The title of Stephen King’s latest short story (published in the March 2020 issue of Harper’s Magaizine) might suggest a scaling of a rotting staircase in a haunted hilltop mansion, but the setting and situation in “The Fifth Step” prove much more mundane. Retiree Harold Jamieson is spending a quiet mid-May morning in Central Park reading the New York Times when a nondescript fortysomething male sits down alongside him and asks a favor. The man admits to being an alcoholic, and needs someone to help him perform the Fifth Step of his AA program (“Admit to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs”). At first wary at being approached, Harold eventually agrees to lend an ear. The stranger proceeds with his confession, and these two figures appear fortuitously met. Of course, this being a King tale, all is not fated to end well.
However expected, the dark turn of the story’s climax manages to surprise with its sharp execution. A second go-through of the brief narrative shows just how deftly King prepared for the final twist, planting subtle clues (including the very name of the alcoholic character) along the way. “The Fifth Step” likely won’t take home a Stoker Award, but this well-crafted conte cruel successfully delivers a nasty little jolt to Constant Readers.