I consider myself a Stephen King buff. I picked up my first King book when I was about 9 years old and have since read every single book he’s put out. I’ve also read almost every short story published. ALMOST (I’m only human). So, I thought it would be fun to compile a list of my top ten favorite King short stories. Obviously, I could make a list of about 100 but I’ve contained myself and narrowed it down to these ten. I also didn’t want to pick really obvious ones like The Mist or 1408 because I want you to find a short story on this list that you perhaps have never read before.
I focused mainly on those short stories that made my stomach drop when I got to the end, or gave me the creepy crawlies when I read it. You can either pick up the book that these stories are from, or have a look around online – a lot of them are up there for free in pdf format. But you didn’t hear it from me.
Here’s my recommendations:
NUMBER TEN – The Ten O’ Clock People
Coming in at number 10, this short story is out of the collection Nightmares and Dreamscapes, published in 1993. This story was previously unpublished so this book is the first time it was shared with the public. Now, this story might just be situational for me because the first time I read it, I was also trying to quit smoking. Surprisingly, this didn’t help.
The Ten O’ Clock People follows Pearson as he attempts to quit smoking. But he realizes when he quit smoking and is in that terrible state of craving a cigarettes but not being able to have one, he is able to see a strange side of reality that apparently only people trying to quit smoking can see. Many of the people around him and in positions of power are in fact inhuman monsters! When he sees one of these monsters he freaks out, naturally, and meets Duke who explains everything to him.
The story continues on in this vain, taking Pearson to a terrifying meeting, but I won’t tell anymore. Now, while this story doesn’t necessarily shock you, it is a very cool prospect. King wrote this story in three days in a “fever” like state. It is very reminiscent of John Carpenter’s They Live which came out in 1988.
Apparently it is also being made into a movie called Cessation which is supposed to come out this year, but is still sitting in “under development” and has no news surrounding it.
NUMBER NINE – Sorry, Right Number
Another story from Nightmares and Dreamscapes. This is one that will make your heart break into a 1000 pieces after the final reveal. King is so incredibly good at writing emotion and this story shows off that strength.
The story follows Katie Weiderman who is a mother and wife, chatting on the phone with her sister. After Katie ends her call, another call arrives and sounds like a traumatized woman sobbing and saying “take…please…take”. Katie must figure out who that caller is and what is really going on.
NUMBER EIGHT – Graduation Afternoon
This story comes from Just After Sunset which was released in 2008 and might be one of my favorite collections. While this story is short, it packs one hell of a punch that is completely unexpected so I don’t want to spoil anything. JUST READ IT – it would seriously take you like 20 minutes.
NUMBER SEVEN – The Dune
The Dune is in the most recent published collection – The Bazaar of Bad Dreams, which came out in 2015. This collection won a Shirley Jackson Award that same year. This story, originally published in 2011 in Granta, a literary magazine, tells the story of a retired Florida Supreme Court Judge named Harvey who has a strange obsession with a sand dune on a small island near his property. The reasons for Harvey’s obsession are fascinating and you can’t help but read it and put yourself in his shoes. This is one of those stories that makes you think about what you would do and how you would wield that kind of power.
NUMBER SIX – N.
Another one from Just After Sunset. This is a longer story but it’s very captivating and touches on human kind’s obsession with the unknown and wanting to keep looking even though you know you shouldn’t.
N is a man who is dealing with some strong OCD tendencies who is being seen by a psychiatrist named Johnny. N is convinced he has found a portal to another world in a field that’s filled with a circle of stones. Since then his OCD has increased and he struggles to convince Johnny that this field is real and that he must do what he does to stop the portal from opening.
Follow along as Johnny sets out for himself to uncover the truth and a terrifying plot unravels.
To campaign for Just After Sunset when it was released, N was made into a graphic video series, each video is about one and a half minutes, totaling 30 minutes in length. The episodes were drawn by Alex Maleey and colored by Jose Villarrubia. In 2010, Marvel published the first issue of the comic book adaptation and it became a four-issue limited series.
