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Spotlight on: Richard Matheson
Collected Stories, Volume One
Come Fygures Come Shadowes
Hunted Past Reason
Nightmare at 20,000 Feet: Horror Stories
Passion Play
A Stir of Echoes
The Twilight Zone Scripts, Volume Two

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Collected Stories Volume One by Richard Matheson Richard Matheson, Collected Stories Volume One
Richard Matheson, The Twilight Zone Scripts Volume Two

Although his classic novels are as good as anything out there (with the more recent selections like Hunted Past Reason and Come Fygures Come Shadowes continuing the trend), Richard Matheson is probably best known for shorter works: his short fiction and his scripts for the classic Rod Serling-created The Twilight Zone. In fact, Matheson, along with Serling and Charles Beaumont, was one of the top three contributors to TZ in terms of total scripts written. (Though he collaborated with Beaumont on scripts for other series, here they worked alone.) Now Gauntlet Press (under its Edge Books trade paper imprint) is publishing collections of both. The next two Collected Stories volumes will be published in 2004 and 2005, and both Twilight Zone Scripts volumes are readily available. Lucky for me, I became party to a sampling of both series.

In 1989, Dream/Press (formerly Scream Press until Matheson requested a name change for his book) published a limited edition called Richard Matheson: Collected Stories, covering Matheson's entire early output of short fiction from 1950's "Born of Man and Woman" to 1970's "Duel." This first volume features a variety of odd characters, from murderous munchkins ("Born of Man and Woman," "Dress of White Silk," "Blood Son") to Martian marionettes ("Full Circle"). It also covers Matheson's heavy paranoia period (which he admits to wholeheartedly in the introduction and which is particularly well-displayed in "Legion of Plotters" and "F---") and his "anti-marriage" period (written, tellingly, prior to his own nuptials).

Volume One covers a very fertile time period: 28 stories published between 1950 and 1953, ordered chronologically and then alphabetically within each year up to 1953's "Long Distance Call" (which TZ fans may remember as "Night Call" -- with a different ending -- from the fifth season; it is available in the other book in this review). As a writer, I can only cringe knowing that the first story Matheson ever published was so good that the editors of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction assumed he was an experienced writer who was experimenting instead of the relative neophyte he was. He had hit the ground running. As a reader, however, I am gladdened, at least, that there aren't many duds (several of these early works were selected by the author for inclusion in his Nightmare at 20,000 Feet, a recent "best of" collection).

In addition to the stories, this volume also includes both the 1989 Dream/Press introduction, in which Matheson explains how his early paranoia fed into his work; a new, shorter 2003 introduction that really doesn't add much to the equation; an Prologue from Stanley Wiater, explaining how the project came to be; and tributes from Ray Bradbury, Robert Bloch, and William F. Nolan. Following each story is information regarding its original publication date and market, if and when it was adapted for The Twilight Zone or other media, and how (in some cases) it was changed during the adaptation process (or in the interest of salability). Most important to fans, though, will undoubtedly be the accompanying "After-Words" containing insights about the author's inspiration of each story, both for the classics and the clunkers. And Matheson isn't shy about expressing his true opinion, saying in one example that "I don't think it's particularly good." Here, he also reveals previously little-known connections between the stories, like the numerous ones set in and around the fictitious "Fort College."

The Twilight Zone Scripts Volume Two by Richard Matheson If the series continues in this fashion, Collected Stories is bound to be the definitive reference for Matheson aficionados. But until all three are available, we'll have to satisfy ourselves with the other Wiater-edited series from Edge, Richard Matheson's The Twilight Zone Scripts, of which I received Volume Two. It contains the final six of the fourteen scripts he wrote for The Twilight Zone, two ("Mute" from his 1962 novelette, and "Death Ship" from 1953, contained in the above Collected Stories initial volume) from the often-derided hour-long series of the fourth season. The other four are the boxing story (a subject of which Serling was particularly fond) "Steel," the abovementioned "Night Call," the classic adaptation of his story "Nightmare at 20,000 Feet" (which starred a young William Shatner) and "Spur of the Moment," an original script from the fifth and final season.

Reading these Twilight Zone Scripts is an entirely different animal than reading his Collected Stories, but Matheson shows skill in both, making these teleplays very visually focused (the reason Matheson believes his writing was a good fit for TZ) and quick reads. It is easy to picture the action and character expressions from his directions, and even the voice of Rod Serling seems to emanate from the signature introductions. The dread in "Death Ship," the tension from "Nightmare at 20,000 Feet," the frustration in "Mute," the pain of remorse in "Spur of the Moment": all of these aspects come across on the page.

Depending on how the reader approaches his Matheson appreciation, either of these books are an excellent representation of his style and the quality of his work. Fans of modern horror, science-fiction, or fantasy who never considered approaching a classic writer would do well to pick up his work, as it has aged well (apart from specific instances where a "far into the future" year mentioned has already passed). Stephen King considers Matheson his greatest influence.

