Case Study: 1408 by Stephen King AKA “The Door Was Crooked”
Lately I’m totally obsessed with Stephen King and his short story 1408. This is a story about writer Mike Enslin and his stay in a haunted room at the Hotel Dolphin in New York City. For anyone who hasn’t read this story yet, I highly recommend it. This story alone will illustrate why Stephen King is simply a master.
The reason I love this story so much is because it is so expertly crafted and written. It really is scary! I think it’s a difficult feat to scare someone via writing alone. The descriptions have to be on point in a way that the reader can properly imagine what’s going on and thus feel scared. I think fear is one of the more difficult emotions to elicit in a story.
So without giving too much away, I’m going to try to pick apart this story a bit to understand why it’s so effective.
The first part of 1408 details Enslin’s meeting with the hotel manager, Mr. Olin. Olin tries very hard to dissuade Enslin from staying overnight in room 1408. Their conversation is a great set up for what will ensue in the room. Not only do we learn a bit more about Enslin and why he’s doing this, but Olin pretty much details exactly how the room is haunted and what will happen to Enslin if he spends the night in it. It’s a bit like getting the story before getting the story.
The reason this is so effective is because King starts with small details in order to build the suspense and anticipation. For example, the key to room 1408 is still an old fashioned hotel key.
“The Dolphin went to a MagCard system in 1979, Mr. Enslin, the year I took the job as manager. 1408 is the only room in the house that still opens with a key. There was no need to put a MagCard lock on its door, because there’s never anyone inside; the room was last occupied by a paying guest in 1978.”
Not only that:
“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.”
These are the first details the reader finds out about this haunted room. They are small, but mighty. The devil is in the details, as they say. And in this he certainly is! I haven’t watched or read too many horror stories, but when I have I’ve found the most effective way to build suspense is to start small.
Then Olin continues in trying to dissuade Enslin by telling him what happened to some of the maids who have stepped foot inside the room.
“There were several who had weeping fits, one who had a laughing fit—I don’t know why someone laughing out of control should be more frightening than someone sobbing—but it is.”
Again, King is building small layers on top of each other.
So this is how the story starts, which I find extremely compelling. Before we even get to the actual story, we are treated to a detailed account of all the things that could possibly happen to the main character. This is effective because we already start to worry for him and are now anticipating all the terrible things Olin talked about.
Part 2 of the story is interesting in that we get both a first-hand look at what happens to Enslin in the room, but also we get it from the point of view of what was left on his mini tape recorder. I really like this narrative POV because sound is an extremely important element in horror, which might normally not be so strong in a written story, but by making that the frame of reference here, King brings it to the forefront of events.
In part 2 again, King starts off slowly, building up the scary details of Enslin’s stay in room 1408.
“His problems with 1408 started even before he got into the room. The door was crooked.”
This may seem like a small, insignificant detail, but I can’t tell you how much I love it. As I mentioned, the smallest little nothing detail can be eerie, or creepy, or frightening given the right context. And based on part 1 of the story, we already know that shit is going to hit the fan. This is only the beginning.
The addition of the details of what Enslin is saying into the tape recorder add to the eerie quality of the story.
“It is not the voice of a man at work, but of a perplexed individual who has begun talking to himself without realizing it. The elliptical nature of the tapes and that growing verbal distraction combine to give most listeners a distinct feeling of unease. Many ask that the tape be turned off long before the end is reached.”
So there’s that.
The room itself is a regular looking hotel suite. Here again, King builds up the descriptions with small details that layer on top of each other for a terrifying experience. For example, there are three framed pictures on the wall and all three frames are crooked. Then Enslin feels the wallpaper on the walls and notes that the texture is off. Once Enslin has settled into the room, the eeriness escalates as he starts to go off the rails.
“There was a little night-table to either side of the bed. On one was a telephone—black and large and equipped with a dial. The finger-holes in the dial looked like surprised white eyes. On the other table was a dish with a plum on it.”
Sounds like your average setting description, right?
“Mike looked around the bedroom with wide, frightened eyes. There was no plum on the endtable to the left of the bed. No plate, either…He turned, started for the door leading back to the sitting room, and stopped. There was a picture on the wall. He couldn’t be absolutely sure…but he was fairly sure that there had been no picture there when he first came in. It was a still life. A single plum sat on a tin plate in the middle of an old plank table.”
So things are starting to escalate for poor Mike Enslin in room 1408. One of my favourite passages in the story occurs at this point, but it’s quite long so I won’t quote it here. It’s just too good to give away. So read the story!
As 1408 progresses, sight and sound begin to take on an even more important, creepy role. The room begins to melt before Enslin’s eyes. Now we have a huge problem as opposed to hallucinations and crooked picture frames. But by this point, we’re already all wound up. And the sound!
“The telephone continued to grind and spit, the voice coming from it now the voice of an electric hair-clipper that has learned how to talk: ‘Five! This is five! Even if you leave this room, you can never leave this room!’”
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Part 3 is interesting because we are introduced to Rufus Dearborn, a man not entirely unrelated to the events of the story (I love how King weaves this character in), who saves Enslin. This is a short section, but a few things come full circle here, which is hugely satisfying for the reader. I personally love it when things tie together the way they do between Dearborn and Enslin. It gives the story an extra layer of complexity and craft.
Part 4 is the denouement of the story, when things come to a close. It’s also a short section compared to parts 1 and 2, but in a way, it’s the most terrifying because of what happens after Enslin leaves the room. (Sorry for the spoiler.) The haunting is far from over, as Olin tried to warn him.
It’s one thing to go into a haunted space and experience the terrors that lurk there. It’s entirely another to be a haunted person who cannot escape the events of a single terrible night. King could have ended the story with Enslin’s getting out of room 1408 and that’s that. But the continued haunting is part of the problem, and in a way, we knew this would happen to poor Mike Enslin the moment Olin warned him about it.
Sure a physical space can be scary and haunted, as it is in this story, but it’s even more frightening to never be able to get rid of that which haunts or possesses you. Why? Because there’s no escape, and because, at least in the case of 1408, we don’t know what we’re up against. An invisible opponent is much scarier than a visible one, wouldn’t you say?
So the story is scary not just for us but for the characters as well, right until the very end of the story and the storyworld.
1408 is an excellent example of a well-crafted horror story that delivers. King builds small, scary details one on top of the other, continually building the suspense until the climactic scene, then drawing out thread of terror until the very last sentence.
This is a story about small details that together pack a big punch, and it’s a great lesson in how to craft effective stories (and not just horror stories).
Again, I highly recommend you read 1408 not just for the entertainment value but also as a lesson in craft.
Ciao for now!
September 5, 2018 @ 2:04 am
I haven’t read a lot of horror, but I’ve watched a fair bit, and I’ve always had the same opinion about unseen antagonists.
I quite liked the 1408 film. I don’t remember who’s insight it was (maybe Sachin Hingoo) but someone praised that the room held a fully developed character role in the story.
Andrea Elisabeth Kovarcsik
September 5, 2018 @ 1:10 pm
Thanks so much for your comment! 🙂
I’m going to check out the 1408 film for sure. You’re the third person to mention it to me.
Wow, I really like that about the room itself being a fully developed character. I’m not sure about the film, but in the story certainly we know that something, a presence, (the devil, maybe?) inhabits the room and wants to destroy any people in it. Why should it not be a character just because it’s unseen?
Personally, those are the antagonists that are the scariest for me, like in the movie Paranormal Activity. There’s something about the unseen that’s just so much scarier (for me) that a known enemy.