1950s, 1951, 1953, 1955, 1960, 1960s, 1969, 1980s, 1987, 1989, Fantastic, fantasy, Horror, Playboy, Richard Matheson, Rod Serling's The Twilight Zone Magazine, science fiction, short fiction, Startling Stories, suspense, The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction
Continuing on with Richard Matheson, a sort of bonus after the last post. My copy of I Am Legend from publisher Tor/ORB comes packed with a number of short stories, some great ones and a few stinkers. There’s ten of them altogether. Three date from near the end of Matheson’s career, in the late ’80s; one dates from the middle of his career, when he’d broken into the slicks (Playboy in this case); the other six are from his earlier career writing short fiction for SF digest magazines and short-fiction collections in the ’50s and early ’60s. Matheson’s main outlet was The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, though the stories here are a good spread that include a novelette from Fantastic, one of his earliest works for Startling Stories, and the story he wrote for Frederik Pohl’s Star Science Fiction Stories No. 3 paperback anthology.
Buried Talents – Masques II, 1987
A black-suited man shows up at a carnival, stopping at a game where players throw ping-pong balls into goldfish bowls to win a prize, quietly joining in. Everyone else is incapable of doing so, but this man’s uncanny talents sees every single ball he throws go straight into the bowl—the same bowl, now rapidly filling up with ping-pong balls—without touching the rim. As his accomplishments draw a crowd, the game’s operator starts to panic. This is one of those stories rich in atmosphere but flimsy with plot; the suspense builds and builds, then the story concludes. I didn’t find it as satisfying; it builds grim unease but takes too much time doing so—I spent a few too many pages reading about ping-pong balls going into a goldfish bowl.
The Near Departed – Masques II, 1987
A man visits the mortician to prepare for his dear young wife’s funeral, since he wants everything perfect for her, “the best you have.” It’s a short-short, three pages long. You can probably see the “shock” ending coming a mile away, since the Twilight Zone and EC Comics had the “twist ending” trick beaten into our collective consciousness sometime in the mid-’50s. Matheson does it well, even if there’s only one place for the plot to go.
Prey – Playboy, Apr 1969
Amelia’s found the perfect birthday present for her anthropology-buff boyfriend, a Zuñi fetish doll named He Who Kills. According to the doll’s documentation, the only thing keeping the restless hunter’s spirit contained in the doll at bay is the golden scroll around his neck. Amelia’s going to give it to him tonight, something that irks her mother—Amelia always comes over to visit her mother on Friday, and is badgered into canceling her birthday surprise. That’s when she finds the doll’s little golden scroll on the floor. I think you can see where this is going.
The back cover advertises “The complete novel and several more unforgettable tales.” While the first two tales are very forgettable, this one is not; I remember being terrified as a kid by the adaptation in the old Trilogy of Terror made-for-TV anthology. A chilling story with pacing as unrelenting as He Who Kills’ pursuit of Amelia. It may just be a doll—one containing the soul of a killer Zuñi hunter—but the constrained setting and Amelia’s seeming powerlessness work wonders. Arguably the best story in the collection.
Witch War – Startling Stories, Jul 1951
On the one hand, we have seven pretty teenage girls, chewing bubblegum and gossiping in boredom. On the other hand we have a column of soldiers creeping closer, only for their trucks and tanks to explode; the men are crushed, set on fire, savaged by random wild animals, and drowned. For more, read the story (or its title). A beauty-and-the-beast-style contrast; I could spend an entire post unwrapping the war symbolism buried beneath fantasy. (The author saw combat in World War II, after all.)
Matheson adopts a choppy present-tense structure for the story that intensifies its impact through repetition, brevity, and immediacy; this also made word choice count twice as much. And while that makes it inaccessible for some readers, I thought that use of craft was successful. A bit rough in execution—the immediacy of the present tense narration collapses when the prose switches to past-tense—but a great idea, and I liked it for its boldness and creativity.
