Those "smatterings" of stories I mentioned turn out to be some of the weakest stuff here - in some cases, probably written by Matheson and unsold (well, sadly, not all of them), only to be doled out to anthologies when a request came in over the next decade."Till Death Do Us Part" is PLAYBOY magazine filler, as a man plots to kill his hideous wife using voodoo (Matheson seems to have loved the idea of "murder by voodoo" and does a number of iterations of it in the stories in this volume, the to-be-touched-on a bit-later "Therese" being the best of them)."Till Death" is a pretty weak little thing, misogynistic and tepid (or, at least the main character is)."The Finishing Touches" is a strange hodge-podge of "plotting a perfect murder" story and, well, telling you would give it away but let's just say it's not very remarkable.
"The Near Departed" is so slight it would be hard to even call it a joke ("a man walks into a mortuary"), more like one of those little blackout sketches they used to do on NIGHT GALLERY.Cute but forgettable.In "By Appointment Only" a weird variant of the classic "protection racket/scam" is sketched out (see also the aforementioned "Till Death Do Us Part" and "Therese") - it's also a pretty slight story, tarted up with a bit of lurid sexual description to sell it to PLAYBOY.
Matheson stretches some in this volume (as he did in Volume 2), and so a piece like "Tis The Season To Be Jelly" isn't so much *weak* as it is not really to my taste, story-wise.If something like a post-apocalyptic hillbilly satire, LIL' ABNER with radiation poisoning let's call it, sounds like it's up your perverse alley, go for it! (although reading this did make me realize that Matheson is kind of covering the same ground that Joyce Carol Oates does in her story "Family", although with a broader comic scope)."No Such Thing As Vampires", while totally solid, betrays the problems with twist stories - once you know the twist, the joy of rereading is diminished. Still, a kid could easily be taken by surprise on first reading this tale of a European family seemingly plagued by bloodsuckers (this was adapted on the Matheson-heavy, Dan Curtis directed made-for-tv anthology DEAD OF NIGHT, and can be seen, starting about the 6 minute mark, here and the second half is here - stay for the next story, "Bobby", as well - you won't be disappointed, I promise!).
Some solid but somewhat flawed stories are in this volume as well."Deadline" is the Mathesonian "cute idea" (here involving a doctor called out on New Year's Eve to tend to a dying old man who claims to be one year old) stretched a little thin.Enjoyable as a single read."Deus Ex Machina" is "Identity Paranoia Matheson" in full flow - a man cuts himself during his morning shave and discovers he has oil for blood, but no one else seems to notice as the world grows increasingly stranger.There's no logical ending for a nightmare like this situation and the author doesn't try to cram one in, to his credit, but that also leaves it's status as an actual, satisfying "story" kind of hanging. "Shockwave" is an atypical Matheson story about the last day of a giant church organ that doesn't want to be replaced.Atypical because there's not much of a plot (it takes place during services in the church) and not even much psychological depth to the main character or, to be honest, the concept itself.Atypical because it's mostly highly detailed description - something Matheson doesn't indulge himself in very often (also to his credit - although it is quite fitting and well-deployed here) - all adjectival phrasing and attempts to bring across in language the auditory phenomena occurring as a tidal wave of sound builds to a crescendo.Maybe not a great story, but interesting in comparison to his usual style.
I loved "Interest" until I reached the underwhelming twist ending.Again though, like "Deus", there's almost no ending that *could* cap such a well-written build up, as a woman finds that marrying into an incredibly rich family may expose her to a strange family secret.This opens with a classic "uncomfortably meeting the future parents-in-law during dinner" scene that is so tense it is freaking hilarious!The story almost seems like an odd stab of Matheson writing a 1960's "women's Gothic paperback" scenario."From Shadowed Places" offers the familiar (at least as old as Rudyard Kipling's "The Nature Of The Beast") "tribal curse is placed on white interloper" story seed, although here it receives an interesting racial twist true to the time period it was written in, as a black college professor must perform ancient ceremonies to save the racist victim. Different, with a well-handled erotic aspect simmering throughout that never struck me as exploitative.
