Stephen King’s Baddest Story

Max Landis
12 min readOct 4, 2022

Stephen King’s work is, and has always been, nostalgic.

Bad news for good kids.

For a writer who’s been active for more than half a century, that’s pretty impressive; you can now read a book by King written in the eighties yearning for the fifties just as easily as you can read King book written in the 2000s yearning for the eighties. But so often in King’s work, this longing for the past, this searching of memory, uncovers something very, very bad.

This is a specific kind of “Bad” Stephen King has access to, that I’d argue has become his trademark. King is always a deft hand with serial killers, monsters and cosmic horrors, super-powered freaks and icky infections; he’s tried his hand at aliens and more mundane crooked cops and mentally ill loners as well, but it’s this more anonymous, inarticulate form of evil that he’s mastered.

Why is the Overlook Hotel bad in The Shining? It just is. It’s a bad hotel, and if you go in there, it’s a mistake. What the fuck is Christine’s problem, exactly, in Christine? It’s like a…psychic infection spread by the car? It possibly contains the soul of its dead asshole previous owner? Or maybe it was responsible for not only his death, but his assholery in the first place? What the fuck exactly is going on with this automobile?

We don’t know. It’s Bad. It has a looming history of badness, it’s from the past and it was bad then too. Evil? Maybe, but Evil always feels too big. Room 1408, the murderous pseudonym George Stark, the One Who Walks Behind The Rows… there’s not really much history behind these antagonists, and the characters out loud clarify that their nature is confusing and ambiguous.

In It, we get a tremendous amount of strange lore and wild extraterrestrial backstory for the creature called Pennywise. But at the end of the day, this extra dimensional shapeshifting entity isn’t remembered as its true form, a giant spooky spider. It’s remembered as a clown, and its ambitions weren’t grand and cosmic, they were simply to eat children every once and a while.

Pennywise was certainly Evil. But he also had that extra King-spice of sour, grim unlikability, a kind of anti-charisma. He’s not just evil, he’s Bad on a fundamental level.

Calling it dark magic again seems an overstatement. It has that above-it-all coolness, King’s Badness, and if you got caught calling Pennywise “magic” you’d look like a fucking dork. If you were pitching, say, Pet Semetary, I’d urge you away from using phrases like “magic cemetery” and “come back evil.”

It’s not a “magic cemetery.” It’s a bad cemetery. The ground went bad. So when they come back, your pet, your loved one, they don’t return evil. It’s much worse than that. Your wife, your child….they’re rotten now, on some incomprehensible yet undeniable level.

They’ve gone bad.

So many writers have worked hard to craft villains whose motivations and origins make them more compelling, draw you in. Similarly, many villains are deliberately obtuse, their motives unclear beyond a desire to cause harm and chaos. But this specific flavor of Bad is so above all that, so beyond clear placement in any individual sentence or paragraph. It’s hard to pin down and grab on to, beyond that you just want it gone, best case, or worst case, you just want to get as far away as possible before it corrupts you, too.

Or worse.

I’ve always felt the most profound thing about this breed of Bad is that it’s deliberately unfair. It always seems to target people in ways that are over-the-line spiteful, deliberately beyond anything they could attempt to stand against. Jack Torrance was a troubled man, and the Overlook used that like a key to unlock madness. One could make an argument against Jack, perhaps, but what about Arnie in Christine? What did he ever do to be twisted so horribly? What about the poor son of a bitch who committed the unforgivable crime of buying a painting at a yard sale in The Road Virus Heads North?

Dummy. He shouldn’t of bought a Bad painting. He should’ve known that an enigmatic entity within insatiable thirst for violence actually really needed that painting back for reasons the reader will never learn. And what’s the deal with Cujo? Sure, he’s rabid, but what feels like every 10 pages King implies there’s something more going on than just rabies.

Sure, Cujo is sick. Sure. But you and me and anyone who’s read the book both know the truth; Cujo is a Bad Dog.

The characters this form of “bad” targets are designed to be destroyed by it, and King lets you know that in a thousand little ways before any blood is ever spilled in his stories.

The discarded shoe of a child on a country road. The corpse of an infant in an overheated car.

Sure, you can win sometimes. Paul got away from Annie in Misery. Pennywise learned a brutal lesson about underestimating his enemies not once, but twice in It. Certainly the nuke in The Stand was a massive defeat for Randall Flagg, if perhaps not a definitive one, and his spiritual cousin Leland Gaunt is run out of town with his tail between his legs in Needful Things.

When it comes to real Bad stories, however, survivors are rarer. Though a bit singed, Mike Enslin does survive the onslaught of horrors from Room 1408. 1408 is a wonderful example, because the entire first half of that story is a character attempting to articulate exactly how Stephen King’s breed of Bad works. Enslin does a memorably-okay job at this.

