Stephen King’s name has become synonymous with the horror genre. Numerous films and television shows have been produced from his novels, with titles like The Shining, Carrie, and The Stand becoming as iconic within horror as Dracula and Frankenstein. Recently, a resurgence in popularity for King’s classic works has spawned a new wave of movie remakes. IT and Pet Semetary have dominated the box offices, and the Netflix produced films Gerald’s Game and 1922 prove that King’s tales are engaging in any medium.
However, King’s true talent is his writing. Though he is known for terrifying tales and magnum opuses, his most engaging and compelling tales are found in his short story collections. So here is the definitive list of The 10 Best Stephen King Short Stories, organized and ranked to help readers get the most well rounded King reading experience.
10. UR – Bazaar of Bad Dreams
When Wesley Smith discovers that Amazon has shipped him the wrong Kindle e-reader, he is surprised to find that his new device allows him to access books and periodicals from an alternate universe. New works from Ernest Hemingway, William Shakespeare, and Edgar Allen Poe capture his attention, until Wesley discovers that he is able to access newspapers from these alternate timelines.
Through these newspapers, he is shocked to find that the alternate version of the world that he is accessing was actually destroyed in a nuclear war caused by the Cuban Missile Crisis. This causes Wesley to skim through the alternate news and discovers that a busload of children will be struck and killed by a drunk driver in three days. Wesley is able to prevent the incident from occurring, but is confronted by the Low Men in Yellow Coats (characters mentioned in King’s novel, Hearts in Atlantis, who have ties to the Dark Tower universe) who confiscate Wesley’s Kindle instead of killing him.
UR was initially an Amazon Kindle exclusive, and set numerous sales records as a digital short before being included in his latest collection of stories.
9. The Death of Jack Hamilton – Everything’s Eventual
This Depression-Era story about fugitives hiding from the police while watching their friend die from gunshot wounds he received when escaping, The Death of Jack Hamilton is one of Stephen King’s most humanistic tales. Written in first-person, the narrator describes in gruesome detail the slow and agonizing way that Jack Hamilton spent his final days. As members of legendary outlaw John Dillinger’s gang, the cast of characters aren’t strangers to violence and death. But as they watch their friend Jack decay from gangrene and lack of proper medical care, these hardened criminals reveal themselves to be just as emotionally complex and conflicted as any of Shakespeare’s tragic characters.
Originally published in New Yorker magazine in 2001, The Death of Jack Hamilton is a prime example of King’s ability to create characters and scenarios that evoke sympathy from the reader. One can’t help but empathize with the gang’s loss of Jack Hamilton when told through the expert words of King.
8. Dolan’s Cadillac – Nightmare & Dreamscapes
When the powerful crime boss, Dolan, has the narrator’s wife killed in order to prevent her testifying against him, the narrator, Robinson, spends the next 7 years planning his revenge. The readers follow Robinson as he prepares prepares himself physically and mentally to exact revenge on Dolan, with his single minded obsession for revenge taking over every aspect of his life. When Robinson sets his plan in motion and enacts his revenge, the readers are shown just how far a man is willing to go in order to punish those that wronged him. When the circumstances change for Robinson, King shows readers just how dark a man’s soul will turn when consumed by revenge.
First published in monthly installments in Stephen King’s official Newsletter, Castle Rock, Dolan’s Cadillac has received the Hollywood treatment since its republication in Nightmares & Dreamscapes, with a film adaptation released in 2008 and the story’s audiobook version featuring Rob Lowe as the narrator.
7. Children of the Corn – Night Shift
Burt and Vicki Robeson are traveling through Nebraska en route to California in hopes of saving their deteriorating marriage, when their arguing distracts Burt, who then hits a young boy standing in the road. Shocked by what they have done, the couple take the body to an isolated rural town, which is the home to a cult of children who have killed all the adults and sacrificed them to an evil deity, “He Who Walks Behind the Rows.”
King juxtaposes the classic image of a quaint Midwestern town against the horrors of fanatical, ritualistic killing. Spawning a series of films that have reached cult movie status, these haven’t been able to convey the dread and terror from King’s original story.
