A lot of people get killed in some pretty brutal ways in Stephen King’s stories. In honor of several gruesome kills in my upcoming novel The Puppeteer (one of which is an homage to a kill on this list … you’ll have to read to figure out which …) here are my 10 favorite / worst / most disturbing / most memorable.
I’ve stuck to the written word rather than movies or TV, and I’ve left off many great contenders, including death by fire and crucifixion and St. Bernard and laundry press and Plymouth Fury … I was looking for creativity, graphic description, emotional punch, thematic weight, and all-around awesomeness.
10) The Kid, The Stand: Complete and Uncut Edition – losing a hand-to-hand battle with wolves
The character of the Kid – a diminuitive, drunken, drawling, homoerotic psychopath with an Elvis bob and a Deuce Coupe – didn’t make it into the shortened edition of The Stand that King was forced to release due to his lack of sufficient clout early in his career. I can see why – his function in the book is as a plot device, albeit a tremendously entertaining plot device. Giving a lift to the antiheroic pyromaniac known as the Trashcan Man, the Kid talks blithely about usurping the godlike Dark Man, to Trashy’s major discomfort. At some point, Trashy and the Kid are set upon by vicious wolves, sent by the Dark Man to punish the Kid for his hubris and demonstrate his power and favor to Trashy. The wolves fawn on Trashy like puppies, but trap the Kid in his stalled Deuce Coupe in a permanent standoff. Later in the book we learn the specifics of the Kid’s fate, and they’re awesome. Larry, Stu, Glen, and Ralph, traveling on foot to Vegas to make the titular stand, encounter a corpse they call “the Wolfman” – throat torn out, dead hands locked around the throat of a wolf that he strangled in his final moments, surrounded by several gunshot wolf carcasses. It’s clear from the description of both the Wolfman and the nearby Deuce Coupe that this is the Kid … and that hunger and thirst finally drove him out of the car, where he shot several of the wolves, ran out of ammo, and then fought the wolves with his bare hands, killing one of them before he himself succumbed. The most badass kill on this list.
9) The Hitchhiker, Chattery Teeth – slowly eaten alive by a child’s toy
The short stories are low-hanging fruit when ranking King kills. Some of the stories seem to exist for no other purpose than to build up to a particularly creative kill. Oh well … here’s the first of several on this list. A guy buys a kid’s novelty toy teeth, picks up a hitchhiker, the hitchhiker tries to carjack him … then the teeth come to life, eat the hitchhiker alive, and drag the body away. Game over.
8) George Stark, The Dark Half – pecked apart by birds
The dark, supernatural alter-ego of protagonist writer Thad Beaumont, Stark was King’s personification of the Richard Bachman pseudonym, under which he published several earlier, nastier novels. The gruesome death-by-a-million-bird-pecks gives some insight into how King felt about the pseudonym close to the end of its run (though he revived the persona as a stunt for the release of 1996 novel The Regulators, a companion piece to his self-attributed novel Desperation released the same year).
7) Harold Parkette, The Lawnmower Man – run over by a possessed lawnmower
This title is unfortunately linked to the laughable 1992 techno-thriller film about AI and dated-looking virtual reality, which King disowned. It has nothing to do with the short-and-sweet-and-also-nasty story for whose title and famous authorship King was probably paid an obscene licensing fee. In it, one Harold Parkette hires a big, gross guy to push-mow his lawn, only to find the lawnmower man naked and eating the grass clippings left by the mower, which seems to be possessed and pushing itself. The lawnmower man is apparently a worshipper of ancient gods, and when Parkette becomes a threat, the lawnmower chases him and runs over him, chewing him to pieces. No shitty CGI needed for that story.
