34 pages 1 hour read

Stephen King


Fiction | Short Story | Adult | Published in 2014

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Summary and Study Guide

Summary: “1408”

“1408,” written by American horror writer Stephen King, is a short story that uses Gothic elements and setting to explore themes of Belief and Superstition, Idealism Versus Cynicism, and Fear of the Unknown. The story first appeared in King’s 1999 audio compilation of stories entitled Blood and Smoke before its inclusion in his 2002 short story collection entitled Everything’s Eventual: 14 Dark Tales.

Due to his prolific body of work, King is often described as a modern master of horror. Although he describes “1408” as his attempt at writing the “Ghostly Room at the Inn” story, it is not the first time he has approached this premise in his work. His 1977 novel The Shining tackles a similar idea, following a family that becomes acquainted with the ghostly presences of the Overlook Hotel during its off-season. Much like The Shining, “1408” was eventually adapted to film; the 2007 movie, which Mikael Håfström directed, starred John Cusack as Mike Enslin and Samuel L. Jackson as Mr. Olin.

This guide refers to the version of the text that is included in Everything’s Eventual: 14 Dark Tales by Stephen King, published in hardcover by Scribner in 2002.

Content Warning: The source material features discussions of suicide, self-harm, and distressing imagery. It also includes ableist language, specifically the author’s use of the r-word.

“1408” uses a close third-person voice to narrate the events of the story. Its first two sections are from the perspective of the story’s principal character, Mike Enslin. The story opens with Mike entering the Hotel Dolphin, a boutique establishment in New York’s Upper East Side. Earlier that day, Mike had visited with his lawyer, Robertson, to force Olin, the hotel manager, to let him stay in room 1408 of the hotel. When Olin sees Mike, he invites him to his office. Mike deploys his minicorder to pressure Olin into relenting to his demands. Instead, Olin embarrasses him by, from Mike’s perspective, taking a condescending tone while sharing his familiarity with Mike’s work, a book series that follows his travels to haunted locations around the world.

Despite Mike’s expertise, Olin accuses Mike of not believing in any of the supernatural subjects he’s written. When Mike admits to this, Olin warns him that the presence that inhabits 1408 is not ghostly in nature, but something he finds difficult to explain. He makes a last attempt to dissuade Mike by having a drink with him and discussing the history of the room.

Olin shares a few details about the maintenance of the room. Unlike the other rooms in the hotel, 1408 is unlocked by a physical key, rather than a MagCard. Although no guests have stayed in the room since 1978, Olin supervises a pair of maids to conduct a monthly light turn—a minimal cleaning service—of 1408. Originally, this task was completed by twin sisters, one of whom continues to work as head housekeeper. Olin believes that the bond between the sisters allowed them to withstand the negative presence of the room. Nevertheless, he also believes that the room deteriorated the health of the other twin, along with the twins’ successors, even causing one such maid to develop blindness. Mike suspects that Olin is trying to scare him, but Olin goes on to discuss the history of deaths in 1408. Mike argues that the pattern is no more than a coincidence, and remains interested in seeing the room.

Upon reaching for the key, Mike notices his hand feels heavy and resistant, but dismisses the feeling. Olin accompanies Mike to the 14th floor, which is actually the 13th, where the elevator door cuts him off before he can implore Mike to turn back one last time. Privately acknowledging that he can abandon his plan, Mike is driven to continue by the guilt he would feel if he chose to leave the location out of his next book.

The second section of the story begins with a brief discussion of Mike’s minicorder, which is described in the aftermath of his stay in 1408. The minicorder is his primary writing tool, allowing him to document his personal experiences in the room. Retrospectively discussing the minicorder, the narration states that there were only 11 minutes recorded, despite Mike’s 70-minute stay. The minicorder itself was charred after Mike’s stay, and the narration on the tape is said to be odd and fragmentary.

The narration returns to Mike as he approaches the room, and he notices the door slanting first to the left and then to the right. He tries to describe this on the minicorder, but the door straightens itself. Mike is convinced that Olin is playing a trick at his expense.

As he enters the room, he describes it to his minicorder and records his suspicions about Olin, growing increasingly distracted and fragmented in speech without realizing the strange commentary he is recording. He believes himself to be articulately documenting what he sees.

Anxious, he pauses to compose himself and strengthens his resolve to stay the night. He examines an ashtray on one of the tables in the room and finds a vintage matchbook that he decides to keep. Throwing the window open, he remembers his older brother, Donald Enslin, who passed away from lung cancer. This thought prompts him to record a false anecdote about Donald being devoured by wolves.

Mike moves to the bedroom section of 1408 and senses the wallpaper feeling like “old dead skin” (391) as he reaches for the light switch. He mentally rambles about the still life, believing he is recording these statements on the minicorder. However, he only records fragmentary words without context. He picks up a room service menu on the bed and finds the text repeatedly changing languages. The menu then vanishes, replaced by a woodcut image of a wolf devouring a boy. Mike shuts his eyes and finds that the menu has returned in English.

Mike removes himself from the bed area, which has shrunken in the time since he examined the menu. He begins to accept that something may be wrong with the room, yet remains convinced that Olin is responsible, using poisonous gas to validate his earlier claims. As his thoughts begin to spiral Mike decides to get out of the room, perceiving changes along the way, such as the floor getting soft and the paintings in the room morphing into violent images. When Mike reaches the door, he is unable to open it.

The minicorder disappears from Mike’s hand and reappears in his shirt pocket. Convinced that none of what he has experienced is Olin’s doing, Mike lurches to the telephone to seek help. On the telephone, he hears a clicking noise, followed by a monstrous voice declaring that his friends are dead. Although he drops the receiver, he continues to hear the voice advising him to hide at the sound of a siren. 

Mike pulls out a cigarette, which he wears behind his ear as a lucky token, and prepares to light it. Around him, the room distorts its visual details in a way that Mike describes as “Moorish” (396). The voice on the phone tells Mike that escape from the room is impossible, even if he manages to leave. Mike lights a match before instinctively setting the rest of the matchbook alight. His shirt catches fire as one of the walls splits open to reveal an unknown beast coming toward him. Reaching the door once again, Mike is finally able to open it and escape.

The third section of the story shifts its perspective to follow Rufus Dearborn, a guest at the Hotel Dolphin who is leaving the ice room on the 14th floor when the burning Mike leaps out of 1408. The light of Mike’s burning shirt reminds Dearborn of sundown in the Australian Outback. As soon as he gets Mike on the floor, he douses the fire with his ice-bucket. Dearborn perceives the same strange light emanating from the door of 1408, but Mike stops him from entering, warning him that the room is haunted.

The fourth and final section of the story then moves to follow later events from the perspective of Mike’s literary agent, Sam Farrell. Sam listens to the contents of Mike’s minicorder and decides to archive it, unnerved by his indecipherable rambling. Olin visits Farrell and requests to listen to the tape, which Sam declines. Olin rejects any culpability in what happened, noting that he had made every attempt to prevent Mike from staying.

Sam hopes that Mike will write an entire book about the ordeal, knowing that it will outsell all of his previous work. However, as Mike recovers from the burns and reconstructive skin procedures, he declares that he will not write again. For the most part, Mike’s experience in 1408 fades from memory, though he experiences constant nightmares that he does not remember upon waking. Occasionally, he acknowledges that whatever inhabited the room was something other than human. He avoids all other reminders of the room, including telephones and the light at dusk.