Science fiction can be one of the most terrifying genres in literature, with the vast beyond looming over us and so many questions that will likely never be answered amidst the stars. The genre mixes with horror almost seamlessly and has provided libraries of amazing reading over the years.
As a life-long Stephen King fan, it was only a matter of time before The King was spotlighted in this series. With so many installments to choose from thanks to a massive short story canon that grows every year, I decided to select a story of his that couldn’t simply be pegged as a “horror story”. I wanted a story that was completely void of any blood shed but brimming with nightmare-inducing imagery.
King grew up reading sci-fi tales at a whirlwind pace and it shouldn’t come as a surprise that he’s dabbled in science-fiction numerous times during his illustrious career. Today, we head off to the great unknown and celebrate The Jaunt!
First published in The Twilight Zone Magazine in 1981 and then featured in Skeleton Crew, King’s 1985 short story collection, The Jaunt is a lovely little tale of childhood disobedience and cosmic madness.
The story takes place in the twenty-fourth century as a family is preparing to teleport, or “jaunt”, to Mars. Man is able to jaunt from planet to planet in this day and age, and a father named Mark is telling his two children the history of teleportation to calm the youngsters’ nerves as they ready themselves for their trip to the red planet.
In telling the story of the scientists who discovered this exciting new form of transportation, Mark does what any good parent would do – omit any of the terrifying and gruesome details of the science, such as the fact that animals and humans who are jaunted while conscious end up either dying immediately or going insane. People who are going to jaunt must be put under using anesthesia in order to travel safely and soundly. The reader learns that the first person to ever jaunt was a convicted murderer who was offered a full pardon if he agreed to be the scientists’ guinea pig and things did not turn out well at all- the man died of a massive heart attack upon the transport, declaring that “it’s eternity in there” before keeling over. In fact, several people have jaunted while conscious, and all have either died instantly upon completing their trip or they have gone completely insane. It is believed by scientists that physically, the process occurs instantly, while it lasts an eternity for a conscious mind. Mark decides not to tell this part of the story to his kiddos, either. That’s good parenting right there.
It really doesn’t get any creepier than that- the idea that your brain can be lost for “hundreds or billions of years” in limbo while your physical body is present and accounted for.
The jaunt is near. The family is put under.
Upon completion of the trip, Mark wakes up, groggy, to the sound of screaming.
He sees his son, Ricky, laughing hysterically with his hair grown out to excessive lengths and shocked completely white. It becomes instantly clear that Ricky held his breath while being gassed.
Ricky shrieks “It’s longer than you think, Dad! It’s longer than you think!” before clawing out his eyes and being wheeled away.
What really sticks to the reader’s gut like a big bowl of porridge with this story is the fact that we see every aspect of the jaunt. We can relate to the family, excited for a big trip and the father trying to keep his children’s minds at ease. We learn of the history of teleportation, both the good and the bad. The reader is one hundred percent privy to the entire situation. While that can hurt a lot of horror novels or good stories in general, it works wonders here because the second we read that Mark wakes to screaming, we know things are about to hit the fan. The imagery of a boy, so young and lively a moment earlier, tearing his own eyes out while cackling like a mad man is enough to keep anyone awake a few extra minutes on any particular night. King is a master of the written word and while The Jaunt is regularly listed as a fan favorite of his. About a year ago, it was reported that Andy and Barbara Muschietti of Mama fame would be helming a film version of the story, but that seems to have been put on the shelf so Andy can concentrate on a much larger King project, the remake of It. With Tales from the Crypt coming back to television in the near future, I can only imagine how awesome of an episode this story would make!
Do yourself an out-of-this-world favor (see what I did there?) and read this eerie tale today! Happy reading, all!