We return to a much more accomplished Richard Matheson; in the six years since he’d penned Fury on Sunday (1953), the author had wrote numerous quality short stories, as well as some of his most famous novels: I Am Legend in 1954, The Shrinking Man in 1956, and A Stir of Echoes in 1958. The third of his ’50s “noir” novels is the least noir of the trio, but it’s a capable thriller in its own right.
Chris Martin is a quiet young husband and father, owner of a record store and member of the Chamber of Commerce. He’s living the post-war American Dream, launching his own struggling business and slowly clawing his way up the social ladder, hoping to save enough to buy his family a larger house in a nicer neighborhood. But Chris has a dark secret: bad decisions as a teenager led him to fall in with a bad crowd, three other guys who decided to rob a jewelry store. The police showed up earlier than expected, and Chris, the getaway driver, sped off, leaving the others to face prison. Changing his name and moving to sunny California, Chris hopes for a fresh start to wash away his past sins.
And for a while, it seems to work… up until the three criminals break out of jail and track Chris down. All it takes is one phone call from one of the escaped cons and Chris’s life is collapsing around him; his wife Helen and daughter Connie are no longer safe, Helen instead giving him worried sidelong glances and wondering what kind of man she’s married. Chris isn’t going to give up and let these thugs harm his family, destroy his life, ruin everything he cares about—but, as his past reveals, Chris is not as toughened or hard-boiled as they are, and these three cons play a dangerous game. Realizing that Chris is now a family man, they go after what’s most valuable—and vulnerable—to him: his young daughter, Connie…
Ride the Nightmare has a distinctive quality that I can only describe as cinematic; small wonder to find that it was filmed as an episode of The Alfred Hitchcock Hour in 1962, and then re-located to the French Rivera for the Charles Bronson vehicle Cold Sweat some ten years later. You can see the talents at play that Matheson would bring to screenwriting for The Twilight Zone; there’s nothing in the novel that you can’t see coming from a mile away, but Matheson deftly handles the tense set-pieces, masterfully crafting the pacing and prose to construct amazing tension and suspense.
And man, what suspense! I’ve always thought Matheson was one of the best thriller authors out there, and this is yet another good example of his craft. The novel is brief, only 120-some pages, and it literally flies by in your hand—the prose is gripping, the plot a real page-turner. Like Fury on Sunday, Matheson uses a restrained time period to increase the tension—the novel takes place over a period of some 18-20 hours, and Chris is often given shortened deadlines in which to accomplish a task. Its themes are primal: a vulnerable family man fighting to protect the normality he’s constructed for himself.
And his struggle is where the tension really lies: there are several scenes where Chris has to interact with other people going about their daily lives, unaware of the fears that are crippling him. At one point he’s sent to the bank to collect his life’s savings in exchange for his daughter under a tight deadline; as the minutes tick away on the clock, Chris is harangued by a leader of a local woman’s club who wants to talk about supplying music for an upcoming event, completely unaware of the burdensome tension eating him up inside. At other points, he’s forced to interact with his mother-in-law, and to collect a doctor of some kind; both are unwilling to deal with the increasingly flustered Chris, and are confused by his (to them) irrational haste, not understanding the perilous situation he’s in. It’s a play on isolation; Chris refuses to go to the police since it would reveal his role in the original crime, and can’t tell any of the acquaintances he runs into about the terrifying peril his family is in. As the introduction notes, these are very “British” scenes in their style of building suspense; regardless, they work wonders.
Ride the Nightmare isn’t the best of Matheson’s works, though it’s a capable and fast-moving thriller. I found it gripping and hard to put down, since once the plot starts rolling, Matheson throws more and more complications at poor Chris, and I found it hard to abandon the guy in the midst of his increasing turmoil. The characters are barely given any breathing room, and for that matter neither is the reader; the novel moves along at a lightning-fast pace. All told, it’s not very substantial, but Matheson so excels at the suspense and tension that it works wonderfully. Ride the Nightmare is a great choice for anyone interested in either thrillers or Richard Matheson; again, it’s in the easily accessible Forge Noir omnibus with two other early Matheson works, a collection worth picking up for those interested in vintage fiction.