Tidbits from other genres often find their way into his stories, making for a varied reading experience. And, especially, fans of The Twilight Zone will find much more in the style of that show in his short stories. The ones that were not adapted are just as appropriate, since Matheson was writing in that style from the beginning; he may even have been an inspiration.

This review originally appeared in somewhat different form on The Green Man Review. Copyright 2004. Reprinted with permission.

Come Fygures Come Shadowes by Richard Matheson Richard Matheson, Come Fygures Come Shadowes

The history of this book is nearly as interesting as the story inside. Early in Richard Matheson's career, he outlined the entire arc of what was to be a 2000-page novel about spirits and mediums. His publisher at the time, however, warned him that a book of that size would be prohibitively expensive and would not sell. Due to a lack of confidence in his instincts, Matheson stopped writing the novel to work on more commercially viable projects, leaving only a tiny portion written of what may have proved -- based on what has been published -- to be a defining work of his career.

Come Fygures Come Shadowes concerns young Claire, who learns that she has the ability to talk to the spirit world, just as her mother can. After she turns eighteen and her talents come to full fruition, she is forced by her mother into reluctantly taking over the family practice of sitting as a medium. The closer Claire gets to a successful trance state, the more "The Fear" takes over and makes her resist it, much to her mother's chagrin. Claire believes, based on the physical effects she experiences, that a successful trance will kill her, and each contact with the unknown only serves to make her feel this more strongly. Nevertheless, Mother will not relent.

The published portion of Come Fygures Come Shadowes only covers a part of the whole storyline. Taken on its own merits, though, it is another example of Matheson's narrative power. His characters are clear and easily visualized; even the despicable are enthralling, and the mystery surrounding the usually-absent father made me yearn to know more about him. Matheson's telling of Claire's first successful "sitting" is a thrill ride, filled with visual descriptions of the behavior of ectoplasm and colored smoke, as seen by the "sitters" (clients). The spiritual manifestations become characters of their own, and I was eager to learn more about their source. The subject matter, as written by Matheson, fascinated me where it previously had not.

It is difficult to review Come Fygures Come Shadowes as a complete work. What I can say, though, is definitive: had there been more to this book, I would still be reading it. It is obviously well-researched and I was frustrated that there was no more to be read, since Claire's story ends at such a climactic point, and especially when I read Matheson's afterword detailing what he had planned for the later sections of the novel.

The part that is told is somewhat complete on its own, but many loose threads are left lying. Such an enthralling, well-researched story deserves to be told. Alas, Matheson feels it is "too late to make creative amends." But his fans can appreciate Come Fygures Come Shadowes for what it is: yet another newly available piece in the intricate and exciting puzzle creating a fuller portrait of the work of Richard Matheson, one of the greatest and most influential writers of his generation.

This review originally appeared in somewhat different form on The Green Man Review. Copyright 2004. Reprinted with permission.

Passion Play by Richard Matheson Richard Matheson, Passion Play

When Ray Thompson, an artist selling his homemade wine-bottle lamps door-to-door, comes across a hot-to-trot housewife, the expected happens at least until the husband returns and attempts to slip some steel into Thompson's throat. After landing a lucky punch, he escapes the fracas and decides to be honest with his wife. Due to an unfortunate case of understanding, our hero thinks his trouble is over. Then the police arrive at his door: the housewife's husband is dead and Thompson is being vehemently accused of murder. Making things more difficult is Ray's wife Helen's doubt about his guilt.

Passion Play is a straightforward noir-style crime drama of the sort popularized by James M. Cain, Jim Thompson, and Raymond Chandler (and by the films based on their works: Double Indemnity, The Postman Always Rings Twice, The Grifters, etc.). So steeped in the genre is it that it hardly holds any sign of the Matheson signature.

Written in the 1950s -- which would eventually see the appearance of the titles most associated with the author: I Am Legend, The Incredible Shrinking Man, A Stir of Echoes -- but only published now, one inevitably wonders what took so long. Certainly one of the reasons had to be our narrator's tendency, especially in the early pages, to speak like an Elizabethan. In the first paragraph this sentence appears:

". . . our radium-dialed alarm clock clarioned the dawn and I reached with sorry fingers to pull the stop."
I could immediately hear the iambic pentameter. Raymond Chandler, in particular, was guilty of such florid prose, but somehow he managed to make it work; more importantly, to fit the character. Here, there is no such success, and I began to dread the prospect of fighting my way through the book. Luckily, once the plot is firmly in motion, Matheson slips easily into the laid-back prose style of Cain, and things really start to pick up.

It's interesting to note that Passion Play was already following what would become Matheson's trademark storyline: the everyman involved with something much bigger than he is. It is unfortunate that it wasn't published when it was written because, with a little tightening, it would have made a workable addition to the film noir genre - possibly a classic in its own right, under the proper director. I could even see Alfred Hitchcock turning it into one of his "wrong man" films (taking considerable license, of course, as he always did). On its own, the book definitely hearkens back to that time and it was easy to attempt casting the film in my head as I went along.

