When horror fans think of a haunted hotel story by Stephen King, The Shining is usually the first thing that comes to mind. But decades later, King wrote another tale about a sinister hotel room: one of my favourite short stories of all time, 1408.
Released in 1999, 1408 follows Mike Enslin, a paranormal skeptic who travels the United States debunking various hauntings — until he checks into room 1408 at the Dolphin Hotel. In just a few pages, I was taken through a surreal nightmare that powerfully portrays the effects of trauma on the human mind and body.
Building suspense and tension is one of the most important aspects of a horror story, and 1408 does this masterfully. For instance, the position of the door in the frame is slightly different every time Mike looks at it. This kept me on edge and established the room’s ominous mind-bending abilities. King also drops little details about the aftermath, like how the edges of the tape recorder end up melted. I found it a bit heavy-handed, but still, it was effective. These two techniques combined made the slightest change in the room’s details sinister and kept me wondering what was coming next.
But then the room starts to get into Mike’s mind itself and that’s when the story kicks into high gear. Seemingly on his own, Mike comes up with increasingly morbid mental images and descriptors for his surroundings. Death was constantly pushed to the forefront of my mind, making the story much creepier. Ordinary features of the environment go from strange to downright ghastly. The colours orange and yellow carry especially deep symbolism, becoming harbingers of decay, poison, and heat. Before long, the room seems like a claustrophobic oven, with an unseen cook slowly preparing Mike for dinner. I felt every bit as trapped as Mike as the room threatened to consume him.
Besides being a gripping short story that appeals to the senses marvelously, 1408 is also a disturbing account of the lasting effects of trauma. Those who enter the room often experience physical and emotional damage for years afterward. While ordinary traumatic events aren’t supernatural, they can and often do have similar effects on the body and mind long after the traumatic event itself has passed. The world can look just as scary to someone with PTSD as the hotel room looks to Mike and the realistic portrayal of mental scarring was something I really appreciated about the ending.
Stephen King often uses elements of the supernatural to play on more grounded, real-world fears, and 1408 is one of the strongest examples of this. If you’re looking for a short story that will make you think twice about checking into a hotel, this is the one for you.