Weird Fiction

King-Size Countdown: The Top 20 Short Stories of Stephen King

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Hey there, Constant Readers! Today, the Longbox of Darkness is once again dragging you kicking and screaming into the fear-infested worlds of Stephen King—specifically, his incredible short stories. These are usually quick reads that pack just as much punch as his lengthy novellas or epic tomes. Therefore, we’re not going to be including any tales from Different Seasons, Four Past Midnight, Full Dark No Stars, at least three-quarters of Hearts in Atlantis, or If It Bleeds. These contain his novellas and will be the subject of a future ‘Best Of’ post.

But how do you choose the crème de la crème from a pool of short fiction gems? Tough as it was, I’ve done the arduous task for you (you can thank me later). I’ve rummaged through King’s treasure trove of short stories to pick out the 20 best, and I’m ranking them in descending order. This is based on The Longbox of Darkness’ personal favorites, so tastes may differ. But I firmly believe every story on this list is a delectable horror treat.

So if you’re a King newbie, consider this your gateway into his creepy-crawly short fiction. And for seasoned fans, here’s a chance to debate, agree, or throw digital tomatoes at me if your faves didn’t make the cut (but let’s keep it civil, folks).

Now let’s crack open the crypt and get started!

The Top 20 Short Stories of Stephen King

The Best of King’s Short Fiction

20. “The Mangler”

Collection: Night Shift
At a small-town laundry service, a demonically possessed industrial ironing machine develops a thirst for blood. Employees start meeting gruesome deaths, leading a local detective and his friend to take a crash course in the arcane in order to stop the monstrosity. The story gives us a chilling look at how even the most mundane objects can become objects of terror when King’s imagination is at play.

19. “Sometimes They Come Back”

Collection: Night Shift
High school teacher Jim Norman is haunted by the ghosts of greasers who killed his brother decades ago when they were kids. When these selfsame greasers, seemingly ageless, enroll in his class, Jim realizes that revenge can transcend death itself. As the shades claim new victims to replace their damned souls, Jim must confront his past to end the cycle, and enact a horrific ritual to save the lives of his loved ones.

18. “The Raft”

Collection: Skeleton Crew
Four college students find themselves trapped on a raft in the middle of a lake, menaced by a shape-shifting, flesh-eating oil slick! (Yep, you read that right). As the unlucky quartet tries to outwit and survive this insatiable entity, the story delves into their visceral fears of entrapment and of the unknown. After this, you’ll never let your hair dangle in the water again, ladies, and for you guys out there, beware the cracks! That’s all I’ll say for now. You’ll have to read it to believe it.

The Top 20 Short Stories of Stephen King

17. “Quitters, Inc”

Collection: Night Shift
A guy called Morris offers his friend Dick a surefire way to quit smoking through a mysterious organization called Quitters, Inc. The organization’s unorthodox methods involve the surveillance and punishment of not just the smoker but also their family. The escalating stakes make for an unsettling story about addiction and the moral quandaries of self-improvement.

16. “The Jaunt”

Collection: Skeleton Crew

In a future where teleportation, known as “Jaunting,” has become commonplace, a family prepares for a trip to Mars. The father recounts the dark history of the Jaunt process, including the horrifying consequence of remaining conscious during the experience. The tale masterfully builds tension, culminating in a shocking twist that redefines the concept of eternal damnation.

The Top 20 Short Stories of Stephen King

15. “Survivor Type”

Collection: Skeleton Crew
A disgraced surgeon finds himself stranded on a desert island with nothing but a stash of heroin. As hunger and desperation set in, he resorts to self-amputation to survive, chronicling his ordeal in a diary. This macabre story pushes the boundaries of survival horror, blending gruesome detail with psychological depth. Not for those with queasy stomachs!

14. “Crouch End”

Collection: Nightmares & Dreamscapes
A couple loses their way in the London suburb of Crouch End, gradually realizing that they’ve stumbled into a place where the barriers between our world and other dimensions are thin. As they encounter increasingly bizarre and terrifying phenomena, they come to understand that not all maps lead to safe destinations.

13. “Jerusalem’s Lot”

Collection: Night Shift
Written in an epistolary form, this story serves as a prequel to King’s novel ‘Salem’s Lot.’ Set in the 1850s, it chronicles the tale of a man and his servant who move into an ancestral home, only to discover it’s infected with malevolent, otherworldly forces. The dread is amplified by the dated language and slow reveal of the cosmic horror, a la H.P. Lovecraft, whose fiction this story clearly imitates. King manages to put his own spin on it, however.

The Top 20 Short Stories of Stephen King

12. “The Ledge”

Collection: Night Shift
A man is forced to circumnavigate the ledge of a high-rise building as part of a deadly wager. As he faces the dizzying height, violent winds, and a particularly aggressive pigeon, the story becomes a relentless, heart-pounding experience that explores the limits of human endurance and the cruelty of which people are capable. Reading this played havoc with my acrophobia!

11. “Children of the Corn”

Collection: Night Shift
A couple driving through rural Nebraska stumbles upon a desolate town where children have killed all the adults in service to a demonic entity that resides in the cornfields. It’s not just about the horror of the sacrificial rituals; it’s the dread-filled atmosphere that will make you think twice before taking another road trip. It also confirms what we all suspect – at the very least, most kids are creepy AF, and at the very worst, they’re murdering sickle-wielding psychopaths.

