Stephen King may be known for his doorstopper novels, but he’s a hell of a short story writer when he sets his mind to it. His output includes some of the best short, shivery tales in the horror canon—ranging from the earliest days of his career, when he was publishing in magazines like Cavalier, up to some of his most poetic and powerful yarns in more recent years. In fact, the release date of his newest short story collection, If It Bleeds, has just been bumped up, to the delight of horror fans everywhere. Originally slated for early May, King's most recent stab at the form will now be available on April 21, 2020.
If you’re in the mood for a short tale that packs a punch, you’re in good hands. We’ve browsed through a considerable body of work to find the best Stephen King short stories. What these tales lack in length, they more than make up for in scares...
1. “The Mangler”
Only someone like Stephen King could take a story about a possessed laundry press and make it terrifying, but here we are. Part of the power in “The Mangler” comes from King himself having taken a job working in an industrial laundry to support his family before he hit it big, giving the story the verisimilitude it needs to work. Then there’s the story’s heavy anti-industrialist bent, and the fact that when someone gets pulled into an industrial laundry press, what comes out the other side is, well, pretty gruesome. It’s a fact that was heavily exploited in 1995, when Tobe Hooper adapted the story to the screen. “The Mangler” was originally published in 1972, and later reprinted in King's first short story collection, Night Shift.
2. “Gray Matter”
Originally published back in 1973, “Gray Matter” is one of King’s gooiest tales, and was recently adapted into the first episode of Shudder’s new Creepshow series. The story concerns a can of “bad” beer that causes the man who drinks it to transform into a horrific fungal blob. Told in the midst of a Maine blizzard, the story has the claustrophobic closeness of John Carpenter’s The Thing, and a suitably apocalyptic ending that’ll leave you breathless.
3. “The Lawnmower Man”
Forget the 1992 movie—which resulted in King’s successful lawsuit to have his name removed from the credits—and focus on its printed predecessor. This eerie story, originally published in Cavalier in 1975, hinges on a single harrowing image. After his former lawn mowing service accidentally kills a cat, Harold Parkette hires a new service, “Pastoral Greenery.” He’s shocked to find that the mower seems to run on its own, and the eponymous “Lawnmower Man” pursues it, naked and on all fours, eating the grass! Things only get worse for Harold from there…
4. “The Mist”
Nominated for both the World Fantasy and Locus Awards when it was released in 1980, “The Mist” was also adapted into a feature film by Frank Darabont in 2007. The novella follows a group of survivors who are trapped in a grocery store by a strange mist filled with monstrous creatures. It was first published in the anthology Dark Forces and then reprinted in King’s 1985 collection, Skeleton Crew.
5. “The Jaunt”
A rare (for King) excursion into sci-fi, “The Jaunt” was originally published in The Twilight Zone Magazine in 1981. Set in the 24th century, after teleportation technology has become commonplace, the story details how “jaunting” must be done while the teleportee is unconscious. Doing otherwise results in either madness or death. Unfortunately, when the narrator and his family are given anesthetic and “jaunted” to Mars, his adventurous son Ricky holds his breath, with tragic results…
6. “Survivor Type”
“As far as short stories are concerned,” Stephen King once said, “I like the grisly ones best. However, the story ‘Survivor Type’ goes a little bit too far, even for me.” The story of a disgraced doctor who is shipwrecked on an island after his cruise ship goes down, “Survivor Type” charts his slow descent into increasingly desperate measures to stay alive, including self-cannibalism.
7. “The Raft”
A grisly morsel originally published in Gallery, this story of four college students who are trapped on a raft by a strangely hypnotic oil slick of a monster was also adapted into probably the most memorable segment of Creepshow 2 in 1987.
8. “Mrs. Todd’s Shortcut”
Originally published in Redbook, “Mrs. Todd’s Shortcut” tells the story of a woman who is obsessed with shortcuts, and eventually starts finding shortcuts so short that they’re actually less than a straight line between two points. These jaunts lead her through strange other worlds, and seem to make her more youthful. When she ultimately takes the narrator of the story along for the ride, things turn stranger still…
Nightmares & Dreamscapes—1993
9. “Crouch End”
Stephen King introduced plenty of readers to the works of H.P. Lovecraft, through stories inspired by the writer’s classic horror and weird fiction tales. “Crouch End” is one of King’s more explicitly Lovecraftian tales. The story takes place in the eponymous London suburb, where strange things happen: “People still lose their way in Crouch End. Some of them lose it forever.”
10. “Rainy Season”
Stephen King isn’t one to shy away from a pulpy image. “Rainy Season,” his B-movie take on Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery,” concerns a town where it literally rains frogs every seven years. But not just any frogs—giant black toads that can chew through doors and consume the townsfolk. For the people of Willow, Maine, it’s just the price they pay for their relative prosperity. But for the out-of-town couple who have just moved into a vacation home, it’s a definite con of homeownership that nobody warned them about.
11. “The Man in the Black Suit”
Written as an homage to Nathaniel Hawthorne’s classic “Young Goodman Brown,” King’s “The Man in the Black Suit” won the World Fantasy Award and the O. Henry Award when it was originally published in The New Yorker. This tale of a young boy’s encounter with the devil—the eponymous “Man in the Black Suit”—which haunts him into old age was later collected in King’s 2002 book Everything’s Eventual.
“1408,” which was later adapted into a 2007 movie starring John Cusack and Samuel L. Jackson, is a pitch-perfect introduction to Stephen King’s take on haunted locales, or what he calls the “Ghostly Room at the Inn” trope. In this story, the titular room shifts and changes, and has been responsible for at least 42 deaths, according to the hotel’s manager. And yet, a cynical nonfiction writer who specializes in books about haunted places makes it a point to spend a night in the room anyway. Early drafts of the story, which was later collected in Everything’s Eventual, were included in King’s nonfiction book On Writing as an example of his process.
Just After Sunset—2008
King has often dabbled in Lovecraftian cosmic horror, in both his short and long works—an obvious example being It, which recently found its way to the big screen again—and one of his best explorations of the subgenre can be found in his novella “N,” which was originally published in the 2008 collection Just After Sunset. However, “N.” isn’t based on the work of H.P. Lovecraft. According to King, this nested pair of stories about a circle of stones that serves as a barrier between a small town and an ancient monster is actually “a riff on Arthur Machen’s The Great God Pan, which is one of the best horror stories ever written.”