Horror master Stephen King is, understandably, best-known for his novels. In recent years, a younger generation is coming to know him through serial and theatrical adaptations of his work. It all goes to show how influential King has been for decades as our greatest architect of nightmares.
But as a longtime fan of Stephen King, for my money, his most terrifying tales are his short stories. Something about his brief bursts of horror creates impressions that permanently etch themselves in your mind, the way a camera flash in the dark will burn an image upon your retinas. The same way we can read an entire feature piece about an atrocity but a single photograph is what breaks us, sticks with us. Perhaps it’s the vivid imagery that he conjures up in his short stories. With less track to run on, he gets to the point faster, sharply sketching the terror up front. Or perhaps it’s the plot twists. King has a way of pulling the rug out from under you with his shorts, springing twists on a reader that blindside and leave you breathless.
In tribute to his underrated short stories, here are the most terrifying twists Stephen King has ever written. These are in no particular order, but I’m starting with the one that is my personal number one.
Oh, but before we begin, one thing: I’m talking about plot twists here. Obviously, there will be spoilers.
1. ‘The Jaunt’
A few weeks ago, I curiously posed the question on Twitter: Which Stephen King short story f’ed you up most as a kid? A handful of certain stories kept popping up in the replies, but the overwhelming winner was ‘The Jaunt,’ and with good reason. It starts innocently enough. In fact, it’s not horror at all, but sci-fi, set in the 24th century in a world where teleportation has been invented and is now used as a commercial method of transportation called “Jaunting.” Mark Oates and his family are at the PortAuthority transport station in New Yor, waiting to be sent to his new job on Mars. It’s the first time his kids have Jaunted, so to calm their nerves beforehand, Mark tells them the story of how the eccentric scientist, Victor Carune, stumbled across the discovery of teleportation. In flashback sequences, it’s slowly revealed that Jaunting is a horrific process. Something about it is too big for the mind to process; the only people to have ever Jaunted while conscious have come back insane or dead. So Jaunts are undertaken after Jaunters are given anesthesia to knock them out for the trip.
The horrifying twist comes in the very last paragraph. After the family Jaunts, Mark awakens in the recovery room to chaos. Something has gone wrong somewhere. Mark his head…and sees his 12-year-old son, Ricky, has gone completely insane. Ricky had only pretended to inhale the knock-out gas. He gibbers and writhes on the couch, hair gone completely white and corneas yellow. As his son rocks and cackles, he screeches, “Longer than you think, Dad! It’s longer than you think!” Whatever he has seen in the abyss has rendered him so insane he then claws his own eyes out before the attendants wheel him away.
What could be so vast that it renders a little boy that kind of mad? That turns his hair completely white? Pondering it creates the sort of terror that is so vast, you have to keep it on the edges of your mind lest you also go insane.
2. ‘The Boogeyman’
Patient Lester Billings is at a psychiatrist’s office for the first time, telling Dr. Harper the story of how his three young children were “murdered.” His first two children died when they were very young; the first from crib death and the second from convulsions. But Lester insists there were killed by a malevolent creature. He appears paranoid, possibly schizophrenic. The only commonality between the deaths was that they both cried “Boogeyman!” before being put down for bed and that when they were found dead, their closet doors were ajar. They move and a few years later, they have a third child, and Lester starts to become more and more paranoid that there is something evil in their home. One night as he’s putting him down for bed, his son yells, “Boogeyman!” just like Lester’s other two children had. An hour later, his son begins to scream, and Lester musters up the courage to run into the room, where an inhuman…thing… is attacking his son. Lester flees in terror and returns hours later to find his son dead with a broken neck, the closet door once again ajar.
Dr. Harper, naturally, wants to get to the bottom of Lester’s psychosis and trauma and tells Lester he wants to have twice-a-week appointments. Lester leaves to schedule his next appointment with the nurse, but the nurse isn’t at the desk. Lester returns to Dr. Harper’s office…and that’s when he hears the sound coming from the closet. As Lester stands rooted in fear, the closet door swings open and the Boogeyman shambles out, still with its Dr. Harper human skin mask in its hand.
The monster from your nightmares was right in front of you the whole time. That’s terrifying.
