One of the better short stories, in my opinion, to come out of the Stephen King machine for short-fiction that is his mind is The Jaunt, a story first published in a 1981 issue of Twilight Zone Magazine and eventually collecting along with many other stories as a part of Skeleton Crew, where it is much better known.
I feel as though King knew he was writing this for a Twilight Zone Magazine and that this knowledge affected his penmanship, because there are definite elements of the classic series present here. It sets up an interesting science-fiction premise from a slightly creepy point-of-view and lets that play out until the obligatory twist ending, with a slight bit of moral superiority thrown in for good measure.
It follows a fairly simple premise: teleportation exists. Just as plane-rides are called “flights,” trips through a teleporter are called “jaunts” and are done in large groups to save on the electricity it costs to power them. So in an air-travel-like scenario, a family of four is preparing for their first jump with their two young children, and the children are scared. To ease their fears, the father tells them the story of the first jaunt and those that pioneered the process. He explains how the scientist who discovered it quickly learned that it had a disturbing, inexplicable effect on the mice he “sent through”- the mice would either die instantly or behave erratically before dying moments later, eventually concluding that they could only survive the “Jaunt effect” while unconscious. That, the father explains, is why all people must undergo general anesthesia before using the Jaunt.
The tale takes a Kingian twist when its revealed — slowly, and without direct statement at first — that if one is conscious when they go through the jaunt, they see the world between the points on the map: they see behind the curtain of our dimension, and go insane. Thus, all “jaunters” are put to sleep before making the jaunt.
The twist at the end of the frame story is that the youngest child held his breath when getting his gas, being curious about the story, and when he comes through on the other side is screaming and seems possessed, shouting that they were away “longer than you think!” before clawing his own eyes out.
This is an intensely creepy story with a foreboding sense of dread permeating all the way through it. It feels almost like something Lovecraftian, and the prose is wonderful and poetic. This is one of those shining examples of what King can accomplish when he really puts himself into his work and has some idea of where the story is going before he starts.
My rating: 5 of 5 stars