Selected Horror Stories of Stephen King

Use supplemental materials for Stephen King's short stories that are appropriate for classroom use.
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Selected Horror Stories of Stephen King

by M. Jerry Weiss


There is no doubt that Stephen King is an incredibly popular author of horror short stories and novels. High school students who have not read his novels have probably seen films based on them or others for which he has written the screenplays. Because of his popularity with the young, assigning a Stephen King short story to a class will certainly appeal to even the most reluctant readers. Students will read and enjoy his work. Although most teachers recognize the motivational quality of King's work, many have not considered teaching it in the classroom. His often strong language or the grossness of the horror in some of his stories may have been a barrier. However, King has many stories that are not only motivational, but worthy of study. Because students are already familiar with King's work and are intrigued by the genre of horror, they are willing to analyze the stories and use them as a model for their own writing. When introduced as the first readings in a unit on horror and suspense in literature, King's short stories can be excellent springboards to the work of classic novelists.

The goal of this teacher's guide is to provide a selection of King's short stories that are appropriate for classroom use. Without a doubt they are horrifying; however, they also have important messages about good and evil and human motivation. The vocabulary in the selected stories is frequently challenging, but rarely crude. When hard colloquial language is employed, it is appropriate to the characters and the story. Teachers, however, are warned to pre-read these stories before assigning them to a class, and to use only those that are most appropriate for the maturity of the students.

This teacher's guide will suggest ways to incorporate the selected Stephen King short stories into the high school or college English curriculum. The activities suggested require the students' active involvement in the stories and include ideas for discussion, writing, research, drama, and utilization of technology.

What Makes Stephen King's Fiction Worthy of Study?

Recent surveys of high school and college students indicate that the fiction of Stephen King is widely read. In terms of popularity, he is a major contemporary author who has mastered the craft of creating horror and suspense stories, both genres with long historic and literary roots. Such writers as Charlotte Bronte, Emily Bronte, Mary Shelley, Bram Stoker, William Shakespeare, Edgar Allan Poe, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Herman Melville, Robert Louis Stevenson, Wilkie Collins, and Charles Dickens are just a few examples of classic writers who won similar popular acclaim in their day.

1. Stephen King is, first and foremost, a good storyteller.

2. He uses terror, horror, and "gross" techniques to captivate his readers.

3. He cleverly creates the unexpected.

4. Youthful and elderly characters are important in his stories.

5. He provides insights into the dark side of humanity.

6. The forces of good and evil are often equal combatants.

7. The fragility of life is a major theme.

8. He writes about "taboo subjects" such as death, destruction, and the unknown.

9. Characters often harbor evil and/or vengeful feelings that compel their actions.

10. He is not a moralist; his stories unfold naturally.


Stephen King was born in Portland, Maine, in September 1947. His father left the family while Stephen was very young, and his mother supported them with a variety of low-paying jobs. After moving several times, the family moved to Durham, Maine, where Stephen's mother took care of her aging parents.

Although Stephen's father was not a part of his life, he influenced him by leaving behind many fantasy-horror fiction books. A lonely child who wore thick glasses and was not good in athletics, Stephen preferred the solitary activities of listening to horror stories on the radio, reading scary books, and watching science fiction movies. As a youth, Stephen read avidly and enjoyed a wide variety of books by authors such as John D. MacDonald, Ed McBain, Shirley Jackson, J. R. R. Tolkien, Ken Kesey, Margaret Mitchell, Andre North, Jack London, Agatha Christie, and Thomas Hardy.

By the time Stephen was in high school, he was writing short stories modeled on the books he had read. They were set in small towns and included horror and suspense. He began sending them to science fiction magazines, and although none were published, he did win first prize in an essay contest. He was also developing other interests and becoming more social. He played football and the guitar with a rock-and-roll band. After graduating from high school, he received a scholarship to major in English at the University of Maine at Orono. While in college he had to work several part-time jobs to support himself. In 1971 he married Tabitha Jane Spruce whom he had met at the University and remains married to today.

By the time Stephen graduated from college, he had published two short stories for which he received a total of $70. However, he could not support himself and Tabitha by writing, and he continued to work at one of his part-time jobs. Finally, he found a job teaching English at Hampden Academy, a private co-ed secondary school. Whenever he could find time, he wrote fiction. Periodically, he would sell a short story to a magazine; however, the young couple barely had enough money for food and other bills.

