One day (oh, unhappy day), we won’t have Stephen King anymore to give us any more stories; the town of Castle Rock will close down for good and the Gunslinger will cease to follow the Man in Black through the desert. Naturally, all the books will still be here and they’ll be repackaged and rereleased until the end of time and, in an effort to draw more dollars, some of King’s best short stories will no doubt be recollected into a brand-new anthology: The Ultimate Stephen King Short Story Collection. So what stories would you like to see in such a collection?
Barring saving room for the mandatory never-before-published stories to draw fans who have bought all the other collections already, following (in alphabetical order) is a quick look at the stories that, if it were up to me, would make up this hypothetical anthology of horror:
1408 (published in Everything’s Eventual) – This haunted hotel room story is surprisingly effective because King focuses on psychological horror rather than ghoulies with rattling chains. The scene is perfectly set with a spooky conversation between cocky writer Mike Enslin and hotel manager Gerald Olin, who tries his best to keep Mike from staying in room 1408 but to no avail. Creepiest is how King describes the comments that Mike makes on his tape recorder and their affect on the average listener. One thing becomes abundantly clear: even if Mike leaves the room, he will never leave the room.
Beachworld (published in Skeleton Crew) – An earth spaceship crashes on a desert planet, nothing but sand as far as the eyes can see. While Shapiro tries his best to survive and send out a distress signal, all that his mate Rand wants to do is watch the dunes shift in the wind while crying out for his Beach Boys tapes. But sand’s a funny thing; it gets in your shoes, in locked closets… it gets everywhere. Along with the alien threat, King scores big on showing the conflict between two people, one of whom infuriatingly refuses to listen to reason. Definitely a product of King’s love of Ray Bradbury.
Crouch End (published in Nightmares And Dreamscapes) – Another tribute piece to one of King’s favorite writers, this time we get to see what happens when an American tourist couple in England get lost in Crouch End and walk smack-dab into the middle of Lovecraft-land. King frames the story well, starting with a hobbling woman staggering into the local police station to tell her unbelievable story. This story also features one of King’s favorite devices, the thin fabric of reality (or “thinnies” in Kingspeak). Many tales revolve around thin spots in the world that can transport you to other lands (or let beings from other lands into our world). Sometimes you can use them to visit a lonely Gunslinger in a world that has “moved on,” others, like the one in Crouch End, are the places where the monsters live.
Dedication (published in Nightmares And Dreamscapes) – Martha Rosewall is a maid in a trendy hotel, someone you’d never notice if you were a guest there, but she has a story… and it isn’t a pretty one. While celebrating the publication of her son’s first novel, she tells the tale of what she had to do to ensure his birth. Years before, married to a violent thug and pregnant, she seeks out a voodoo woman and becomes involved in a plot to change her child’s heritage. But the things she has to do… will churn your stomach. Not for the faint of heart.
Dolan’s Cadillac (published in Nightmares And Dreamscapes) – Edgar Allen Poe for the modern age. Robinson, the narrator, has a bone to pick with mob boss Dolan: the bastard killed Robinson’s wife to keep her from testifying against him. So the mild-mannered school teacher hatches a plan, one that cannot possibly succeed: he’s going to bury Dolan alive in his Cadillac in the middle of the highway. How the Hell can pull this off? This story works because King presents the situation in real-life terms. How can Robinson ensure that Dolan will be driving on the right road when he needs to be? How can he dig that hole? How can this cockamamie plan possibly work? Read it and find out.
Everything’s Eventual (published in Everything’s Eventual) – Dinky is a born loser with an extraordinary gift, he can assassinate anyone he chooses and never get caught. And soon he’s recruited by a company who has a few people that need to disappear, really bad people… or are they? King captures the character of Dinky perfectly with his quirky first-person narration. Dinky is a great character, just don’t get on his bad side and, if you do, don’t open that email from him. Dinky made a disappointing return in the final Dark Tower book – proving that his experiences in this story taught him nothing – which is a shame because our introduction to him in this story is engaging. The title isn’t much, but you can’t have everything.
Graveyard Shift (published in Night Shift) – You can definitely tell the difference between King’s later and more sophisticated work and the slabs of terror he served up in his younger days. Hall is a drifter, currently working in a textile mill and engaged in a cold war with his boss, Warwick. During a week-long detail to clean up the cellar, they discover colonies of rats that don’t seem to be afraid of humans. Then they discover a sub-cellar – a hatch in the floor that is locked from the underside – and Hall and Warwick descend into a place where men were not meant to go. A good straight-forward story that will have you thinking twice about going into the crawlspace to find those old Christmas decorations.