The Top 20 Short Stories of Stephen King

10. “The Man in the Black Suit”

Collection: Everything’s Eventual
Set in the 1920s, a young boy encounters the Devil while fishing. Dressed in a black suit, the devilish figure tries to lure the boy into an eternal deal. The story blends childhood fears with adult understanding, giving us a haunting reflection on evil and mortality. That, and Stephen King seems to write the best Devil this side of Neil Gaiman’s Lucifer in The Sandman.

9. “Graveyard Shift”

Collection: Night Shift
You thought James Herbert’s ‘The Rats’ was scary? Well, think again! In this tale set in a textile mill, the workers take on the horrific task of cleaning out the basement, only to discover a monstrous ecosystem living below. Between the rats and the unspeakable thing that commands them, this story wraps you in layers of disgust and fear. It’s a ghoulish, unforgettable, and terrifying trip that’ll leave you either retching or in a cold sweat. Read it at your peril!

The Top 20 Short Stories of Stephen King

8. “The Little Green God of Agony”

Collection: The Bazaar of Bad Dreams
Rev. Rideout is a minister who believes he can extract demons responsible for physical pain. Hired by a rich, ailing man, Rideout attempts to expel the “Little Green God of Agony” from his client. What follows is a harrowing battle between skepticism and belief, all converging in a climax that makes you question the nature of pain and healing. One of King’s modern best!

7. “Summer Thunder”

Collection: The Bazaar of Bad Dreams
In a post-apocalyptic world ravaged by nuclear war, two survivors and a dog find solace in each other’s company. As they come to terms with the inevitable end, thanks to radiation poisoning slowly affecting all living beings, the story takes a heartfelt look at what really matters when the world is on its last breath. It’s a poignant tale that underscores the humanity that persists even in the darkest times.

The Top 20 Short Stories of Stephen King

6. “The Boogeyman”

Collection: Night Shift
Released as a film in 2023, this story is pure nightmare fuel, especially if you’re a parent. In it a man recounts to his psychiatrist how his children were killed by the Boogeyman hiding in their closet. Despite changing homes, the Boogeyman always returns, defying the laws of reality. The climax reveals a twist that will leave you questioning who you can trust, including your own mind. A successfully shocking take on a well-worn concept.

5. “L.T’s Theory of Pets”

Collection: Everything’s Eventual
L.T. offers a tragicomic recounting of his marriage’s dissolution, attributing its failure to incompatible pets. What begins as a story filled with humor turns grim, as the disappearance of L.T.’s wife casts a dark shadow over the tale. It’s a clever exploration of relationships and the seemingly trivial things that can doom them.

4. “The Road Virus Heads North”

Collection: Everything’s Eventual
Imagine buying a creepy painting at a yard sale only to find out that the painting changes as its monstrous subject gets closer to you. That’s what happens to a writer who realizes that the ‘Road Virus,’ depicted in the painting, is heading north—just like him. A race against time ensues, with the line between art and reality blurring in the most terrifying way.

3. “1408”

Collection: Everything’s Eventual
Mike Enslin, a writer who debunks haunted places, checks into room 1408 of a New York City hotel despite many warnings. The room, it turns out, is a malevolent entity that defies the laws of physics and reality. Mike’s struggle to maintain his sanity during his stay is a heart-pounding experience in psychological horror. This is probably blasphemy, but I find this story far scarier than the ‘The Shining.’

2. “N”

Collection: Just After Sunset
A psychiatrist is disturbed by a patient who suffers from severe obsessive-compulsive disorder. The patient believes that his actions keep an apocalyptic event at bay. The psychiatrist soon finds himself drawn into the same obsession, revealing a terrifying glimpse of the dark forces at play. This story always reminds me of John Carpenter’s classic film “In the Mouth of Madness,” and I never tire of reading it.

1. “The Last Rung on the Ladder”

Collection: Night Shift
At the heart of all good horror lies pure, raw emotion, and this story delivers in spades. A man recalls a childhood incident involving a life-or-death game in a barn with his sister. It’s haunting not for monsters or supernatural elements but for its piercing look at guilt and regret. This story is a stark reminder that the most haunting demons are often the emotional ones we carry within us. It remains one of my favorite short stories to this day.

Final Thoughts

And there we have it, my King-loving cohorts! We’ve traversed the twisted corridors of King’s imagination together, from the murderous machinery of “The Mangler” to the heart-wrenching depths of “The Last Rung on the Ladder.”

Whether it’s psychological terrors that invade your thoughts like “N,” or the soul-stirring emotion that resonates long after the tale is told, as in our number one pick, King’s storytelling prowess knows no bounds. Each of these tales offers not just scares, but a dive into the complexity of the human condition. These stories have been haunting us for decades and will likely continue their reign for generations to come.

It’s almost as if each story, each character, and each fright serves as a grim reminder: Horror is not always about monsters under the bed or malevolent spirits. Sometimes, the real horror lies within ourselves—in our choices, our regrets, and in the simple act of being human. King’s stories serve as dark mirrors, reflecting aspects of life we may not always wish to confront, but probably should.

Did your favorite story make the cut? Or did you discover something new to read under the covers tonight, flashlight in hand? Let me know what you think!

Until next time, keep those pages turning, your imagination churning, and maybe, just maybe, leave a light on tonight—you never know what’s lurking in the dark corners of your room…

Sweet screams, Constant Readers!

Article Info

Process: This post was outlined and drafted in LOD’s go-to writing app Scrivener, polished in Sudowrite, and rocketed into the Social Media Stratosphere by Crowdfire.

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On my fifth birthday a relative gifted me a black box filled with old horror, war, and superhero comics. On that day, my journey through the Weird began, and The Longbox of Darkness was born. Four decades of voracious reading later, and here we are.

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