Discouraged, he threw away a book manuscript. Tabitha, always supportive of his writing, retrieved it and urged him to send it to an editor at Doubleday who had shown some interest in his efforts. Sure enough, Doubleday decided to publish his first novel, Carrie, and the novel's paperback rights were sold for $400,000. Horror readers loved it, and his career was born. In 1976, Brian De Palma turned the novel into a financially successful movie. A paperback tie-in was released along with the film and over four million copies were sold. Stephen was able to stop teaching and devote full time to writing.

Soon after, Stephen signed a multimillion dollar contract with New American Library, which still publishes his paperbacks, and since the publication of The Dead Zone in 1979, Viking has published his new hardcover books. Today, Stephen King's novels and short story anthologies sell millions of copies internationally. A list of his publications can be found at the end of this guide.

Stephen King also has written several screenplays, including The Stand, and Tabitha King has become a successful author in her own right. Many of Stephen's novels and short stories have been turned into popular films. While each new book rises to the top of the best-seller charts, he, Tabitha, and their three children continue to live modestly in Maine. The King family is very close and talk about the kinds of things many families discuss: little league, books, and movies. The Kings, although famous, lead a normal life. Stephen King admits to having many fears, but he also has many interests and still enjoys reading, radio, and rock and roll.

In His Own Words

Stephen King has been interviewed by many people. As a best-selling author and a master craftsman of tales of horror, he frequently appears in the popular press and media. Through King's own words, students can get a good picture of the man and the writer. Teachers can use King's remarks to encourage discussions about writing and his stories. King's comments have been grouped by topic for easy reference and discussion.

Readers and Reading

"Horror fiction was conservative and that was its appeal to teenagers - the two things go together because teenagers are the most conservative people in American society. You know, small children take it as a matter of course that things will change every day and grown-ups understand that things change sooner or later and their job is to keep them from changing as long as possible. It's only kids in high school who are convinced they're never going to change."

From "An Evening with Stephen King at the Billerica Massachusetts Public Library", 1983. (© by Colony Communications, Inc.)

"I think you can do more with creative writing in high school than you can in college. . . . The thing about high school is that the students look at school in a different way."

"I had my college students read Double Indemnity by James M. Cain . . . and I had them read a novel by David Morrell called First Blood. . . . I had them read primarily novels . . . and I wanted them to read, to think, and to write about what they had read."

From "An Interview with Stephen King" by Paul Janeczko. Published in English Journal, February 1980. (© 1980 by the National Council of Teachers of English.)

"I can't think of half a dozen movies that would compare with the books that spawned them."

From "Interview with Stephen King" by Michael Kilgore, Published in the Tampa Tribune, August 31, 1986 (© 1986 Michael Kilgore.)

"The horror story makes us children, OK? That's the primary function of the horror story - to knock away all of this stuff. . . we cover ourselves up with. Horror is seen as this barren thing that's supposed to take us over taboo lines, to places we aren't supposed to be. . . . And children are able to feel things adults can't, because of all the experience we've had."

- From "The Dark Beyond the Door: Walking (Nervously) into Stephen King's World" by Freff. Interview originally published in Tomb of Dracula, Issues No. 4 and 5. (© 1980 Marvel Comics Group.)


"People ask what scares me. Everything scares me. Bugs are bad. . . . Sometimes I think about taking a bite into a great big hoagie, you know . . . full of bugs. . . . Getting stuck in elevators. . . . Airplanes. The dark is a big one. I don't like the dark. . . . Just about everything frightens me."

From "An Evening with Stephen King at the Billerica Massachusetts Public Library", 1983. (© by Colony Communications, Inc.)

"I don't walk under ladders; I'm scared . . . I'll get seven years' bad luck if I break a mirror; I try to stay home cowering under the covers on Friday the thirteenth. . . . But I have a thing about the number 13 in general; it never fails to trace that old icy finger up and down my spine."

