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13 of the best Stephen King short stories you’ve never read


I haven’t managed to read all of Stephen King’s novels yet — I’m still working on that — but I have read all of his short stories. All of the published ones, anyway.

While many authors release a collection or two early on and then switch their focus to novels, King has written short fiction throughout his epic 50-year career.

At the time of writing he has well over 100 short stories published across six different collections (and that’s before you even get started on his novellas, which definitely warrant a separate post of their own).

From terrifying grandmothers to murderous chattery teeth, I’ve picked out 13 of my favourite King short stories below, broken down by the collection you can find them in.

Image: hodder & stoughton

1. Graveyard Shift

What’s it about?

While helping clear out the cluttered basement of a large textile mill, a group of men discover a nest of rats. Big rats.

Why should you read it?

This may be one of Stephen King’s earliest short stories, but it’s also one of his best. I think it’s something about the lurking inevitability of where the story is headed that makes this one so gruesomely fun to read  — when the men cleaning the rat-filled basement discover a hatch leading down to another sub basement below, you know they’re going to discover something down there. And you know it’s not going to be good. 

2. Strawberry Spring

What’s it about?

A man thinks back to a series of gory murders that took place while he was at university.

Why should you read it?

As well as being a quick and eerie read, this tale also has one of my favourite last lines of any King short story. Some people would argue the ending is a bit predictable, but in this case I don’t think it matters too much; the description is great, and the parting words are enough to send a shiver down your spine.

3. The Last Rung on the Ladder

What’s it about?

A guilt-ridden man remembers a game he played with his little sister in their family barn when they were children.

Why should you read it?

Fair warning: this one’s a tear-jerker. It’s also the first of five stories on this list that don’t actually contain any supernatural elements. Really this story is an excellent example of King’s command of language; many people think of him as a great storyteller, but he’s also a great writer who knows how to create raw emotion with the simple power of words — or in this case, a repeated sentence.

4. The Woman in the Room

What’s it about?

A man struggles with a horrible decision after visiting his terminally ill mother in hospital.

Why should you read it?

Another poignant read, another tale rooted in the real world, and — the main reason I’m including it in this list — another story with an ending that’s really stuck with me. The dialogue in the final scene with the main character’s mother is achingly sad, and even the thought of the last two lines is enough to make me well up.

5. The Raft

What’s it about?

A group of four friends go night swimming in a lake, only to get trapped on the wooden raft by a mysterious creature.

Why should you read it?

Tense situations in which characters are stuck in a cramped location is something Stephen King does very, very well. In a sense The Raft is like a much more compact version of Cujo or Misery — but instead of a rabid dog or a psychopathic nurse, the antagonist is a shadowy, unknown shape in the water. It’s a concept that could be sort of naff in the wrong hands, but in King’s hands it’s a suspenseful and lightning-fast page-turner.

6. The Jaunt

What’s it about?

A future in which scientists have discovered a way to teleport people between planets. The story revolves around a father telling his children how “jaunting” was first discovered as they prepare for a family trip to Mars.

Why should you read it?

In short it’s a fun, mysterious concept with a spectacularly horrible ending. The grim reason people have to be put to sleep while “jaunting” is revealed through a series of experiments recounted by the father, and the fact you sort of know something is going to go wrong doesn’t make the ending any less shocking.

7. Gramma

What’s it about?

A small boy has to stay home alone to keep watch over his bedridden grandmother, who he’s always been scared of. As the story progresses, we find out he has good reason to be afraid.

Why should you read it?

Stephen King is at his best when he’s writing from the perspective of children. Somehow he’s got a real knack for capturing the fears that everyone has when they’re growing up, and Gramma is the perfect example of this. The story is genuinely unnerving, and the character of George’s grandmother is nightmarishly well-drawn.

Image: hodder & stoughton

8. Popsy

What’s it about?

A man kidnaps a small boy outside a supermarket. As he flees across the country in his car, he begins to realise there’s something not quite right about the child.

Why should you read it?

Two other things Stephen King does brilliantly: 1) writing from the perspective of the perpetrator, and 2) combining a real-world, human threat with a supernatural element. The main character in Popsy is as hatable as he is believable, and that makes the story’s violent conclusion — which I’d argue is horror writing at its very best — all the more satisfying.

9. Chattery Teeth

What’s it about?

A man driving through the desert picks up a pair of broken chattering teeth at a convenience store. Later, when he has a run-in with a hitchhiker, the teeth turn out to be not quite as broken as they first seemed.

Why should you read it?

On paper this sounds like a ridiculous story. Despite the concept of some joke-shop chattery teeth coming to life to protect their owner being an incredibly silly one, though, the story somehow works. It’s ludicrous, but it’s also ludicrously fun. The fact that Stephen King can take an idea like this one and turn it into a very readable short story is a testament to his writing ability.

10. The House on Maple Street

What’s it about?

Four children find metal growing behind the walls in their house, and discover a mysterious clock slowly counting its way down to zero.

Why should you read it?

Once again, this story is another great example of a human threat coming into contact with something other-worldly. In this case the human threat is the children’s highly unpleasant stepfather Lew, and the other-worldly occurrence is the weird machinery spreading quietly throughout their family home (which of course only the children notice). I think I like this story so much for two reasons: first the theme of kids banding together to vanquish a nasty adult is a fun one, and second — without wanting to give too much away — the final reveal is just a really cool idea.

11. L.T.’s Theory of Pets

What’s it about?

A man’s story of how his former pets acted as a catalyst in the failure of his marriage takes an unexpectedly dark twist.

Why should you read it?

Like The Last Rung on the Ladder and The Woman in the Room, this is another story with no supernatural elements. It’s also another story with a very poignant ending, made all the more unexpected in this case by the almost comic tone leading up to the conclusion. Once again, this story has a brilliant final line, which stays with you long after you’ve finished reading.

12. The Gingerbread Girl

What’s it about?

A woman discovers a serial killer in her neighbourhood and has to fight for survival after she’s taken captive.

Why should you read it?

OK, so this one’s closer to being a novella than a short story, but I’m including it because it’s such a fast read you could easily hammer through it in one sitting. The main bulk of the story involves the main character Emily trying to escape her psychopathic neighbour, and although the phrase “nail biting” is a bit of a cliche it’s also absolutely true in this case. The story is tense. Like Misery it’s got that claustrophobic, they-could-be-back-at-any-moment sense of desperation that genuinely unnerves you while you’re reading. And, also like Misery, it’s got one hell of a persistent antagonist.

13. Under the Weather

What’s it about?

An advertising agency worker’s relationship with his ill wife turns out to be much, much darker than it seems on the surface (yes, I know that description is a little vague, but I’ve deliberately kept it that way to avoid giving away the ending).

Why should you read it?

Combining horror and poignancy isn’t the easiest of tasks, but — like in L.T.’s Theory of Pets — it’s a combination that King pulls off flawlessly in this grim little tale. The story has a nagging, something’s-wrong-but-I-don’t-quite-know-what atmosphere that builds and builds until the gruesome realisation of what’s really going on hits home. 

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