Two stories here I ended up reevaluating up from previous readings.A man discovers his wife suddenly tastes (and then smells, and then feels...) *odd* to him on their anniversary (natch). While the twist in this one may not be fantastic, the last few lines of the story really struck me this time out as both moving and deeply disturbing. Similarly, I found "Buried Talents" (about a very odd gentleman who seems capable of foiling a rigged carnival game with consummate ease) to be evocative and strange (again, no explanation is spelled out), with a killer last line.
There's an entire raft of completely solid stories in this volume.Tonal experiments like the comedic false history "The Creeping Terror" (in which Los Angeles/Hollywood culture is discovered to be growing across the rest of America like a fungus, evoking a desire for shallow movies and flashy cars and clothes, during the future 1980s - ironic, since that's what did happen!An interesting reaction to the post-WWII economic/cultural boom at the time of writing, 1959) and structural experiments like "The Jazz Machine" (a narrative, beat-flavored poem exploring Matheson's love of jazz music and another reflection on racial issues of the time - well done and striking as a mad scientist invents a machine that can translate music, and a jazz musician tells him why that's a bad idea!I imagine some would have problems with a white guy writing in the voice of a black guy, but I could care less) stand alongside narrative experiments like "Mantage" (in which a successful writer "montages" through his life to get to the good parts, only to realize that life is all about the journey, not the destination - an interesting comparison between filmic and literary approaches to compressing time, with a surprisingly moving ending) and the dry, prosaic, almost Shirley Jackson-esque "Fingerprints" (a psychological tale about a long bus ride, a sexually repressed spinster and her charge, a deaf old lady who never stops "talking" with sign language).
Science fictional Matheson appears here in longish "Mute" (which was adapted on the hard-to-see hour long season of THE TWILIGHT ZONE, as can be seen, or at least started, here, which I should watch along with you, as I've never seen it), a bittersweet story of a boy (girl in the TZ version) who loses his family in a fire only for the local sheriff and his wife to adopt him and discover that he can't speak.It's all about what is gained and what is lost in the process of enculturation (the end plays like a dark inversion of THE MIRACLE WORKER) and "Button, Button", which just got made into a full length movie (check Netflix), despite the fact that it's a short, fable-like tale - this is an unfortunate thing that seems to be happening to Matheson recently (the upcoming film REAL STEEL looks like it deforms the original "Steel" - see review in Volume 2 - to turn it into a full length Spielbergian movie).I've read & heard complaints (from bothfriends and the hipster braintrust of the Onion AV CLUB) about lack of characterization in "Button, Button", but that seems to miss the point of the approach - it's a stripped down idea story presented as a parable about how humans relate to each other and how they face a moral dilemma (the characterization is pretty deftly sketched through dialogue, I felt).Not so much depth, let's say, as breadth (not every story needs subtext and endless unraveling, despite what this generation that's too smart for its own good seems to think).The 80s version of TWILIGHT ZONE also adapted this (and changed the ending as well!), which is viewable here.
Dark-storyteller Matheson can be found here in a number of classics:Do I need to go into how great "Nightmare At 20,000 Feet" is (you know, the Gremlin story)?Watch the Shatnerific TWILIGHT ZONE original here, and then compare it with the Lithgowian TWILIGHT ZONE: THE MOVIE version here (hint - they're both great! and then check out the in-joke when Shatner and Lithgow meet on THIRD ROCK FROM THE SUN).Rereading this, I'd forgotten about the suicidal ideation of the main character, (something they obviously couldn't get away with on 1960s television)."Day Of Reckoning" is a surprisingly cruel story about an uncommunicative young boy found at the scene of a suicide who seems scared to death of everything around him.It's a psychological conte cruel, honestly - not a form Matheson explored very often.