Dance of the Dead – Star Science Fiction 3, 1955
As the car speeds into St. Louis, Peggy starts to realize she’s fallen in with a bad crowd. She’s away from home for the first time and lonely, and the first college classmates to talk to her turned out to be a promiscuous trio in search of drugs, booze, sex, and adventure. They have ample supply of the first three, so the double-date is heading to a basement bar in St. Louis to see a “Loopy’s dance.” The reader has no idea what that is, and Peggy doesn’t seem to know either, but she’s too shell-shocked and panicked—these people run contrary to everything her mother told her. The story is a beautiful image of Peggy’s isolation and despair, the harsh pleasures of post-apocalyptic living, and one unnerving sequence once the Loopy finally appears.
Matheson has inserted dictionary definitions in the midst of his fast-paced narrative, such as “struggle: n., act of promiscuous loveplay; usage evolved during WW3“—a grim future indeed if sex has went from pleasure to struggle—the last definition being for the Loopy. This is the most science fiction-y story, and it depicts an odd future (it’s 1997). At the beginning of the story the revelers sing a car jingle that sounds like something out of the ’30s, while the couples are straight from ’50s cautionary tales about juvenile delinquents. In the aftermath of World War III, they’ve adopted their own YOLO motto, repeatedly telling Peggy to “live.” It’s sort of her coming-of-age tale, only in a post-apocalyptic horror setting where living was cheapened down to just the moment. A Bradbury-esque story that also reminds me of Fritz Leiber’s “Coming Attraction.”
“Dance of the Dead” was filmed in 2005 for the Masters of Horror series.
Dress of White Silk – F&SF, Oct 1951
A girl finds herself locked up by her grandmother, and thinks back over recent events to explain why. She loves to sneak into her mother’s room when grandma is asleep, playing with her mother’s soft white silk dress, imagining her beautiful mother getting dressed up for the night. After the girl across the street came over to play and accused her of not having a mother, our protagonist takes her into her mother’s room, with grisly results. Another chilling horror tale; the prose is choppy and simple to reflect its child narrator. The ending is vague but Matheson leaves you with enough clues to make your own assumption, things that the child protagonist didn’t pick up on that an adult reader may notice.
Mad House – Fantastic, Jan-Feb 1953
Chris Neal doesn’t even try to contain the anger building in him, flooding out in torrents from the simplest slight: the snap of a pencil’s lead, a rug slipping underfoot. The source of his anger is his failed writing career—failed because of the hundreds of thousands of reasons Chris comes up with not to write, while he blames his inactivity on everything else. His wife is leaving him after eighteen years of marriage, which descended into torture. Chris realizes he should do the right thing, but seems incapable of doing it. And his anger is so great, even household objects—pencils, typewriters, razors and rugs—tremble in fear of his violence…
This story is very surreal, a strange kind of supernatural horror where Chris’ anger has poisoned his life, his house, and his relationship—poisoned quite literally, infecting everything he touches with fear and disdain. Chris is a complex character, and Matheson can swing the reader’s opinion from disgust to sympathy as easily as Chris’ emotions sway between sadness and rage. One moment he’s crying internally over his wife leaving him, thinking back to the good old days eighteen years ago; then he’s condemning her for destroying his will to write, killing his career. The story is a character study of Chris, as well as a moral fable, a cautionary tale; Chris has chances to make things right, repeatedly, but he never does. If you were wondering where the supernatural/fantastic elements were, they’re at the unpleasant end. Well-executed.
The Funeral – F&SF, Apr 1955
A man arrives at Clooney’s Cut-Rate funeral home, asking for the best possible funerary arrangements for the near departed. Sound familiar? Well, the twist here is that the man wants the funeral for himself, since he never got the proper send-off he deserved. When the sombre day arrives, the “friends” who turn out include a witch, a werewolf, a runty man named Ygor, and the memorial service is held by the Count… It’s nice to see Matheson having fun with this trope, and this is definitely more of a lighthearted comedy compared to the rest in this collection. The funeral events (and conclusion) are tongue-in-cheek, and while the story’s not laugh-out-loud funny it’s entertaining. A nice light-hearted break after the events of “Mad House.”
