Stephen King is a master of the short story, able to dish out horror tales to make your skin crawl, astounding sci-fi, and even literary reflections aimed at more “sophisticated” readers. He’s done it all, with no sign of stopping.
Although I’ve had the tough task of picking 16 of my favorite King horror tales for this list, you should absolutely pick up ALL of his collections and give them a read through. You’ll always find something to give you the chills.
Make a note: this is a list of short stories, not novellas. And on top of that, stories that are genuinely scary. I didn’t forget “The Mist” or “N.” or “Secret Window, Secret Garden” or any of those other goodies. Those deserve their own article, don’t they?
So below: a list of stories and what collections you can find them in. “N.” would have been my inclusion from Just After Sunset, but again, that’s really a novella. “The Cat from Hell” ain’t bad, either. But really, none of the stories from that collection made the cut for me. You can yell at me in the comments.
Night Shift (1978)
Night Shift, King’s first short story collection, is really the crux of this article, as it features several of his best scary tales to date. They have a B-movie sensibility right at home in the late ’60s and early ’70s, and were influenced by campy cult films and plenty of EC comics. Hell, many of the stories have even become cult films themselves.
“Graveyard Shift,” the second story in the book, is a great example of what King can do with seemingly ordinary situations turned bad…really, really bad. In one of his most campy stories to date, a group of men are tasked with cleaning up the abandoned basement of a textile mill that’s been infested by rats for years. As they descend into the depths of the mill, the horrors they find are…well, you’ll just have to find out, won’t you?
I Am the Doorway
If you’re a Constant Reader, you’re probably used to King’s use of body horror. This is one of his early ones and features a bit of science fiction as well. An astronaut returns from a mission to Venus after coming into contact with a strange alien mutagen. Upon his return, he discovers that eyeballs are growing out of his hands! This one is just too much fun to miss…
You’ve probably heard of this one: a series of very weird (and unfortunate) events causes an industrial laundry press to become possessed by a demon. No, I don’t know where the hell this guy comes up with all this stuff. King has a way of turning ordinary blue-collar life into grisly death. This one was turned into a movie directed by Tobe Hooper a few years back, and it stars Robert Englund. Yes, it’s as bad as you think.
You’ve probably heard of this one, too. Because King tried to direct a movie based on this story. Motor vehicles have inexplicably come to life and decide to murder all humans who disobey them. The doomed characters in this story suffer a very tragic end that’s almost poetic. By the way, the movie King directed is called Maximum Overdrive, and it’s the only time anyone was crazy enough to let this guy behind a camera.
Sometimes They Come Back
Okay, you’re probably wondering why I totally skipped “Children of the Corn.” The answer is simple: that story has become so twisted in its movie form that a) you already know how the story goes, b) what you’ve seen in those god awful movies has tainted any good perspective on said story. That said, yes, read it or whatever.
BUT, you do get this treat instead: “Sometimes They Come Back” is one of my favorite King stories to date. A teacher is haunted by three psychotic greasers from his childhood. After those around him begin to die, he realizes that he has to fight pure evil with pure evil. Truly creepy.
Skeleton Crew (1985)
Here There Be Tygers
King loves tormenting little kids in his stories, and believe it or not, “Here There Be Tygers” is one of the lighter examples. And it has nothing to do with the Ray Bradbury story of the same name. In King’s story, a little boy really needs to go to the bathroom but is too frightened to do so when he encounters a tiger in the school lavatory. Because of course there’s a tiger waiting in a bathroom. King has said that this was one of his earliest stories, written when he was in high school.
This a weird one. A diabolical cymbal-banging monkey toy torments several characters through the years. How does a toy cause such dread in its owner? Well, every time it bangs its little cymbals, someone or something dies. Simple enough.
The Man Who Would Not Shake Hands
In a sort of “campfire story” format that’s quite fitting for King, a mysterious club in Manhattan gathers to tell tales of the strange and grotesque. A companion to a novella called “The Breathing Method” from Different Seasons, tonight’s tale is about a man with a peculiar phobia: he’s terrified of touching anyone and avoids all physical contact like it’s the plague. The conclusion to this one is quite fun. Maybe not a traditional scary story, but the story circle format really lends it that Halloween feel. I’d love to see an anthology series based on this format – Are You Afraid of the Dark? for King fans.
You might know this one. It was later adapted by Harlan Ellison for Twilight Zone ’85 and was recently turned into a movie starring Chandler Riggs (Carl from The Walking Dead). A little boy is left alone with his gramma, a bed-ridden old woman who frightens him deeply. As you’d expect, he indeed has a lot to be frightened about. Interestingly enough, horror buffs will notice that this story is part of the Cthulhu Mythos, the shared fictional universe created by H.P. Lovecraft, one of King’s idols.
Nightmares & Dreamscapes (1993)
I like this one because it’s a Stephen King zombie story. Part George A. Romero outbreak epic and part intimate story about reuniting with those you’ve lost, “Home Delivery” is a good read and even gives us a reason behind the apocalypse that’s too fun to miss. King’s other “zombie” tale, a book called Cell, is also worth a read.
Sorry, Right Number
No, I guess this one is technically a teleplay, which was produced as an episode of Tales from the Darkside, but it’s short enough to read as a short story. Sue me. This is the first King story I ever read—in a school textbook, no less!!—and it remains one of my favorites. A woman receives a very strange call from a distressed woman, who can’t quite deliver her message. The message and the outcome of this story are really heartbreaking.
Everything’s Eventual (2002)
Autopsy Room Four
Perhaps the most fun story King has ever written, this isn’t the kind of King horror you’re used to. Yet, it’s still exceptionally terrifying. The situation is as real as they come (in a King story, anyway) and the outcome is actually pretty funny. A good story for those looking for lighter fare on Halloween.
The Man in the Black Suit
King’s most literary horror story to date tells the tale of a boy’s encounter with the Devil, who appears to him as a man dressed in a black suit that smells like burnt matches. The story isn’t so much horror as it is a rumination on mortality. The monster in this story isn’t out to get you. Instead, it wants to let you know it’s there and it’s waiting.
The Road Virus Heads North
A killer painting is the subject of this story. Yes, this list has proved that if you put the adjective “killer” in front of pretty much any object, you get a Stephen King monster. Still, this one’s plenty of fun, if you like a little camp with your horror.
Rounding Everything’s Eventual is “1408,” another one of King’s “writer in peril” stories that he loves writing so much. This one stars Mike Enslin, a guy who writes about haunted places he’s visited. He arrives to the Hotel Dolphin in New York City after he hears about the infamous room 1408. Although he doesn’t believe that any of the places he’s written about are truly haunted, room 1408 does a lot to change his mind.
Bazaar of Bad Dreams (2015)
King really is having fun with “The Dune,” a more classical horror story with a twist ending that will give you chills. A man tells his lawyer a story about his secret obsession with a dune on an unnamed island off the Florida coast that can predict people’s deaths. Every time he makes the trip to the island, the man sees a new person’s name written in the sand, and within a month, that person is found dead. It’s a haunting little story that might remind you of Poe, as the shocking truth behind the man’s tale is revealed with a sinister smile.
Alright, Constant Readers, what are your favorite Stephen King horror stories? What are you reading leading up to Halloween? Tell us in the comments!
A version of this article originally ran on Oct. 30, 2015.