The short dark tale is something Matheson excels at and four stories here are solid examples:"Crickets", in which a man claims that the sounds of the titular insects are actually a language spelling the names of the dead, is a creepy little concept - just long enough to give a chill and then get out before logic collapses it."Big Surprise" is simplicity itself - an old man tells some boys to dig in an isolated field and they'll get "a big surprise" (you may remember it from NIGHT GALLERY) - a perfect example that plot logic doesn't matter in creating a creepy story if you expertly control your pacing and story size.A cruel misogynist ruthlessly exploits his girlfriend's precognitive visions for blackmail cash in "Girl Of My Dreams", until he gets his very justly deserved desserts.Not an amazing story or anything, but an intensely ugly character study of a cretin.This was adapted on the British anthology show JOURNEY TO THE UNKNOWN (another I've never seen... yet).And, as mentioned previously, "Therese" is the story of a an uptight heiress who hates her debauched twin sister and plots to murder her with voodoo.It was expanded slightly as a role for Karen Black in the middle segment of TRILOGY OF TERROR (as "Millicent & Therese").It's enjoyable to read a story like this - just as long as the idea deserves (which is to say, not very long at all).A lot of modern flash fiction, to my mind, is problematic because it seems to short-circuit the part of a developing writer's mind that should be judging story length relative to idea (with the understanding that some ideas are just not worth developing into stories - sacrilege, I know!).Here is a perfect example of a full, but compact, story told in few words.
Speaking of TRILOGY OF TERROR, here also is "The Likeness of Julia" (adapted as "Julia"): another nasty story in which a young man fixates on a female classmate (changed in TRILOGY to his teacher), eventually drugging, raping and blackmailing her into unspeakable acts until the tables are turned in a twist ending.This is an interesting artifact of a time when sexual matters were beginning to be loosened up for exploration in fiction, but hadn't been totally opened yet, so Matheson resorts to some effective eliding (the sexual implications in this story were very discomfiting to me as a young reader in the late 1970s).I imagine the twist in this one automatically renders it un-PC in our easily offended world (which can never seem to place anything in context like an adult would), but then horror is ofttimes a reactionary genre, riddled with bitter and unfortunate observations about the human condition that make no particular ideology happy.
The three masterpieces here are "Duel", "Prey" and a personal fave, the little-known "A Drink of Water".
"Duel" (the suspenseful made for TV adaptation of which helped start Spielberg's career - watch it here) is, if you don't know (and how could you not?), the prosaic, suspenseful tale of a man who passes a slow truck-driver....the wrong truck driver, as it turns out, and gets pursued across hill and dale. It's a taught, terse, well-paced story and a total gem - crafted out of simple detail, plot logic and suspenseful pacing.
"Prey" (adapted as "Amelia" in TRILOGY OF TERROR) is the justifiably famous short story about a woman with an overbearing mother who buys the wrong present for her boyfriend.It's a jewel in Matheson's writing crown - crafted from expertly composed, muscular prose, it sets up the plot and then becomes pure, unrelenting action until the ending - short fiction as efficient delivery machine (although there are some nice, subtle psychological touches in Amelia, and a momentary coloring of telepathy that adds to the flavor, as well as a brief focus on a victim unable to conceive of the unreality of her situation - hard stuff to pull off).
"A Drink of Water" - what can I say about this story?It may be, secretly, my favorite Matheson story of them all, although for very personal reasons.I don't mean to be building it up - it's an efficient little tale about a man who comes home late and is very thirsty, only to find that the water has been shut off - so he heads out to find a drink of water.There's no twist, no surprises, no genre elements at all - and that is, actually, why I loved and still love this story - you see, when I read it as a kid, it taught me some things.It's typical Matheson - a forward-driven, real-time plot arising out of prosaic, even mundane, circumstances - and yet atypical (as I said, no twist ending, and yet perfect for that).When I read it at age 10 or 11, I became immediately engrossed in it, carried along by the events, and then was struck dumb by the ending - no twist? What's the point?It finally struck me, after some long thinking (raised as I was on Rod Serling and O. Henry, etc.) that there didn't *have* to be a twist (although there is a very subtle "point" to the tale) - that engrossing details of real life were just as important as genre trickery - and an important backdoor into literature was opened in my mind that day.Amazing, controlled writing and mounting tension make the human experience fascinating - thank you, Mr. Richard Matheson, for everything you've given my life: wonder, excitement, fear, fantasy, and an exemplar of short fiction writing.
(And, as before, thanks again to my beloved sister who bought me these books and who passed away one year and 2 days ago, 3 days after her 49th birthday.I miss you every day and think of you even more often than that.)
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