6. The Body – Different Seasons
Though it is technically a novella, The Body is one of Stephen King’s most recognizable stories due to it’s 1986 film adaptation, Stand by Me. Set in Maine during the 1950s, the story centers on four young boys as they venture deep into the woods to search for a dead body of a missing teen.
While not horror themed, The Body is still unsettling in its examinations of the loss of innocence and how the transistion from childhood into adulthood is often more terrifying and violent than any paranormal story King could ever write.
5. The Monkey – Skeleton Crew
When brothers Dennis and Peter Shelburn discover an odd looking toy monkey with cymbals at their Great Uncle’s estate, their father, Hal, reveals to them that it was his when he was a child. Hal then reminisces about his experiences with that toy monkey, which seemed to kill his family whenever it banged its cymbals together. Afraid that this curse would return and kill his wife and children, Hal disposes of the toy monkey in a lake, which then leads to the mysterious deaths of all the wildlife in the area.
Another one of King’s classic tales, this story is horrifying in its flashbacks to Hal’s childhood and his encounters with this cursed toy. Readers will undoubtedly sympathize with young Hal as he watches the carnage ensue and destroy his family, which intensifies as he tries to dispose of the toy only to find it back in his house the next day. Like a lingering nightmare, The Monkey will stay with the readers long after finishing its last sentence.
4. 1408 – Everything’s Eventual
Paranormal investigator Mike Enslin checks into the legendary Dolphin Hotel to stay in its fabled haunted room, 1408. Once settled in, Enslin is terrorized by inhuman voices over the telephone, paintings that morph into grotesque images, and the room itself which swells and changes shapes, revealing an otherworldly portal to another dimension. The sense of dread that overcomes Enslin as he realizes that what he is experiencing is indeed is what gives this story such a tense and unnerving mood.
Popularized by the 2007 film starring John Cusack and Samuel L. Jackson, the story 1408 is much more terrifying than its film counterpart.
3. Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption – Different Seasons
Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption is Stephen King’s version of The Count of Monte Cristo. This novella follows the character Andy Dufrense over 30 years as he is falsely convicted of his wife’s murder, and focuses on his struggle to maintain hope and his humanity inside an environment that is designed to siphon those traits from its inmates.
This is one of King’s most dramatic and emotional stories, and it examines the strength of the human will when faced with insurmountable odds.
2. The Mist – Skeleton Crew
After a freak storm hits Bridgton, Maine and engulfs the town in an eerie mist, David Drayton and his son Billy take refuge inside a grocery store along with several other town citizens. When strange creatures begin attacking the store, the several citizens fall under the influence of a religious zealot who convinces the townspeople that the events are God’s retribution for their sins. The situation devolves inside the store between the survivors, as paranoia and religious fervor overtake the citizen’s rational thoughts and reasoning, leading to an attempt to offer a human sacrifice to protect them from God’s Wrath.
The Mist is another story that was adapted to both tv and film, with each version altering the story to best suit each medium. But neither comes close to capturing the fear and paranoia that grips the characters and forces them to take sides against their fellow man when faced with an uncertain death.
1. The Man in the Black Suit – Everything’s Eventual
This is going to be a controversial choice, but out of all the short stories that Stephen King has written, The Man in the Black Suit is the most straightforward and haunting tale that he has published. Reminiscent of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s classic Young Goodman Brown, The Man in the Black Suit recounts the tale of Gary, a nine year old boy who encounters the Devil while out fishing one day. Gary tells in terrifying detail his encounter with the Devil, describing his foul sulfuric odor and large, shark-like teeth. As the Devil approaches Gary, he tells Gary lies about his family dying and chases Gary through the woods towards his home. Once there, Gary is relieved to find his family alive, but is now traumatized by his encounter.
Though not as long or complex as other stories in his bibliography, Stephen King captured the primal fear that children possess towards evil and the supernatural. Readers will be just as traumatized as Gary after reading this story, as King hints in the final sentences that perhaps one day we will all encounter our very own Man in a Black Suit sometime in our lives.