Gray Matter (published in Night Shift) – Bacteria maybe man’s greatest enemy; look what happened to Richie Grenadine when he downed a bad can of beer. Not long after, Richie’s son runs to the local market, afraid to go back home, and the local coots trudge through the snow to find out the full nature of Richie’s mutation. Most of the stories from Night Shift, King’s first story collection, lack the sophistication of his later work, but that’s part of their charm. And his characterizations are rock solid (such as Henry’s allowing an old friend to shoplift a loaf of bread every week because of an old political grievance). This story could’ve been told in five pages, but King is interested in the characters and, because of his skill even in his younger days, so are we.
Home Delivery (published in Nightmares And Dreamscapes) – Written for the zombie anthology Book Of The Dead, this story is a strange mishmash that somehow manages to work. On the one hand, we have an isolated community facing the zombie apocalypse, but one the other hand we have the story of a simple-minded woman dealing with the disaster on her own terms. Again, it is the characters, not the action, that drives this story forward, from Maddie, the widow with a bun in the oven and a lethal knitting needle, to the crusty old Frank Daggett, who takes charge of the gang dedicated to stopping the zombies. In the end, life goes on… until the zombies get you, but that’s for later on. Add into that mix a transcript of the last communication of the starship that went into space to confront the cause of the reanimation of the dead (always a creepy element) and you’ve got a winner.
Mute (published in Just After Sunset) – Catholic guilt rears its ugly head when Monette, a poor schmuck whose life has unraveled around him due to a philandering wife who is also an embezzler, visits a priest to give his first confession since his childhood. But what has he to confess? Well, one day after he found out the truth about his wife, Monette picked up a hitchhiker, a deaf-mute illiterate. The results of this act of kindness reverberate heavily in Monette’s life, but is any of it his fault? Can even a priest know for sure? This little tale of brutal revenge would’ve fit in nicely with the novellas from King’s Full Dark, No Stars.
N (published in Just After Sunset) – A story apparently written by H.P. Lovecraft’s psychiatrist. One of the great things about this story is that the reader is never sure if the events depicted are true or if they are the ravings of an unbalanced mind. Here, we have the tale of a psychiatrist relating his sessions with a patient (referred to as “N”) who is experiencing crippling OCD symptoms. N tells his tale, about an impulsive trip to a field in the Maine backwoods, and how it becomes his duty to keep the horror of Lovecraft from crossing over into our world. Is he crazy and, if he is, can insanity be contagious? This is a gripping tale that grabs the reader because none of the characters deserve their fate; it plays into the worst fears that people have – even the most well-behaved and undeserving of us are subject to the forces of chaos (every religious person’s worst nightmare). Or, as a King character asks in a good-but-not-included-in-this-list story The Moving Finger, “Why do bad things happen to good people?”
Popsy (published in Nightmares And Dreamscapes) – But sometimes bad things happen to bad people, which makes us all feel good inside, and Popsy is an example of that. This is a simple tale about a chronic gambler who is forced to resort to drastic measures to pay off his debts. Forced to kidnap children for purposes that we’re never told (but which our sick imaginations can certainly guess), he finds himself snatching a child who is a bit odd; he fights like a beast, draws blood with his sharp teeth and keeps saying that his “Popsy” will find them. And Popsy does find them. Oh dear.
Rainy Season (published in Nightmares And Dreamscapes) – And here we have outsiders traveling into a small town where they have no business being in. The novelty is that the townfolk tell the newcomers exactly what’s going to happen when the sun goes down that night: its gonna rain… toads. The spice of this story isn’t in the surprises (well, maybe there is a little surprise when you see that these aren’t ordinary toads) but simply in how well King constructs the chaos that unfolds around the newcomers. It may be old wine in a new bottle, but what a bottle!
Strawberry Spring (published in Night Shift) – The narrator of this tale recalls the events of his college days when a serial killer stalked his campus. This is the story that separated King’s fiction from the others: the narrator’s recollection is almost passionless, and that’s what makes it so chilling as he describes the nearly impossible crimes of Springheel Jack and the remnants of the victims that he leaves behind in the snow… without footprints. The images King paints of the fog amongst the melting snow of Strawberry Spring (“the lying Spring”) are stunning and somehow makes this story of a heinous and violent murderer beautiful.
Suffer The Little Children (published in Nightmares And Dreamscapes) – Miss Sidley was her name and teaching was her game, but the game is about to change. And so are the students. Miss Sidley starts to see something out of the corner of her eye when she turns her back on her children, and it ain’t good. Another of those stories where we wonder if the protagonist’s sanity is slipping or if (Heaven forbid), the children are actually turning into monsters. In the modern world of school shootings, the ending still packs a mighty punch.
