Stephen King - those two words loom over the horror genre like Shakespeare looms over ... well, literature itself.
There are those who say King lost his stuff, especially when it comes to short stories, somewhere in the nineties or oughties.
I'd contend that he merely changed.
He grew up, creating smarter, more difficult stories while aiming for publications like The Paris Review and The New Yorker instead of the men's magazines that published the pulp of his youth. An overview of that growth and transition deserves a longer piece than I want to write here - and I may indeed write it someday.
For now, my main point is that King is still a master of the short form, and, thankfully for us horror fans, still kills it at our favorite genre - but he's now more willing to experiment.
"1408", from his collection EVERYTHING'S EVENTUAL - one of those collections that supposedly showed King had lost his touch - is a haunted house story extraordinairre, and it's batshit insane. The craziness in the haunted hotel room really shouldn't work at all, but it's as truly unnerving a piece as King's written.
"1408" is like the literary embodiment of your neighborhood haunted house that the local charity hosts on Halloween. In that gaudy local haunted house you have a different unrelated horror in every room - there's a bloody surgery in the dining room, a body at the foot of the stairs, a werewolf in the den, a hanged man in the kitchen and an evil nun thrown in with the kitchen sink. No cohesion or sense or reason behind the blood and guts and jump scares. "1408" is constantly on the verge of veering off in that direction, but always jumps back onto the rails just in time.
The rule in so much horror is that the most effective terrors are often best left offscreen or suggested. But everything is front, center and hugely over the top in "1408."
And yet, because the setup is so expertly executed, and because we experience the character's doubts over his mental state firsthand, we're willing to go along for the ride. It's Charlotte Perkins' Gilman's "The Yellow Wallpaper" on steroids, and the ending is perfectly appropriate, and perfectly devastating.
While the film version starring John Cusak and Samuel L. Jackson is ... okay, it does not do justice to the written tale. A little girl's ghost is unnecessarily added and the whole thing just feels a little watered down.
Also, there are a couple different audio versions of this one out there. If you can find it, do yourself a favor and find the one with King himself reading it. I almost literally jumped out of my skin at the end. So good!