Written by: Big Ross, CC2K Staff Writer
As part of Fright Week and this group discussion of the works of horror master Stephen King, Big Ross discusses his love for the short story 1408.
I went through a major Stephen King phase in my early twenties. It started with Night Shift. That was the first book of King’s that I bought from a local bookstore in my hometown. It, like most bookstores, placed the horror section near the scifi/fantasy and mystery/thriller sections. I had been binging for several years on DragonLance, Forgotten Realms, and Dark Sun books, those Dungeons & Dragons derivatives that owe their existence to the superior work of Tolkien, and I started letting my gaze wander into those adjacent sections. In the years that followed I read Tom Clancy, Dean Koontz, Anne Rice, and Stephen King. Lots of King. I read It, The Stand, Carrie, Salem’s Lot, The Shining, The Dark Tower books, and most of the others. Not all of them, but most of them, and it all started with Night Shift, a collection of King’s short stories. While I love many of King’s novels, and the Dark Tower books hold an especially close place in my heart, I’ve always felt that King’s short stories pack more of a gut punch and are almost invariably scarier than his longer novels.
Night Shift, Skeleton Crew, Nightmares & Dreamscapes, and other collections have brought together King’s short fiction that often first appeared in other media. There are numerous short stories and novellas that are some of my favorites and include Children of the Corn, The Boogeyman, I am the Doorway, The Last Rung of the Ladder, The Reaper’s Image, The Road Virus Heads North, Survivor Type, and others. But my favorite, and one of my favorite stories King has ever written period is 1408. It is a short story that first appeared in Blood and Smoke, an audiobook collection of short fiction all connected to and partially inspired by smoking cigarettes and King’s efforts to quit the habit. 1408 was later included in printed form in the collection Everything’s Eventual. While I enjoyed reading the story in the latter, I enjoy it so much more in its original, audiobook form, which was narrated by King himself.
Author’s Note: We’re not going to discuss the film adaptation starring John Cusack. I haven’t seen it, but I’d bet my paycheck it diverges significantly from King’s story. It may be good (it probably isn’t), I don’t know, but that’s a discussion for another time.
King himself describes 1408 as a “ghostly room at the inn” sort of story. The following is the author’s note that was included in Everything’s Eventual that quite nicely sets the tone for the story.
The premise and plot of 1408 is fairly simple. Mike Enslin is a writer working on the latest edition of a successful series of books that include Ten Nights in Ten Haunted Houses, Ten Nights in Ten Haunted Graveyards, and Ten Nights in Ten Haunted Castles. His latest will be Ten Nights in Ten Haunted Hotels, and it is that project that brings him to the Hotel Dolphin in New York City. Mike intends to stay the night in room 1408, a room that while not purported to be haunted, has all of the usual characteristics: strange happenings and feelings experienced by employees working in the room, an unusually high number of suicides and an even higher number of “natural deaths” of the room’s occupants. Mike knows some of this from research, and the rest he learns from the manager of the Hotel Dolphin, a pudgy little man named Mr. Olin. Olin attempts to dissuade Mike from staying the night, but he (of course) fails in this endeavor. Mike is determined, and as soon as he enters 1408 (before actually) he begins to experience the mysterious malevolence that inhabits a room on the thirteenth floor whose very numbers add up to thirteen.
I’ve listened to 1408 about a half dozen times, in fact I just listened to it before writing this essay. And it got to me again, gets me everytime. Especially the end. There’s something about the ending, part of it is admittedly a little gimmicky, but it works. The sense of unease I feel that grows as the story progresses boils over and the ending hits and a chill washes over me and my arms literally break out in goosebumps. It’s uncanny. I haven’t exactly figured out why it’s so successful at this. Or why it’s so damn good. I have a couple of ideas though.
Part of it relates to what I said about preferring the audiobook version. Blood and Smoke was the first audiobook I think I ever listened to, and it was one of the first times I really ever heard Stephen King speak. Let me say that Blood and Smoke was released in 1999. The format I purchased was cassette tape; I’m not even sure if it was initially available on compact disc (CD). This was before the internet was the information monster it is today. This was before Facebook and Twitter, before Wikipedia and YouTube and even Google. If I’d heard King speak before, I don’t remember it. The fact that Blood and Smoke was “narrated by the author” was a selling point for me and admittedly fascinating. And when I started listening to it, on my big stereo sitting on the couch in my parents’ basement one late afternoon, I was struck by the sound of it. By the sound of him, of King’s voice. The voice that came out of my big speakers during that first listen years ago, and piped out of my ear buds a few minutes ago, is quiet, peculiar, almost meek and colored with an accent that is pure New England. I’ve listened to many audiobooks since Blood and Smoke, and while there are plenty of narrators/performers that are technically better than King, there is something about him reading his own writing (and that writing being what it is and not romance or comedy), in that peculiar voice of his that just works. King said it himself in that author’s note I included above, “This story scared me while I was working on it…The audio scared me even more. Scared the Hell outta me.” I can’t say if that means King is scared of the sound of his own voice, but I certainly am. I don’t know if I’ve done it justice, or if I can really find the words to do so. My recommendation is to experience King reading 1408 for yourself (and just wait until King voices the Thing Beyond the Walls, talk about creepy!).
The other, bigger reason I like 1408 so much and think it such an excellent scary story lies in King’s writing. 1408 is a conventional ghost story told in a very unconventional way. If you were to list the paranormal phenomena Mike Enslin experiences in room 1408, you would have a rather short list of weird, but not very scary things. As you hear (or read) in 1408, Mike Enslin only spends 70 odd (very odd) minutes in the room. And what happens to him there, outwardly, doesn’t amount to much. None of it would really translate very well to the kind of haunting movies that are all the rage right now, e.g. Paranormal Activity, Insidious, etc. These movies are, to quote Shakespeare, “full of sound and fury, signifying nothing”. That is to say, these movies have distilled “scary” down to a tried and true formula that is regurgitated over and over. The setting and actors may change, but the jump-out-of-your-seat scare tactics are the same. Play some creepy music, eerie sound effects, distract the audience with something seemingly sinister but ultimately innocuous, then hit them with a quickly edited cut to a scary image accompanied by loud music & sound effects. Cue screams and shouts. Rinse and repeat. And that’s only when they’re not mistaking gore & torture porn for “scary”.
While I’m sure that is what you’ll get from the 1408 film adaptation, it’s not what you’ll find in King’s story. I find it somewhat ironic that the word – if it is a word – that keeps coming to mind is Kubrickian. Listening to 1408 fills me with the same feeling of creeping dread that watching Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of The Shining does (ironic becuase King has repeatedly denounced the film). While King can pour on the gore when it suits him, he is better when he foregoes gore for terror of the more psychological bent. The kind of unease and thrills Kubrick so excellently put on display in The Shining and Hitchcock before him worked into so many of his films is the same sort you’ll find in 1408. The dread that builds and grows doesn’t come from without, but from within. It comes from inhabiting Mike Enslin’s mind and bearing witness to his quickly eroding sanity in response to the happenings in 1408.
If you’re looking for some relatively quick but high quality thrills and chills this Halloween, I highly recommend reading 1408. Or better yet, listen to it. Blood and Smoke is available on Audible for around $10, and while I can’t remember a thing about the other two stories included in the collection, other than their titles Lunch in the Gotham Cafe and In the Deathroom, 1408 is worth the price alone. And if you do decide to listen to 1408 this Halloween, be sure not to do so, as you might be tempted to do, at night with the lights off. Instead, try to time it right around dusk, listening with the windows open (or better yet outside), sitting in that sweltering, yellow-orange light of sunset. Like the light of the desert.