Admittedly, I experienced Stephen King's N. under utterly ideal conditions, which might explain why I consider it such a marvelous short story – one of King's best. I was driving to northern California for a weekend of camping and whitewater rafting (the Cal Salmon river – just an hour or so south of Oregon). It got dark just as I left the highway and hit the winding, narrow country backroads; no headlights, no cars. I happened to be listening to King's recent Just After Sunset short story compilation, where N. – one of the longer pieces in the set – appears in the middle, taking up discs 8 and 9 in their entirety. The story started just as I hit a series of switchbacks going up a mountain. The twisty roads, the oppressive darkness, the (seemingly) complete emptiness, and Stephen King in his Lovecraftian unknowable-cosmic-terror mode... I'm probably lucky to be alive and not in a ravine somewhere.
Actually, King denies that Lovecraft was the inspiration for N. Instead, he cites Arthur Machen's classic horror story The Great God Pan, which you can (and should) read in its entirety right here. Either way, N. is terrifying – a story of unspeakable horrors lurking just beyond the thin veneer we know as reality. Better yet, it's not – like some of Lovecraft's tales were – all concept. King's got a couple of great hooks: first, the story is told through letters, journal entries and newspaper clippings, somehow amplifying the atmosphere of impending doom. Second, King provides a clever alternative explanation for obsessive-compulsive disorder. It seems that all that counting, touching, and insisting that things be arranged just so isn't mental illness, but an attempt to save the world: to keep the evil out.