1408 by Stephen King, 1999
The magic trick:
The art of anticipation
All week we’ve been looking at Stephen King stories and how he generates suspense and horror. Today’s story, “1408,” is probably the best example of the week of the classic horror structure. You build up an event for a long time before it happens, just talking about how scary it might be. Then the event itself is almost an afterthought. The horror was all in the anticipation.
“1408” is all anticipation. King spends most of the story in the tug of war between hotel manager and journalist; the manager desperately trying to dissuade the writer from staying in Room 1408. Along the way we get plenty of backstory about the room’s haunted past in addition to plenty of futurestory about what could happen to the writer if he stays there.
I won’t ruin the rest for the reader (or moviegoer; it’s a halfway decent movie too, starring Samuel L. Jackson and John Cusask) who still wants to check out the story. Sufficed to say, though, the horror lies in the buildup. And that’s quite a trick on King’s part.
“It is just as well that 1408 has never needed a MagCard lock on its door, because I am completely positive the device wouldn’t work. Digital wristwatches don’t work in room 1408. Sometimes they run backward, sometimes they simply go out, but you can’t tell time with one. Not in room 1408, you can’t. The same is true of pocket calculators and cellphones. If you’re wearing a beeper, Mr. Enslin, I advise you to turn it off, because once you’re in room 1408, it will start beeping at will.” He paused. “And turning it off isn’t guaranteed to work, either; it may turn itself back on. The only sure cure is to pull the batteries.” He pushed the STOP button on the minicorder without examining the buttons; Mike supposed he used a similar model for dictating memos. “Actually, Mr. Enslin, the only sure cure is to stay the hell out of that room.”