To me, standing head and shoulders above the rest of King’s work in this space, is Sometimes They Come Back. It is the most Bad, the most unfair, the special type of short story that makes you ask “why did I even want to read that” after it’s over.

King has a few of these in his oeuvre; stories that lead you steadily down the dark path only to reveal it wasn’t a path at all, but a blind turn deer trail straight off a cliff. Some of them, like The Raft, describe an individual incident that steadily gets worse and worse. Others, like The Long Jaunt, take a hundred twists and turns before dumping ice water down your back in the final paragraph.

But in my opinion, Sometimes They Come Back is the only one that’s straight up mean.

Sometimes They Come Back was originally published in March 1974, and memorably included in King’s seminal collection of short stories, Night Shift. Night Shift is a dazzling bouquet of some of the best King has ever had to offer, with story after story going weirder and wilder and showing more and more of his incredible range. It’s notable especially for how many of the stories in it were eventually adapted into films; Graveyard Shift, The Mangler, The Ledge, Quitter’s Inc, all got adapted in one form or another. Lawnmower Man got two full movies. Children Of The Corn got eleven. Yes, eleven movies. Jersualem’s Lot got a TV show, and so did The Boogeyman, both within the last few years.

Sometimes They Come Back also got a movie.

It got three movies, in fact. That’s right, there exists a trilogy of films in this franchise. It’s no Children of the Corn, but nothing to shake a stick at, either. And it’s even stranger once you know what the story is about. It doesn’t seem like the sort of thing you’d even want one movie of, much less three.

Because the whole thing is just totally unfair.

That’s the most hair-raising thing while you’re reading it. So often in horror stories there’s some kind of fatal mistake the audience can look to, some point where the character should’ve obviously turned back. Moments like this occasionally have a kind of subliminal intentionality, as though they’re letting the audience off the hook. “You’d never end up here, this would never happen to you.”

In narratives, we expect this kind of balancing logic of cause and effect. That’s why we’ve been kicking around the same horror tropes for the last two hundred years; they work. Don’t go up to the haunted castle and you won’t have to meet Dracula. Don’t split up, and there’s a strong chance Ghostface from SCREAM won’t get you.

Sometimes They Come Back, though, has something entirely different in mind. There is no cause and effect, here. There’s a curse, sure, but it’s not one that makes sense as a result of anything that’s happened, and in fact, by the very nature of its existence, it implies horrible truths about the nature of the world, truths that have fascinated and frightened me for decades.

King often revisits this idea, and it’s always unpleasant; the idea that the invisible infrastructures of the world beyond are actually not only unfair to human beings, but designed to hurt us, kill us, or fuck us over. The most in-depth explanation of this idea is among my least favorite King novels, REVIVAL. Even though the story isn’t to my taste, the sheer blistering nihilism of the book’s final reveal of what awaits human souls beyond the grave is impressive to read on the page.

Not so much impressive like the construction of the Eiffel Tower. More impressive in the way Ed Gein’s furniture was impressive. But it’s always lurking in King’s work; not just that bad things to happen to good people, but the bad things can happen to good people endlessly for no reason and continue on for an eternity beyond human comprehension.

I’m going to try to summarize the events of the story succinctly as possible. There will be spoilers, but that shouldn’t stop you from checking it out one night if you’re down for some chills with a side of despair.

When Jim Norman and his brother are little boys, they are spontaneously attacked without provacation by a group of local teenaged creeps. The situation escalates without cause, and the trio of pubescent psychopaths murders Jim’s brother for no reason. That’s correct: the story opens with a twelve year old being stabbed to death in an incident that can best be described as “horrifically meaningless.” The narrative then jumps forward two decades; we find Jim a married English teacher, now working in a high school.

However, inexplicably, after one of his students dies in a hit-and-run, that student is replaced by one of the teen creeps who killed his brother, somehow still the same age 20 years later. As this mysteriously resurrected homicidal jackass is joined by his two creepy compatriots, Jim begins to panic. Their reappearance here, and moreover, the death of the teenage students they replace, is already enough to twist the knife in the gut of the readers and the protagonist.

That sense of surreal panic and helplessness only grows worse when he’s informed that all three of them died in a car crash twenty years ago. Which brings us into the story’s third act.

After the revenant teens HORRIFICALLY MURDER HIS WIFE, yes, that’s correct, MURDER HIS WIFE, Jim consults a surprisingly easy to find book of demonic spells, in an effort to combat magic with magic. Wracked with grief and driven nearly insane with fear, Jim CUTS OFF HIS OWN INDEX FINGERS to SUMMON A DEMON. The demon does indeed scare the Greasers back to hell, but does so in the most traumatic way possible, by assuming the form of Jim’s murdered child brother.

