’t do what we say, we hurt someone you love.’ It bears the all the hallmarks of 1984’s totalitarian regime, and the truly terrifying thought is that in the day and age we live in, maybe this could become a reality. Maybe.
2. “Bad Little Kid” (The Bazaar of Bad Dreams, 2015)
George Hallas has been sentenced to death by lethal injection for the murder of a young boy. He will be executed in less than a week, despite his lawyer’s attempts to prevent it. Hallas has never explained why he committed this brutal act. Now he feels like talking about what he calls “the bad little kid”: a six- or seven-year-old boy with orange hair, green eyes, and a beanie, that made Hallas’ life a living hell for years.
Imagine Pennywise the Clown as a kid. That’s all you need to know.
1. “The Moving Finger” (Nightmares and Dreamscapes, 1993)
Howard Mitla, who has a strange aptitude for Jeopardy!, is confronted by the bizarre sight of a human finger poking its way out of the drain in his apartment’s bathroom sink. He tries to deny the reality of what is happening, but the solitary digit eventually proves to be infinitely long and multi-jointed, and capable of attacking him.
Have you ever uncovered a rock in a forest or opened a toilet seat cover to have some type of insect jump out at you? Did you flail your hands in the air, shake yourself off and scream, ‘It’s in my hair! It’s in my hair!’ Ever walk into a spider’s web as you walked down the street?
No? Well, consider yourself lucky. The Moving Finger may not be the most thought-provoking story of the list, and it may not be the most technically executed short, but damn…did it make me check the toilet every time I used it after reading. There’s just something so peculiar, uncanny and alien about a multi-knuckled finger that could be trying to get into your house via the toilet drain that just sends shivers down the spine. King evokes the fear of spider’s legs crawling up your arm, of a relatively normal appendage of the body but transforming it into something monstrous, which leaves a burning impression on the reader. And that’s why it takes the top spot of scariest story.
And there you have it. The 10 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!