From "Playboy Interview: Stephen King," June 1983. (© 1983 by Playboy)

Evil and Horror

"The [horror] genre exists on three basic levels, separate but independent, and each one a little bit cruder than the one before. There's terror on top, the finest emotion any writer can induce; then horror; and on the very lowest level of all, the gag instinct of revulsion. Naturally, I'll try to terrify you first, and if that doesn't work, I'll try to horrify you, and if I can't make it there, I'll try to gross you out."

From "Playboy Interview: Stephen King," June 1983. (© 1983 by Playboy)

"A lot of people retreat into fantasy worlds because the real world is kind of a gruesome place."

"I think most people see horror writers as depraved individuals who are strange, weird, a little bit creepy, probably unlovely, somebody who would be clammy to touch.

Most of the ones [horror writers] I know are big, hale and hearty, cheerful, outgoing, friendly people, and I think one of the reasons they are is that you have to have a certain confidence in yourself to be able to create a human monster."

From "Would You Buy a Haunted Car From This Man?" by Edwin Pouncey. Published in Sounds magazine, May 21, 1983. (© 1983 by Spotlights Publications Ltd.)

"Nobody in this field talks about good. Everybody talks about evil. Evil is a tremendously attractive force - a tremendously potent force. You've got more and more books where evil wins, where evil proves to be the stronger. Rosemary's Baby is one. And even in The Exorcist it's very hard to tell what happens in the end."

From "Shine of the Times," an interview with Stephen King by Marty Ketchum, Pat Cadigan, and Lewis Shiner. Published in Shayol, Summer 1979, Volume One, Number Three. (© 1979 by Flight Unlimited, Inc.)

"Horror is one of the ways we walk our imagination. It's a way to relieve bad feelings rather than something that causes them."

From "Novelist Loves His Nightmares" by Jack Matthews. Published in Detroit Free Press, November 12, 1982. (© 1982 by Detroit Free Press.)


"Writing is necessary for my sanity. As a writer I can externalize my fears and insecurities and night terrors on paper. . . . And in the process, I'm able to write myself sane."

"Those avatars of high culture hold it almost as an article of religious faith that plot and story must be subordinated to style, whereas my deeply held conviction is that story must be paramount. . . . All other considerations are secondary - theme, mood, even characterization and language."

From "Playboy Interview: Stephen King," June 1983. (© 1983 by Playboy)

"I would say plotting is the most difficult thing. Characterization is only hard because sometimes I feel I get so interested in it that I want to talk too much about the characters and that slows the story down."

"I start with ideas and I know where I'm going but I don't outline. I usually have an idea of what's going to happen . . . but I never write any of it down because that sort of closes you off from an interesting sidetrip that might come along."

From "An Interview with Stephen King" by Joyce Lynch Dewes Moore. Published in Mystery magazine, March 1981. (© by Joyce Lynch Dewes.)

"A writer learns by reading: how important motivation is to the story."

From "An Interview with Stephen King" by Paul Janeczko. Published in English Journal, February 1980. (© 1980 by the National Council of Teachers of English.)

"One of the first things they say in writing class is write about what you know. If I actually did that, nobody would read anything I wrote because what I know is very ordinary. . . . The only thing I can do, really, is write about those ordinary things and inject them with the fantasy element."

"I always wanted to be able to explore a little bit of what childhood was like, because we lie to ourselves about that."

From "Interview with Stephen King" by Max Schaffer. Broadcast by
WBCN-FM Radio's Boston Sunday Review, October 31, 1983. (© 1983 by Max Schaffer).


"The books that influenced me the most when I was growing up were by people like Thomas Hardy, Frank Norris, and Theodore Dreiser. All those people of the naturalistic school believed once you pull out one rock, it's sort of a relentless slide into the pit."

From "An Interview with Stephen King" by Paul Janeczko. Published in English Journal, February 1980. (© 1980 by the National Council of Teachers of English.)

"We're the first generation to have grown up completely in the shadow of the atomic bomb. It seems to me that we are the first generation forced to live almost entirely without romance and forced to find some kind of supernatural outlet for the romantic impulses that are in all of us. This is really sad in a way. Everybody goes out to horror movies, reads horror novels - and it's almost as though we're trying to preview the end."

"Radio and in particular music, made me real as a kid. It's where I discovered my identity."

From "Stephen King Takes A Stand for Records" by Joel Dexter. Published in Radio and Records, February 24, 1984. (© 1984 by Radio and Records.)

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