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Stephen King’s Scary Short Stories

As I’ve written about previously, short stories are quite different in breadth and depth than a novel. Like a snapshot in a photo album or a scene in a play, short stories provide a glimpse into something – a person, locale, event, etc. It’s up to the writer to decide how fully developed they want that glimpse to be. Novellas (also known as short novels or longer short stories) are similar but have the luxury of fleshing out characters or settings a bit more.

Both short stories and novellas lend themselves well to the horror genre, with the ability to get to the point and shock the reader more quickly than the slow arc of a novel. They can also zone in on one scary focal point – whether the setting, a character or an incident. Stephen King (sometimes called the “King of Horror”), is the master of both novellas and short stories. In fact, this is how he started his literary career, and now has over 200 shorter works of fiction credited to his name, many included in anthologies such as The Bachman Books, Skeleton Crew and Different Seasons.

Cover artOne of my favorite King short stories is “The Long Walk,” featured in The Bachman Books (written under King’s pseudonym Richard Bachman). Set in a future dystopian America, it revolves around a contest between a group of teenage boys who must walk without stopping until just one remains. Like The Hunger Games, it is a warped form of entertainment for the society’s elite, with the “last man standing” winning a significant prize. The same book collection features “The Running Man,” another imaging of a futuristic America with a sadistic contest premise. In this case, it is a reality show where a contestant is chased by the public. Anyone who manages to kill the participant wins a sizable prize. Both stories are a chilling depiction of societal greed.

One of King’s novellas that I really enjoyed is “The Mist,” included in Skeleton Crew. It is about a thick, mysterious fog that infiltrates a small town in Maine (a common setting for King). Deadly and grotesque bug-like creatures hiding within its cloudy depths begin to kill and eat the residents, trapping a small group of survivors inside a supermarket to figure out if/how they can survive. It is terrifying and suspenseful.

Cover artDifferent Seasons contains two of the best known of King’s novellas, “The Body” and “Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption,” both made into successful movie adaptations. The basis of the critically acclaimed film Stand By Me, “The Body” follows four pre-teen boys as they trek into the woods to find the body of young boy who they learn has been hit by a train. Although spooky in parts, this story is more about youth, growing up and friendship. “Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption” is also less scary than King’s typical works of horror. Made into the Academy Award nominated film The Shawshank Redemption, it is similarly a tale of friendship and growth, following two prisoners, one who claims he is innocent of killing his wife and child.

Although many of King’s works are creepy (and sometimes gory), there are often undercurrents of the benefits of friendship, forging alliances and gaining trust. Not only does he know how to provide a good scare, but he also has a handle on human nature. To convey these messages through the limited bandwidth of a short story or novella is even more challenging.

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