Survivor Type (published in Skeleton Crew) – How much does a man want to survive? That’s the question that Richard Pine, scumbag-extraordinaire, finds himself asking when ends up on a small island with no wild life or vegetation after a shipwreck. The drug-dealing former-doctor finds himself with no food, a sharp knife and the bags of heroin that he was planning to sell once he got back to America. As the days go on and he gets hungrier, he has no choice but to turn to the only source of nourishment: his own flesh. In this story, King ponders the unthinkable, and let’s our imagination do the rest. And, let’s face it, it couldn’t have happened to a nicer fellow.
The Ballad Of The Flexible Bullet (published in Skeleton Crew) – King’s best story bar none. In this tale he squeezes a story that could have fit into a novel comfortably into thirty, well-plotted pages. Simply put, it is an examination on insanity, a contagious disorder. At the closing of a New England cookout (oh, what a wonderful setting) an alcoholic fiction editor recalls the year he went insane, spurred on by a story written by the fiercely lunatic writer Reg Thorpe. As in “Suffer The Little Children” King forces us to choose between two options: are the characters insane or is there a chance that the story they tell can actually be the truth. And if it is the truth, what does it mean? As a writer, King plays on a writer’s superstition to create a creature called a Fornit, a little elf who lives inside a typewriter and provides the writer with ambition. When the life of Reg Thorpe’s fornit is threatened, he’ll do anything to save it, even if it means brandishing a gun against a small child. Why this story has not been made into a film I’ll never know, but at least we have these thirty wonderful pages to experience over and over again.
The Boogeyman (published in Night Shift) – One of King’s first stories to feature an unlikable protagonist. Lester Billings is an asshole who has gone to see a psychiatrist to confess to a crime he did not actually commit: the murder of his three children. But it wasn’t really him, you see; it was the Boogeyman. He that lives inside a child’s closet and who leaves the closet door open… just a crack. As awful as Billings is, we’re drawn into his story on the basis of his tale alone. King’s E.C. comics influences shines through in the tale’s twist ending, but that’s okay because sometimes the simplest resolutions are the best.
The End Of The Whole Mess (published in Nightmares And Dreamscapes) – And here’s a story with a twist that reverberates like pure crystal. This apocalyptic story, the peace-loving liberal’s worst nightmare, tells the story of a young genius who, spurred on by the violence and evil that men do to each other, finds a way to calm the world down. But like so many science fiction horrors of the 1950s, there’s a side-effect that nobody saw coming. The Fornoy brothers have the best of intentions, but the result of their endeavors is devastating. A chilling story that shows that the path to Hell is always paved with good intensions.
The Jaunt (published in Skeleton Crew) – Science fiction rears its ugly head in this story that doesn’t really come alive until one reads it for the second time. On the first reading, it seems like an interesting though pedestrian tale of the discovery of automatic transportation. Entertaining and interesting (and note the name of Victor Carune for all you science fiction fans), only when the resolution is fully realized does this story come alive. Then it becomes a treasured tale in King’s canon. As a father tells his nervous family the history of teleportation, certain unsavory details creep into the narrative about dead mice and an uneaten chicken dinner. And by the end we realize that this poor unfortunate businessman has said far too much.
The Night Flyer (published in Nightmares And Dreamscapes) – After a brief scene in King’s novel The Dead Zone, sleeze-ball journalist Richard Dees gets a story of his own when he does a little investigation into a serial killer who apparently believes himself to be a vampire. The story jumps between flashbacks of Dees’s investigation (and some of the horrific crime scenes that the Night Flyer has left behind) and the exciting sequence of events that culminates in a slaughter in an airport lounge and Dees finally discovering that he has a conscience after all. Gripping as Hell.
The Road Virus Heads North (published in Nightmares And Dreamscapes) – An innocent purchase of a painting at a yard sale leads a writer to become the target of “The Road Virus.” The painting won’t stop redrawing itself as the specter in the car moves ever closer to his prey. Off-loading the painting and even destroying it cannot stop the inevitable coming of the Road Virus. Am I the only one who detects the influence of Lovecraft’s “Pickman’s Model” in this tale of an artist to captured a monster in oils?
Word Processor Of The Gods (published in Skeleton Crew) – Failed writer Richard Hagstrom, saddled with a disrespectful family, gets a second chance at life when he discovers that the word processor that his late nephew built for him has the power to recreate reality. Anything he writes on the jerry-rigged device comes true. What will he do with it, and can he achieve his deeper desires before machine goes into permanent meltdown? This would be the perfect story to end the collection with because, just like in Rita Hayworth And The Shawshank Redemption, a little hope is a good thing for the soul.
I’ve probably left out quite a few of your favorites, but what good is a “best of” list if you can’t infuriate your readers? What choices would you make? Leave a comment and let me know your favorites.