6) Patrick Hockstetter, IT – eaten by giant flying leeches
IT will be on this list again – I know, I know, it’s my favorite, but for a reason. I almost left Patrick’s death off of this list in favor of The Mangler, but I just couldn’t, because it’s the kill that left me the most physically sick. It bears no resemblance to the deaths suffered by the characters of the same name in either the film or the television version, but that’s not surprising – a kill this gross would be unwatchable. Vomit cleanup in the theaters would be prohibitive. King is clearly revolted by leeches – the motif turns up in The Body as well as its film adaptation Stand By Me. But if The Body didn’t get his fear of leeches out of King’s system, Hockstetter’s death had to have done so or nothing will. In addition to the grossness of the initial leech attack, there’s a strange and awesome event that follows – when It approaches a weakend, blood-drained Patrick to drag him to Its lair, It appears amorphous, without fixed features. This is because It takes the form of childrens’ worst fears, but as a budding sociopath, Patrick has no real fears … except leeches. Excuse me, I need the restroom …
5) Mrs. Leighton, The Blue Air Compressor – popped like a balloon by an air compressor
God, I wish this one weren’t funny. It’s super gross – a writer gets offended when an obese woman, about whom he wrote a mean story, finds the story and insults him rather than being insulted. So he does the natural thing – sticks the hose of an air compressor into fat Mrs. Leighton’s mouth and turns it on, causing her to rapidly inflate and then explode in a geyser of flesh and fat. The perpetrator doesn’t slouch in his own kill, though – suicide by guillotine. This story is messed up.
4) The Hitman, The Cat from Hell – insides clawed apart by a demon cat
Man, this story practically writes itself. If I were to have given you the title as a writing prompt, you probably would have come up with the exact same plot … except it took Stephen King to dream up this sick yarn. How priceless is it that the titular cat, we find out, has been “implicated in the murders of three different people?” Add to that the framing story of a hitman being hired by a millionaire to kill the cat. A millionaire whose company tortured and killed thousands of cats in the name of research, and now faces a positively poetic retribution. Anyway, the cat causes a car accident which paralyzes the hitman, and then then cat claws its way inside his body and then back out again. Are we done here?
3) Annie Wilkes, Misery – bludgeoned with poetic justice
This is a satisfying kill. After being terrorized throughout the book, abducted and crippled author Paul Sheldon finally manages to get the drop on his captor in the most fitting way possible. He clubs her over the head with the metal typewriter that she brutally coerced him into using to write the most unwilling piece of fan-fic ever. Annie doesn’t die immediately. Skull fractured, she crawls out of the house to her tool shed, giving Sheldon an opening to escape and finally be rescued. Annie’s corpse is later discovered by the police, succumbed to her brain injury and burnt in the ensuing house fire, having died in the attempt to crawl back to the house … with a chainsaw in her hand. Oooohhhh ….
2) Deke, The Raft – pulled through the cracks of the raft by an oily monster
Deke’s death in the prurient, vicious short story The Raft is so outlandish that it hardly seems possible … but it’s described in such graphic terms that it seems very real. Four hedonistic teens go swimming in a lake in their underwear, strike up a party on a raft moored in the middle of the lake … and get cornered on the raft by an inky, blob-like formless monster that lures its first victim with pretty colors in the water … then grabs her with an oily pseudopod and pulls her in, devouring her in agony. She gets off easy, though, compared to Deke. The terrified teens take the lesson quickly – stay away from the edge of the raft and don’t look at the colors. But Deke learns, in the hardest way, lesson #2 – don’t step on the cracks. Instead of breaking his mother’s back, the gooey monster is able to seeth up between the cracks in the raft, grab Deke’s foot, and pull him through the tiny opening like paste extruded through a spaghetti-maker … shattered bones, exploded arteries, and all. Shock and pain kill Deke before his crushed knee passes through the crack, but one can imagine he would have preferred to be shot dead a 10th of the way through.
1) George Denbrough, IT – arm ripped off by Pennywise the Clown
It’s back in the zeitgeist due to the recent film, but even before director Andy Muschietti did this scene justice, it has to have been the most iconic kill in King’s lexicon. It also has to be one of the most-read ones, because even if you can’t make it to the end of this 1,158-page doorstop of a book, the kill serves as the climax of the lonely standalone first chapter, one that almost reads like a forlorn short story compared to the labyrinthine structure of the rest of the book. This kill is not only brutal, it’s also heartbreaking. George is 6 years old. We knew him long enough to catch his playfulness, his close relationship with his big brother (story protagonist Bill), the twee image of his paper boat, and his fears of a monster in his basement that come true in the most horrifying fashion. With this one slaying, the pitiless monster who lures George to his death is cemented in our minds as an unforgivable bastard; and the punishing tragedy of George’s violent and unsolved murder propels Bill’s life into a slow-burning nightmare, to the point where the chance of closure makes it seem worth his while to chase a shapeshifting monster into the bowels of subterranean hell. There are grosser and more graphic killings in King’s bibliography, but this one hurts the most.
What’s your favorite Stephen King kill? Did I miss a good one?