I still remember the first time I picked up Stephen King’s short story collection Night Shift, and after the first tale within I was forever changed. I had previously tried my hand at his novels when I was in middle school and early high school, but they never did much for me (not until much later), but those shorts…oh man, they got me good. Here are my Top 3 stories that sank in their claws and still haven’t let go.
This rather long story is from King’s Just After Sunset collection, and in my opinion it’s the best piece in that book. It’s an unnerving “nested narrative,” a kind of story within a story that uses letters, newspaper clippings, notes, and re-told narratives to share the story a man with obsessive-compulsive issues who describes a much greater horror to his psychiatrist. Without revealing too much, this increasingly unstable patient believes he has found a hole in our reality that leads to a very evil place, and only he can hold the rip together. N’s nightmare narrative grows more frightening until the doctor is inspired to investigate this claim for himself. Clearly a bad idea, as insanity—or maybe in this case, a very real fear—is contagious. The story also has a fantastic link to Lovecraft’s horrific world of cosmic gods and inherited curses. A must-read story for fans of either author.
#2: The Man in the Black Suit
This one is from Everything’s Eventual, one of his best collections. This one stuck with me because I’ve always been intrigued by the idea of sentient evil wandering the woods of early America. It’s why the Salem Witch Trials are so interesting too, the idea that the Devil is real, and he’s stalking the woods, looking for YOU. This is about a boy who comes face to face with this man, who may be the Devil, or maybe some other evil being (maybe a Randall Flagg incarnation, or Nyarlathotep, the shape-shifting evil gods who has appeared in many authors’ stories?) and has a terrifying conversation with him. The being is wearing a modern-looking black suit, very out of place for rural America at that time, and is described so freakishly and frighteningly that I still think back on that story from time to time when I’m also wandering through the woods. Chilling.
#1 Jerusalem’s Lot
This was the first King short I read, way back when I first picked up Night Shift, and it’s still my favorite. It’s written in the epistolary format of letters and journals, and also borrows Lovecraft’s themes of inherited curse, ancient evils, mysterious books, and is pretty directly inspired by Lovecraft’s tale “Rats in the Walls.” Still, the story is unique enough in that it’s a precursor, in a way, to Salem’s Lot, and even stands on its own as another horror tale set in early America. The story involves a man who inherits a seaside mansion that is avoided by locals and is rumored to be cursed. The man and his faithful companion discover sounds coming from the walls, which he assumes are rats. If only they were. Things get worse and worse when King begins mixing in elements like sub-basements, angry locals, abandoned villages, evil cults, and other freakish oddities begin rearing their heads. The story is full-on King at his horror peak. Get it, read it, don’t sleep for days.