From Shadowed Places – F&SF, Oct 1960
After a terrified phone call from his daughter Patricia, Dr. Jennings rushes to the Manhattan apartment of her fiancée Peter, a playboy just back from a big-game hunt in southern Africa. Jennings finds the man wracked in pain, his muscles writhing like snakes; Pete has already attempted suicide. The cause is attributed to a shunned Zulu witch doctor; after giving in to superstition to prevent Pete dying by inches, they call in Patricia’s friend Dr. Howell, an anthropologist who may know a way to save Pete.
Two interesting things here. First is the theme of Pete’s casual racism and derogatory comments, overheard by Dr. Howell—who turns out to be Dr. Lutrice Howell, a well-educated black woman. Given the story’s place in time, the heavy anti-racism vibes were probably an influence from the Civil Rights movement. Howell studied under a Zulu witch doctor, and ends up performing one of the rites (in native costume) to suck the curse out of Pete. There’s the ironic contrast between naturalistic paganism in a Manhattan playboy’s penthouse; also, the symbolism of the “cultured” society relying on the beliefs of the “savage” for survival, where Howell manages to humanize the “other” in the process. A neatly-layered yarn, which is also surreal and intense once Dr. Howell starts up the ritual.
Person to Person – Rod Serling’s The Twilight Zone Magazine, Apr 1989
Every night around three in the morning, Millman hears the ringing of a telephone inside his head. His therapist advises him to try and answer it; the next night when it rings, he imagines himself doing so, and unleashes his own destruction. The caller on the other end gives him a stream of excuses and explanations, though in some cases the most straightforward is the correct one. “Person to Person” is proof that Matheson could still write a good one late in the game; it’s more like a Twilight Zone episode (funny, given it’s source), well done but bizarre—Matheson keeps changing the game until no one, not Millman, not the reader, and probably not even Matheson knows which way is up. Much like others in the volume, Matheson leaves a trail of breadcrumbs but leaves the final decision of what just happened? to the reader’s discretion.
The Bottom Line
“Prey” is by far the best story from a horror standpoint, suspenseful and chilling in its execution. I saw the Trilogy of Terror version numerous times on the old Sci-Fi Channel, and reading the story still gave me shivers. “Dance of the Dead” comes from the reknowned Star Science Fiction series of paperback anthologies, all-new stories paid bought at top-dollar prices by Frederik Pohl. It’s a cut above the rest, haunting imagery of a grim future and how it changes its innocent protagonist. “Dress of White Silk” is another winner; not only is it frightening, it’ll also stick with you longer because it’s up to the reader to rationalize the ending. “Mad House” is sickeningly powerful, much like its protagonist’s anger, and worth a read; though it’s not as much horror/fantasy as it is the internalized woe of an everyman.
The lowest points in my opinion are the two that start the collection, two of Matheson’s later works, both from the Masques II anthology. “Buried Talents” is intriguing but underdeveloped, too vague and subtle; “Near Departed” is powered by the “twist ending” cliché, and a predictable one at that. I’m curious as to why the publishers led with these stories considering they’re weaker and less well-known than some of the others (“Prey,” for example). Maybe it’s because they were some of the newest? Regardless, they show that Matheson was still strong at building suspense and atmosphere late in his career, but I think he leans on the side of subtle with these, which makes them flimsy and vague.
The others are middle-of-the-road fare. “Witch War” I liked, though it has its share of flaws, so I could be alone there; “The Funeral” is the kind of cutesy joke story that reminds me of Rod Serling’s lighthearted Twilight Zone episodes, well done but so lightweight as to fly right out of mind. “From Shadowed Places” has a brilliant title; what could have been a cheesy gimmick story is suspenseful and ambient horror, though it’s so distant and (again) subtle as to be vague, and I have the feeling many readers will skim it.
At the end of the day, I’m glad they’re bundled with I Am Legend; they add some weight to become a 316-page trade paperback for $15. I’m not sure they comprise a “greatest hits” by any means, but they do cover a good spread of Matheson’s wide-ranging career. They emphasize his forays into horror and the supernatural, and touch on his science fiction and comedic works; taken with I Am Legend, the reader is provided a good taste for Matheson’s style.