An introduction to Stephen King’s short fiction

By Matthew Craig

Posted on November 27, 2015 in Books with tags Stephen King

The nights are drawing in, the days getting shorter, and for some strange reason it’s the time of year when we feel the need to scare the bejeezus out of ourselves. And what better way than with some fine short, scary stories?

It’s one of those long-standing Halloween traditions, alongside the dressing-up and a couple of hours in front of the telly watching whichever Hammer classic is being shown this year. For many, the works of M.R. James or Edgar Allan Poe or Ambrose Bierce are the first port of call. For others, it’s the stylised madness of H.P. Lovecraft or the gothic scares of Arthur Machen.

Personally, I have more contemporary tastes, and my first port of call is the Stephen King section of my horror collection. As well as writing doorstep-like tomes such as The Stand, It, or Under The Dome, King has a long-standing love affair with the short form and some of his best-known works are novella-length or short stories. His tenth story collection from Hodder, The Bazaar of Bad Dreams, has been unleashed on the world, containing some of his finest short works. If you haven’t yet experienced this side of King – or, indeed,  if you’re a King virgin looking for something less daunting as a starting place – the ten stories listed below are a good place to start.  Not necessarily what people might consider his best, they represent a good cross section, covering a range of themes and genres and spread across his whole career. And while you have the collections in your hands, there’s no reason not to read the other short, sharp scares you’ll find within.


Everythings Eventual Stephen KingAutopsy Room Four

Where Will I Find It? Everything’s Eventual

What’s It About? A man awakes from unconsciousness with no idea where he is, or how he got there. When a doctor begins to examine him, believing him to be dead, the man realises that, while he is completely aware, he has no control whatsoever over his body. Can he prove that he is alive before the inevitable appearance of a scalpel?

Why Should I Read It? While the supernatural plays a large part in his work, when it comes to finding horror in the mundane, nobody does it better than Stephen King. Here we find ourselves trapped inside Howard Cottrell’s mind as he witnesses his own autopsy which will, ironically, finish the job that the strange paralysis started. There’s something claustrophobic about the feeling, and the sense of growing panic that Howard feels is shared by the reader in the intense first-person narrative.


The Body

Where Will I Find It? Different Seasons

What’s It About? Four young boys set off on an adventure when they hear that the body of a boy they know has been found close to the railroad tracks in the next town.

Why Should I Read It? “I never had any friends later on like the ones I had when I was twelve. Jesus, does anyone?” Chances are you’ve seen Rob Reiner’s excellent 1986 film Stand By Me. King’s novella “The Body” is the source material, and is the quintessential coming-of-age story. By no means horror – despite the suggestive title – it’s one of King’s most thoughtful works and makes us part of not only the adventure, but of this small group of friends for whom everything will soon change. This one also contains the ultimate gross-out-short-story-within-a-story, “The Revenge of Lard Ass Hogan”, which is a fun story in its own right.


Night Shift Stephen KingChildren of the Corn

Where Will I Find It? Night Shift

What’s It About? When Burt and Vicky arrive in the small Nebraska town of Gatlin, they discover a veritable ghost town. There are no adults here and the town’s underage inhabitants are up to something strange in the ubiquitous corn. The only adults in town, Burt and Vicky might not leave Gatlin alive.

Why Should I Read It? “Children of the Corn” is one of Stephen King’s most famous works. There is a pervasive sense of doom throughout the story, and King manages to make a group of children seem more menacing, more wrong than the spawn of the villagers of Midwich. The barely-glimpsed power behind the children, “He Who Walks Behind the Rows” also offers us an early glimpse at one of King’s most enduring bad guys.


The Doctor’s Case

Where Will I Find It? Nightmares and Dreamscapes

What’s It About? Stephen King presents Sherlock Holmes with the ultimate locked-room mystery.

Why Should I Read It? It’s great to see King working outside of his comfort zone, and with this story, he finds himself deep in Conan Doyle territory presenting Sherlock Holmes with a perplexing locked-room mystery. As the title suggests, Doctor Watson gets to shine, and prove his own deductive prowess.


The Bazaar of Bad Dreams Stephen KingDrunken Fireworks

Where Will I Find It? In the newly released collection The Bazaar of Bad Dreams

What’s It About? A tale of a friendly fireworks competition between neighbours that gets out of hand, escalating year on year until the inevitable happens…

Why Should I Read It? This is King in pure satirical mode; there is nothing horrific about “Drunken Fireworks”, but it does showcase one of King’s storytelling strengths: it’s an examination of the small-town mentality, especially when it comes to “outsiders”, and the effect that alcohol can have on one’s ability to know how far is too far. The title more or less sums it up and shows a side of King that can often be missed when people think of his work.



The Library Policeman

Where Will I Find It? Four Past Midnight

What’s It About? What happens when you don’t return your library books on time? The Library Policeman will come for you, of course.

Why Should I Read It? This one is horror in its purest form. When Sam Peebles checks books out of the local library, he finds himself dealing with Ardelia Lortz. Ardelia isn’t who she appears to be, but is, rather, the creature known as the Library Policeman, a creature looking for a new host to help it terrorise a whole new generation of library-going children. The story is notable for the villain, who King describes with a certain amount of horrible glee, and whom he invests with the utmost evil. This is a creature who will haunt your dreams for years to come (especially if you’re a frequent visitor to your local library), and who will appear to you every time you hear the word proboscis.


