Be ye warned, Constant Reader: here there be spoilers.
5. The Dark Tower VII: “The Thing Under the Castle”
This is the most recent entry on this list; the only one from the 21st century, but it works because it so strongly harkens back to classic King style: that combination of simple, elemental storytelling with detailed, psychological exposition.
Roland and Susanna are, as the chapter title implies, fleeing some unknown thing in the winding, dark passages under a ruined, ancient castle. At first, there’s just a slight noise in the distance, but then, over the course of several pages, the noises get clearer and closer, and that primitive instinct we all have warns of an approaching predator.
The pace increases to one of sheer panic as they first jog, then run, then sprint with terror-fueled energy away from the mysterious thing. Susanna, whose wheelchair has been lost, rides on Roland’s back and can see behind them into the darkness at what’s coming. As it finally comes within biting distance…
4. Night Shift, “Graveyard Shift:” the lowest level
This is one of the first things I ever read by King. I was in 6th grade, waiting in a car, alone, in the winter, and when my mom came back and opened the door, I literally jumped and screamed.
Another example of the King formula: men working in an old mill have to clean out the decaying basement levels, and their descent through the building’s bowels is mirrored–Heart of Darkness-style–by the protagonist’s deteriorating mental state. He means to take someone with him.
It’s as basic as a video game: every next level has stronger enemies. This story is one of the few times that King’s build-up and final reveal really do pay off in full power.
3. Nightmares & Dreamscapes, “Crouch End:” the stars
King’s homage to Lovecraft has one tiny detail that always gives me goosebumps: when the female lead–whose man has been taken by some kind of alien creature–tries to find her way out of the weird foreign nightmare she’s lost in, there’s this tiny throwaway line about looking up into the new night sky…and realizing that the stars are not those that shine over Earth.
It’s such a simple way to reveal the dislocation of her sudden stumbling into the Twilight Zone of Lovecraftian lore, but it packs such a huge punch. I love how unadorned that insight is. A lesser writer would have milked it. The reader is left to realize the gut-churning vertigo of that setting.
2. Salem’s Lot: the graveyard at sunset
Everybody seems to think The Shining or Pet Semetary are King’s best books, but I’ve always enjoyed Salem’s Lot the most. There are so many perfect scenes in here. I almost chose the “basement stairs replaced by kitchen knives” from near the end, but this scene from earlier on gets me even worse.
A man is shoveling dirt into a young boy’s grave at the end of the day–just doing his job–when he gets that prickly sense that someone’s watching him. Then he feels eyes on him coming from under the ground. He decides to dig up what he’s just buried (another great example of King describing a rapidly crumbling mental state). As he digs, the sun sinks lower, and he gets increasingly frantic. He gets to the lid and opens it just as the sun sets, and then…
1. The Stand: “No Great Loss”
Holy crap. Chapter 38 of the expanded edition of The Stand. Gets me every time. I first read this when it came out in 1990–I was in junior high–and more than a quarter century later just thinking of this chapter sends a vibrating chill down my spine, right into my soul.
After the super plague has purged almost all of humanity, but before the dreams start calling out to the survivors, King gives us this chapter of little vignettes about the random strays left behind who died in various other ways, besides the flu.
Some are intentional, most are not. All are tragic in some way. The very worst–the one that forever makes my blood run absolute-zero cold–is the very first bit, where a little boy, left stranded in life, wanders around, sad, and then falls down a well. I can’t even say any more. It’s too heartbreaking.
There’s nothing supernatural here: no monster, no magic, no nothing. Just a plain little footnote that is completely realistic. And it does what every truly great horror story is supposed to do: gets me to ponder the value of this fragile blessing we call life.