King of Horror Stephen King has been prolific, writing both novels and short story anthologies in his long career, but with over 200 short stories to his name, one is by far the scariest. King’s hundreds of short stories have been published in 10 collections over the years. While known more for his novels, there are 30 different film and television programs based on his short stories and novellas alone.
It takes a few things to make a successful Stephen King book. While a certain formula is representative of many of his early novels, King departs from it in his short stories and novellas. Beyond experimenting with structure, King has also often used these shorter works to highlight his interest in sci-fi. While not primarily a science fiction writer, some of his most memorable short works have incorporated elements of the genre as well as any professional sci-fi author.
It’s exactly that sci-fi framework that holds together one of the most impactful short stories he’s ever written. Featured in the collection Skeleton Crew, Stephen King’s “The Jaunt” is by far his most horrifying short story. It’s set years in the future when teleportation, called “jaunting,” has been made a reality. Protagonist Mark Oates takes his family to The Jaunt Service for an impending trip to Mars and, to keep his kids’ minds off their nerves about their first Jaunt, tells the story of the creation of the teleportation device and the scientist behind it, Victor Carune. What’s revealed is that horrible things happen to those that stay awake while jaunting; while their bodies pass through space, their minds go through eternity. This causes numerous test subjects to die or go insane. Thus, travelers are given sleeping gas to knock them out before a Jaunt. But what makes it so horrifying is that Stephen King ends the story with a dizzying twist. Mark’s son, Ricky, stays awake during the Jaunt and when he comes out on the other side he’s unrecognizable. His body has morphed into something between old and young, his hair gone stark white. To his horror, Mark realizes Ricky’s curiosity kept him from breathing in the knockout gas. As he watches, his son gibbers and shrieks, “It’s longer than you think, Dad! Longer than you think!” before clawing out his own eyes.
What makes The Jaunt so horrific is a mixture of its pacing, themes, and pitch-perfect twist. While readers know that the story is bound to end in fright, King withholds it all until the very last page, leading to the horrific and explosive ending. There’s foreshadowing if you’re willing to look for it, but it’s subtle enough that it makes the end much more brutal. It’s clear that Mark is leaving out the most unsettling aspects of jaunting, just as any parent would for their kids. Readers are lulled into thinking the existential dread is the juxtaposition between the story he’s telling and reality, with Stephen King saving the gut-punch twist for the very end. The true terror of “The Jaunt” doesn’t lie in straightforward horror, malevolent beings, or gruesome deaths, but in King’s flawless execution of existential horror.
Stephen King and the film adaptations of his works aren’t going away any time soon. As of now, his book Gwendy’s Final Task is set to hit the shelves in February of 2022. In the world of Hollywood, adaptations of Mr. Harrigan’s Phone and Salem’s Lot also have 2022 release dates. Currently, “The Jaunt” is in development for TV; it remains to be seen if it will be as excellent as the original short story.