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WesternSFA


The Best of Richard Matheson
by Richard Matheson
Penguin Classics, $17.00, 407pp
Published: October 2017

While modern American horror fiction began with 'Carrie' and a few other key genre titles that reached the mainstream around the same time, such as 'The Exorcist', it's fair to say that none of those pioneering works would be the same without the influence of Richard Matheson. This large Penguin Classics collection of no less than thirty-three of his short stories, shows just how pivotal his output was.

The main reason that readers will grasp that is because they may never have read a Richard Matheson story in their life but they'll still recognise many of these. While the volume does feature a decent introduction by its editor, the horror novelist Victor LaValle, and a skimpy page at the end to list the source publications for each story, its worst aspect is its unwillingness to detail where else we know this material.

Certainly, I only had to tease at what happens in 'Prey' for my wife to know absolutely that it's one of the segments in the TV movie 'Trilogy of Terror II', because she had me find it because of that particular segment. Three or four other stories made it into TV movies, most notably 'Duel', which was so memorably filmed by Steven Spielberg before he became a filmmaker of note. I see that 'Button, Button' became a theatrical feature called 'The Box'.

Mostly, however, we know these stories from television. One of them, 'Dance of the Dead' was adapted into an episode of 'Masters of Horror', directed by no less a name than Tobe Hooper. Others became episodes of 'Night Gallery', 'Amazing Stories' and 'Late Night Horror', not to forget three incarnations of a show you may have seen called 'The Twilight Zone'.

I only have to mention the title of 'Nightmare at 20,000 Feet' and you'll be conjuring up images of either William Shatner or John Lithgow, depending on your age. I'm hardly an actor but I even appeared in a short parody of this story that's done the film festival circuit. 'Death Ship', 'Button, Button' and 'Mute' were also 1963 episodes of 'The Twilight Zone', with 'Third from the Sun' adapted even earlier, in 1960 during its opening season.

So, you and I both know many of these stories and reading the originals was a real treat. I was surprised at how many I'd never read before, only seen. What surprised me most, though, was how much of this volume was new to me. I don't believe LaValle selected them with much attention to their particular fame. Outside the opener, Matheson's first ever published short story, 'Born of Man and Woman', which is surprisingly modern in its telling, I'm sure he plumped entirely for quality, having devoured Matheson's substantial career in preparation.

And, rather than run on about stories we all already know, I'll highlight a few of my favourites that I didn't after mentioning a couple of themes that leapt out at me.

One is that many of these stories are experimental in style, which I wasn't expecting. That debut, 'Born of Man and Woman', is narrated with a childish take on language, as is 'Dress of White Silk' later. 'Dance of the Dead' is almost beat poetry. 'Man with a Club' is a narrative clearly spoken aloud in conversation; it wouldn't need any translation to radio, simply a recital. 'Day of Reckoning' is a neatly developing exchange of letters.

What those stylistic divergences from the norm taught me was that Matheson was far from only the master of twist endings. He was a talented writer who knew not only how to use the rules of the written word but when and how to break them to elicit the right effect.

The other is that a whole bunch of the stories here feature the newly dead who aren't as convinced of their new status as they should be. They get up and walk about, without realising their condition, or reach out in whatever way they can find to their loved ones. I wonder why that was such a regular theme for Matheson because I don't see a cultural reason for it. Maybe it's a personal one.

And to my highlights.

'Witch War', originally published in 'Startling Stories' in 1951 is a creepy gem of a tale, a nonchalant set of giggling schoolgirls using their psychic powers to utterly crush an approaching army from some unknown enemy nation. It's the way in which this death and dismemberment is merely something else they got up to one evening that makes it so devastating. 'Aren't we awful?' they giggle.

'Blood Son', another 1951 story, this time from 'Imagination' isn't the best thing ever but it feels notably ahead of its time, with its unusual focus on a misfit boy with an odd obsession, with whom the establishment simply can't fathom. It's easy to read rather a lot into this apparently straightforward piece and it resonated a great deal with me.

'The Prisoner', which I believe was unpublished until 2008, is a note piece but that one note is genius. It features a nuclear physicist blown forward in time into the body of a man on death row. Naturally nobody believes him when he tries to explain the truth. Who would? Matheson nails the emotional aspects of this bitch of a situation and not just from one perspective.

'The Last Day', from 'Amazing Stories', has a familiar storyline, namely what to do when you know the world is about to end, but it's taken in a different direction to many of the versions of it that I've read or seen. It wasn't a rare idea during the Cold War era. However, without a twist, it falls to the sheer writing talent of Matheson to sell it and it does a great job at that.

'One for the Books', a 'Galaxy' story, is another peach of science fiction. "When he woke up that morning, he could speak French", it begins and the 59-year-old uneducated university janitor goes through a lot more by the time a viable explanation shows up. Again, it's a success of ideas and of prose but also a real bitch of a situation.

Perhaps my favourite story of all these is 'The Holiday Man', a 1957 story from 'The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction'. It's a simple tale that's all about its single twist, but it's such a quintessential exploration of a throwaway thought that I can't help but admire it. Again, we're never quite sure if we admire the lead character or pity him. That's a common theme in this collection.

'Finger Prints', from a 1962 Ballantine collection called 'The Fiend in You' is an evil story that throws a city bus passenger into the world of a deaf-mute and her talkative companion. Nothing is what it seems and it only gets creepier and creepier as it runs on. I appreciated the unusual casting this story had.

That's seven fantastic stories that blew me away in a collection that also contains far more than seven others that I knew well from adaptations. The importance of Richard Matheson to the worlds of horror and science fiction simply cannot be understated and this worthy volume does a fantastic job of reminding us of that seven years after his death. ~~ Hal C F Astell

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