There’s something about the very old that can be scary and alien to the very young. Such is the unhappy lot of 11-year-old George, who gets the unenviable task of staying home to watch his ancient, obese, bedridden grandma one afternoon while his mother is out. From the time he was small, his grandma always scared him; something about her seemed strange and off-putting. As he waits, he starts to recall snippets of dark things he’s heard about his grandma over the years: Forbidden books she had, stillborn children, her uttering strange words before a neighbor’s sudden death. When he checks on her after hearing a noise from her room, George suddenly realizes his grandma is a witch – and realizes she’s dead. Panicking, he grabs a mirror to check for breath, and that’s when she grabs his wrist. He flees and her corpse shambles after him. He calls his Aunt Flo in a panic and as he’s on the phone with her, his grandma catches up to him and gives him a hug, wrapping her arms around him…
An hour later, his mom returns home to find her mother dead and George traumatized. He explains Gramma died and starts to cry. What his mother doesn’t know is that her sister, Flo, is also dead: Just after his grandma’s corpse hugged him, George uttered an ancient incantation into the phone and his Aunt Flo dropped dead of a massive brain hemorrhage. That night as he lays in bed, he drops the traumatized act as a wicked smile creeps across his face. When she embraced him, Gramma’s evil powers – or whatever demonic entity had possessed her – transferred to George, turning him evil as well.
Just when it seemed all was well for George, you learn he hadn’t escaped, after all. And the horror was just beginning.
4. ‘Survivor Type’
The story is told as a series of diary entries from brilliant but disgraced surgeon Richard Pine, who has become shipwrecked on a deserted island after the cruise ship he’s on sinks. He’s left with no food and few supplies outside of the bricks of heroin he’d smuggled onto the ship. His situation grows direr as the starvation grows more acute. At a low point, he breaks his ankle and decides to amputate it, dosing himself on anesthesia for the pain. He ends up eating his own amputated foot, rationalizing that he needed food and he’s a survivor. As the days stretch on with no help, the entries become increasingly more rambling and bizarre. He reveals he’s cut off and eaten his other foot, making himself a double amputee in his desperation to survive.
It’s not as sharp a twist as the others on this list, more of a horrifying realization that quickly dawns on you. The last few entries reveal that he has slowly amputated parts of himself while ingesting heroin as a makeshift anesthetic and has now eaten everything of himself from the waist down; he’s just a torso and arms. He’s also cut off his ears. His last entry abruptly ends with the haunting nonsense line “lady fingers they taste just like lady fingers.” That’s when you realize he’s amputated his own hand and eaten it.
And soon, he’ll have nothing else left to cut off. Chilling.
5. ‘Quitters, Inc.’
Middle-aged Dick Morrison has been smoking since he was a kid. He runs into an old college roommate, Jimmy, and Jimmy tells him he should check out Quitters, Inc. and hands Dick a card. Dick later remembers the card and checks out the firm. There, after it’s too late to back out, he learns Quitters, Inc. employs extreme measures to ensure its clients suffer no setbacks in their quest to quit smoking: On his first infraction, his wife, Cindy, will be held and shocked. On the second, Dick will be. If he gets all the way to a ninth infraction, his son’s arms will be broken. A tenth, and Dick himself will be killed. He is put under constant anonymous surveillance. Once, he slips up after a particularly stressful day at work and takes three quick puffs from an old cigarette he finds in the glove compartment before quickly snubbing it out. When he gets home, he finds Cindy is gone, taken by Quitters, Inc. enforcers. There, he watches his wife get shocked because of his slip-up.
Dick begins to gain weight as he’s no longer smoking. His Quitters, Inc. handler gives him a bottle of restricted diet pills and warns him that if he strays from his goal weight, his wife’s little finger will be cut off. Shortly thereafter, Dick and Cindy run into Jimmy and his wife while out. Dick marks something is off about the wife’s grip when she goes to shake his hand. That’s when he notices she’s missing her little finger.
Jimmy knew what Quitters, Inc. was all about, what would happen to Dick’s wife, and still passed the card to Dick. Fanaticism and desperation make terrifying bedfellows, no?
6. ‘Strawberry Spring’
The story is told by an unnamed narrator, who sees a news report about a murderer, dubbed “Springheel Jack,” in the paper. It spurs him to recollect a rash of similar murderers in the town that happened eight years prior when he was a college student living on campus. That year, a “strawberry spring” arrived, a false, early spring. The strawberry spring brought with it blankets of fog that concealed the dark working of “Springheel Jack,” a murderer that started picking off college students and dismembering them. The first girl was found dead in a parking lot; panic grew and rumors spread as the murders continued. The police never found a suspect and the killings stopped as the fog left. Now, there is another strawberry spring and the narrator isn’t surprised, but is dismayed to read of another murder of a college student the night before – this one again missing body parts. Springheel Jack has returned.
The narrator’s wife is mad at him. As it turns out, he didn’t come home the night before and she thinks he’s been with another woman. The problem is, he can’t remember where he was…or why he’s afraid to open the trunk of his car. His wife thinks he was with another woman…and oh, dear God, he thinks he was, too.
Talk about a “the call is coming from inside the house” kind of ending.
Now…let’s all reread Stephen King’s short stories and retraumatize ourselves all over again. In the meantime, check out IT Chapter Two, in theaters this weekend.