I wouldn’t call this a horror story. Granted, there’s something quite unsettling about the titular shortcut, a sense of the impossible that’s encroaching throughout the story; but the tone it all adds up to is closer to fantasy than horror.
You may also think that you can deduce the story just from the title and that it’s by Stephen King: that it’ll be about Mrs. Todd taking a shortcut through the back roads of Maine and getting lost and coming across monsters or a rural town with a dark secret or both. And you’d be wrong, sort of. For a start, Mrs. Todd takes many shortcuts, right up to the point when she disappears.
The narrator and Homer Buckland are rural Maine natives, and the story starts with them observing the city folk who only come to the area for the summer. They see the new Mrs. Todd driving by, and that prompts Homer to talk about Mr. Todd’s first wife, ‘Phelia. She had employed him as a handyman, at least until her mysterious disappearance several years ago.
‘Phelia was also an enthusiastic driver with a champagne-colored Mercedes, and she had a particular passion for shortcuts. She always had a stack of maps in her car to scrutinize, and she would often experiment with side-roads she passed in case they proved to be better. She would keep score with the car’s odometer.
One day while Homer was de-grouting her bathroom she discussed her findings about the four main routes between Castle Rock and Bangor she’d found. The two that Homer knew about both involved the turnpike and were 156.4 and 144.9 miles, but she’d discovered a new shortcut, twisting through a lot of back roads, that only took 116 miles. Homer was surprised at this, but ‘Phelia pointed out that the distance as the crow flies was only 79 miles, and was convinced there was room for improvement.
And the narrator doesn’t disagree: The turnpike is easy to think of. After a while it almost fills a man’s mind, and you think not how could 1 get from here to there but how can I get from here to the turnpike ramp that’s closest to there. And that made me think that maybe there are lots of roads all over that are just going begging; roads with rock walls beside them, real roads with blackberry bushes growing alongside them but nobody to eat the berries but the birds and gravel pits with old rusted chains hanging down in low curves in front of their entry-ways, the pits themselves as forgotten as a child’s old toys with scrumgrass growing up their deserted unremembered sides. Roads that have just been forgot except by the people who live on them and think of the quickest way to get off them and onto the turnpike where you can pass on a hill and not fret over it. We like to joke in Maine that you can’t get there from here, but maybe the joke is on us. The truth is there’s about a damn thousand ways to do it and man doesn’t bother.
The following year she said she’d found a faster route, and asked Homer to accompany her. She sped through the small lanes, through darker tree-shrouded roads, her face full of glee, as if she’d become a different, more joyous person. They passed strange things. A sign for a “motorway”. Overhanging creepers that sting like poison ivy and actively snatch Homer’s hat off his head. Mosquitos the size of sparrows. A tree-toad the size of a full-grown cat.
By the time they emerged onto more familiar roads, Mrs Todd barely remembered any strangeness they passed; there was a faint nag at the back of her mind, but otherwise she didn’t remember anything abnormal. And she was convinced there are even shorter routes to find. One day she triumphantly announced that, impossibly, she’d found a shortcut from Castle Rock to Bangor that was only 68 miles…
Mrs. Todd’s Shortcut by Stephen King
Word count: 11,400
First published: Redbook, May 1984
Where to find it: Skeleton Crew, collection, 2006, Hodder Paperbacks
Otherworldly Maine, edited by Noreen Doyle, 2008, Down East Books
The Secret History of Fantasy, edited by Peter S. Beagle, 2010, Tachyon Publications
Other Worlds Than These, edited by John Joseph Adams, 2012, Night Shade Books