And then, at the end, once Jim is “saved” (wifeless, fingerless, jobless, mentally destroyed), the demon turns around and gives him a final piece of alarming information: that it’s gonna come back and get him at some point and do something even worse than the Greasers ever would’ve done. The evil teens were straight baby mode compared to this new thing he’s invited into his life out of desperation. Now he’s fucked til eternity.

Because when you summon demons to do your bidding, “Sometimes they come back.”

I’d like to pump the brakes here and talk about the reactive nature of a lot of King’s storytelling. Very often in King stories, especially his short stories, we meet someone who has abruptly found themselves in a supernatural situation. In The Raft, a story about teens trapped and eaten one by one by a carnivorous oil slick, there’s nothing those teens could’ve done to save themselves before the story started. They weren’t aware that oil that ate people lived in that lake. This kind of unfair, “oops you went the wrong way, now horrible things are going to happen” premise is quite common in horror in general, but especially in King’s work. By the time the first domino falls, a bulldozer driven by an insane cannibal is already rolling towards the house you spent time setting up dominoes in.

Ancillary to that, branching off it, are King’s survivor stories. Stories like The Ledge or Battleground in Nightshift feature a character in a seemingly totally unfair and impossible situation, but dynamically refusing the fate the author has chosen for them, and scrambling wildly through King’s Halloween Horror Nights Maze of Madness only to make it to sunlight on the other side.

But what I love so much about Sometimes They Come Back is that it’s neither type of story.

Sometimes They Come Back carries with it a strange unspoken message; that the world, in its spiritual complexion, is fundamentally evil.

Sure, you might have nice times every once and a while, find love, get a job, but at the end of the day, your trauma and pain can’t be psychologically conquered. Because, in King’s Bad World, it’s physically hunting you. You can get all the therapy you want, but a random element of an incident you were tangentially involved in 40 years ago might just show up at 4 AM and murder your whole family. Every nice thing in your life is a fleeting, small, superficial element of a world built entirely out of cruelty, that hates you actively.

Sometimes They Come Back takes this to its logical extreme. An afterlife exists, yes, and it does appear to be a meritocracy, except it congratulates evil and hatred with literal resurrection from DEATH.

To lock this in, I ask you to consider the trinity of evil teens who drive the story. When first encountered, they were shitty little sociopaths, familiar to us from It and various other pieces of the King’s writing. They’re not particularly smart. They’re not even particularly capital E “Evil,” they’re just pathetic horrible baby shitheads who stab a twelve year old to death for no reason. They weren’t wizards, or satanists, nor did they hold any allegiance to a greater, darker power.

They were just homicidal assholes who died in a car crash. And these are the three souls that achieved a no-strings-attached resurrection back to the world of the living? Sounds like Hell doesn’t quite work in the righteously punitive way we’ve been told it does. What’s worse is to consider their goal on Earth, the decision they’ve made of how to spend their time reborn; to destroy the life of a man whose brother they murdered twenty years ago.

And they just come in one by one, and do exactly that, killing whoever gets in their way.

The fact that they seemingly murder the children they replace is bad enough. But once they murder Jim’s wife, it feels impossible that the story will have any kind of peaceful resolution, as we’ve already seen Jim’s mind broken twice now and beyond his own death, it doesn’t seem like it could get much worse.

Except then it does get worse.

We leave Jim minus a wife, two fingers, a job, and very probably his sanity, being threatened in the voice of his own dead brother with horrible torture for the unforgivable sin (!?) of attempting to defend his own life.

It just hits. It’s just so penetrating. It’s stayed with me forever. You wait the whole story for some kind of turn, or twist, or accelleration, some respite of any kind, but every time something moves the story forward it’s literally just “and then things got more awful.” It’s the power of Bad energy, that corrupting influence, that unstoppable force that actually seems to know more than you, to be more Right than you ever could be, even though it’s so so wrong.

It’s a special tool, a wonderful spell on the page he is able to cast, a feeling of madness that is so far, in my experience, unique to his work. I’ve seen it in movies, sure; It Follows is a safe example of a notable “almost,” but it movies never have the depth of his work on the page. And that’s not to say these movies aren’t great; in my eyes, King is just that much better.

I’ve read Sometimes They Come Back three times in my life, now across 3 decades. Every time it leaves me depressed for weeks, frustrated, and even as an adult, a little bit scared.

And yet, I know I will revisit it eventually. Because it’s rare you get to see something that Bad up close, and live to walk away smiling.

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PS: if you’re ever curious to see me try my hand at a Kingsian Style of Badness, feel free to purchase my play Polybius on Amazon. If you liked this, you might love that; and why not pick up a copy of Night Shift if you haven’t read it? My play is a great Polaroid, but Night Shift is a motherfucking masterpiece.

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Max Landis

I am a writer who is pretty tall but not very tall.