NUMBER FIVE – 1922
Full Dark, No Stars was published in 2010 and has one of my favorite Stephen King covers of all time. There are only four stories in there, all quite long, and all fascinating. A Good Marriage was made into a film in 2014 and so was Big Driver, also released in 2014. 1922 is also currently being adapted into a film!
This story is a tough one – Wilfred is a farmer who owns eighty acres of farmland and his wife owns an adjoining one-hundred acres. Unfortunately his wife is over the farm life and wants to move to the city, whereas Wilfred loves his life as it is. She is thinking of selling her part of the land to a livestock company which will in turn make Wilfred’s land unusable. And so Wilfred, and his son Henry, have to take things into their own hands.
This is a very Poe story, think the Tell-Tale Heart but with rats. The writing is so good that honestly you can easily convince yourself there’s rats crawling all over you as you read it. It’s also a story of guilt and what it can do the body and mind. And it’s also a heartbreaking tale of family and love.
NUMBER FOUR – Herman Wouk is Still Alive
Back to The Bazaar of Bad Dreams for the next one on our list – and it’s a goodie. Originally published in The Atlantic in 2011, this is a quick read with a shocking ending. This is loosely based on a real event that happened and shocked readers and family members when it did. It just seemed so jarring and above comprehension. But somehow, when King twists the story for himself, you actually do start to understand.
Brenda and Jasmine are on a road trip with their kids after Brenda wins the lottery. Between the two of them are seven kids, all in a crowded Chevy Express. At the same time there are two friends, former lovers who are having a picnic. How these worlds collide is shocking and devastating. This story will leave you feeling depressed…warning.
NUMBER THREE – Under the Weather
This one is confusing because it was originally published as a bonus in the paperback edition of Full Dark, No Stars but was re-published in The Bazaar of Bad Dreams. And boy do I love this one!
Another quick read, but one that will leave you shocked. Even if you can predict the ending, you won’t be prepared for the stomach drop while reading the last few paragraphs. I don’t want to share too much about this one because the twist is so great but basically it’s about a guy named Brad and his wife Ellen. AND THAT’S ALL I’LL SAY! Just read it, it’s so great.
NUMBER TWO – The Raft
This is one of my favorite King stories of ALL time. Perhaps is was just the perfect reading situation the first time I encountered it – I was on holiday at a cabin by a lake – but it is really so creepy. Originally posted in the 1982 issue of Gallery, it was part of the Skeleton Crew collection of short stories that King published in 1985. Skeleton Crew is probably his strongest collection, in my opinion only, and has some of the best stories he’s ever written. The Raft being one of them.
Four college kids are celebrating the end of their summer and are hanging out at a lake in the middle of Pennsylvania. There’s a raft in the middle of this lake and the kids swim out to it to hang out and drink. But one of the kids notice a weird looking oil slick-like substance floating on the surface and it definitely isn’t a regular old oil-slick.
This story is gory, violent, scary and so incredibly simple yet horrifying. King is really at his best in this.
NUMBER ONE – Survivor Type
First published in the 1982 horror anthology Terrors, it was re-published into Skeleton Crew in 1985. This is one hell of a story. Forget what you know about survival horror – this is it at its most terrifying. Even King himself has said that this story goes too far for him, and he freakin’ wrote it.
This story is written as a diary of a surgeon named Richard who was trying to smuggle a large amount of heroin on a cruise ship, but now he finds himself marooned on a tiny island in the Pacific. A real Castaway situation. The entries document his day-to-day on this island and you follow along as he slowly delves into complete insanity.
It is INSANE! The slow character growth into insanity is so fascinating to read and the things he gets up to on that island….it’s intense. It’s a really great story all about survival, madness and what lengths people will go to to survive.
It’s absolutely deserving of the #1 spot and if you read only one on this list, make it this one!
And that’s it!
Of course there are so many great King short stories out there but hopefully this will help you rediscover some good ones, or give you a place to start if you want to delve into his long history of short story writing. Leave your favorites in the comments below!