Skeleton Crew Stephen KingThe Mist

Where Will I Find It? Skeleton Crew

What’s It About? A strange, heavy mist descends upon the small Maine town of Bridgton, trapping David Drayton and his young son in the town’s supermarket along with many of the town’s other inhabitants. They cannot go outside, because the mist conceals hundreds of bizarre monsters with a taste for human flesh.

Why Should I Read It? I still have the paperback copy of Skeleton Crew that my parents bought me for my fourteenth birthday, the first Stephen King book (along with that year’s new release, The Dark Half) that I ever owned. So it is with some fondness that I remember “The Mist”, the novella that opens King’s second short story collection and therefore the first piece of King’s writing that I ever read. “The Mist” is an excellent piece of storytelling, mixing horror with King’s spot-on observations on small-town dynamics and how people cope in stressful conditions. With the ever-memorable Mrs Carmody forcing her own unique brand of religion on the people with whom she is trapped, David is looking for one thing: a way out, a way to save his son and hopefully get to his wife, if she is still alive. It’s an intense journey and, as my own first experience with the concept of the “post-apocalypse”, one that remains as clear in my mind today as the day I first read it. If you’re after an extra shot of horror, I can also highly recommend Frank Darabont’s film adaptation.


Paranoid: A Chant

Where Will I Find It? Skeleton Crew

What’s It About? Exactly what it says on the tin: the narrator is afraid to leave his home, because he believes he is being watched.

Why Should I Read It? “I can’t go out no more./There’s a man by the door/in a raincoat/smoking a cigarette”. Presented in verse form, “Paranoid: A Chant” is a slow-build as we witness the protagonist becoming more and more afraid of the world outside his door. There is much here that we will recognise, people we might know, and worries we may ourselves have had at one time or another. Beautifully structured, the story is designed to leave us with one nagging question: is it paranoia if they’re really out to get me?


The Raft

Where Will I Find It? Skeleton Crew

What’s It About? Four college students swim out to a raft in the middle of a Pennsylvania lake late one summer’s night. When what appears to be an oil slick on the lake’s surface turns out to be a ravenous creature who eats one of the four, the other three are left with the dilemma of how they’ll make it back to shore in one piece.

Why Should I Read It? “The Raft” is a quiet piece of horror that sneaks up and takes the reader unawares. When the creature eats the first of the four college students we find ourselves as stunned as the story’s remaining characters. It’s also a great example of another staple of King’s short stories: the open ending. Not afraid to eschew the happy ending to entertain his audience (happy endings are fairly rare in King’s short works), King does enough to frighten us and destroy any hope we might have had, then leaves us alone with our imaginations – and the strange creature in the lake – to finish the story ourselves.


Different Seasons Stephen KingRita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption

Where Will I Find It? Different Seasons

What’s It About? Andy Dufresne is sent to Shawshank prison for a crime he did not commit. There, he meets Red, a man who specialises in smuggling items into the prison at a price, and asks him for a large poster of the titular movie star.

Why Should I Read It? Aside from the fact that it’s the basis for one of the most successful (if not best) films ever made, this is the essence of King: pure story that relies on no gimmicks, no bumps in the night, but in which the characters are the stars, and have what it takes to keep the reader glued to the page for the duration. If you’ve seen The Shawshank Redemption, you’ll know what to expect – it’s a fairly faithful adaptation. If you haven’t, prepare to be surprised at just how wrong you were about Stephen King. If you have seen the film, I dare to you read the story – told in the first person by Red – and hear anything other than Morgan Freeman’s voice.


Nightmares and Dreamscapes Stephen KingUmney’s Last Case

Where Will I Find It? Nightmares and Dreamscapes

What’s It About? Clyde Umney is a private investigator in 1930s Los Angeles. When the people he interacts with on a daily basis start to disappear, and his world begins to fray around the edges, Clyde comes face to face with his final client, a man called Landry whose story will rock Umney’s world.

Why Should I Read It? From Chandler pastiche to a theme that King examined in great detail in the already-mentioned The Dark Half, “Umney’s Last Case” shows a playful side that does have a tendency to come out in his short stories. It’s clear that the division between the real world, and the created world is a fine line that plays on King’s mind and poor Clyde Umney is the direct result of that, a man whose very world is stolen away from him, and for whom revenge is the only option.

Read more of Matt’s reviews and writing at and follow him on Twitter @MattGCraig.


2 comments on “An introduction to Stephen King’s short fiction”

  • Ken says:

    Good choice although some of these are more novellas or short novels than short stories; I guess everything is relative and 200 pages is short for King! I always thought the Raft’s ending was pretty open and shut; for additional recommendations, I am the Doorway is a long term favourite of mine and an absolute masterpiece; Trucks also appealed to me; if you like zombie tales but are tired of the shuffling walking dead besieging humanity, try it for something a little different.

  • Paddy Campbell says:

    Nice choices, Matthew. I’ve always loved Stephen King’s short(er) stories every bit as much as his Epics, for want of a better phrase.
    I know that when I read Firestarter nearly 40 years ago (!) I had SK pinned down as a Horror writer but he turned out to be much more than that and his short(er) stories were more than proof enough of that fact.
    A brilliant author and I’m proud to be a Constant Reader and always will be, I have no doubt.

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