Minor quibbles aside (just how many times can a man be hit on the head and still survive?), Passion Play is still only a minor addition to the Matheson canon. It lacks the charm of his classics like I Am Legend and seems to get lost in its own plotline, not knowing how to wrap things up properly (the "ending" is nothing you'd recognize as such). But it blazes by and fans will appreciate it as a stepping stone towards the writer we so admire, if not necessarily one that will be re-read often. Maybe some up-and-coming director with a sense of style will turn it into the film it so desperately cries out to be. Come to think of it, I haven't seen a really good noir lately. . . .

This review originally appeared in somewhat different form on The Green Man Review. Copyright 2004. Reprinted with permission.

A Stir of Echoes by Richard Matheson Richard Matheson, A Stir of Echoes

This is another terrific thriller from Richard Matheson. When the film version came out a few years ago, it was instantly dismissed as a rip-off of The Sixth Sense -- a difficult feat considering that the novel that was the source of the film was written over forty years prior. As a fan of the film (it is highly underrated and will definitely provide entertainment for fans of the genre), and of Richard Matheson's work, I felt I owed it to myself to check out the original: A Stir of Echoes (What, a definite article is good enough for The Sixth Sense, but not for Stir of Echoes? I'll never understand Hollywood).

When Tom Wallace is hypnotized at a party by his brother-in-law, he turns out to be a surprisingly good subject. Afterwards, he is told how malleable he was, and a good laugh is had at his expense when he unwittingly performs a post-hypnotic suggestion. But afterwards things aren't the same for Tom: he begins having dreams that a woman in black is in his house, and then realizes that he is able to read people's minds. This comes in handy on more than one occasion, but generally appears to be a nuisance, especially to Tom's wife, Anne, who wants him to see a doctor.

Given what I have read of Matheson, I wasn't surprised by the level of quality presented in the story. What did surprise me, however, was that A Stir of Echoes, although first published in 1958, is not at all dated; it could have just as easily been written today, Matheson's story and characters are so "modern" and timeless. This is particularly true given the modern atmosphere of being more accepting to the idea of spirits "crossing over" from another plane.

As the story progresses, the tension ratchets higher and higher. Matheson hardly lets up, steadily adding more complications to the plot until the surprise revelation. This is one of the reasons that I like Matheson's work so much: the knowledge that I am always in for a ride.

(Fans of the movie please note: the plot of A Stir of Echoes differs from the film in many details. The base story is, of course, the same, but the identities of the participants -- the alleged ghost, the alleged killer -- are different, which allows for a novel experience in reading a book you think you're already familiar with.)

Hunted Past Reason by Richard Matheson Richard Matheson, Hunted Past Reason

Bob is a successful short story writer, novelist, and screenwriter. His friend, Doug, is an unsuccessful actor. In fact, Doug has been unsuccessful at about everything -- his career is dying, his wife left him, his son committed suicide. But Doug knows the woods; he's a true outdoorsman. So, when Bob says he wants to do research for a new hiking novel, Doug suggests they go together. Bob's wife, Marian, will drive ahead and meet them at Doug's cabin in the woods in three days.

Thus begins Richard Matheson's Hunted Past Reason, a novel of wholly realistic, easily imaginable terror. The hike begins well enough, but along the way, Bob shows his lack of fitness, slowing their progress. This elicits sardonic putdowns from Doug and their relationship becomes strained. But Bob depends on Doug to get him to the cabin, because Bob doesn't know where it is located, or how to get there. Or how to survive by himself in the forest.

I think you can see where this is headed.

On the second day, after several heated discussions (including one where Doug blames Bob for his failings as an actor) and a fistfight, Doug proposes a game: Doug will give Bob a three-hour head start, and if Bob reaches the cabin first, he lives. Meanwhile, Doug will be chasing him through the unknown forest armed with a machete, a bow and arrow, and a comfortable first-hand knowledge of the local geography. Bears, mountain lions, and coyotes also appear in this tale, giving Bob other things to worry about in addition to the crazed madman lurking just behind.

This is Matheson's first novel in seven years and it was definitely worth the wait. Hunted Past Reason played havoc with my heart rate. Matheson has taken the classic story "The Most Dangerous Game," filled in the interesting details and inner thoughts of a man on the run through an unfamiliar wilderness, and sprinkled in a pinch of Deliverance just to catch us off guard. The chase encompasses the second half of the novel, with the first half consisting of details of the forest and Doug's lectures on what Bob doesn't know about camping. The two halves are very different in tone, which makes Matheson's transition from one to the other all the more remarkable. Matheson has been called "the Hemingway of horror" and he certainly wastes no words here, keeping the pace cranked so as to not allow his readers to catch a breath.

Hunted Past Reason is predictable but that simply makes the first half tense as well. The title let me know what was going to happen, so I was riveted, wondering when the tension was going to snap. From this novel, it is evident that Matheson's skill has not waned with the passing years. He's as good as he's ever been, maybe better.

This review originally appeared in somewhat different form on The Green Man Review. Copyright 2003. Reprinted with permission.

Nightmare at 20,000 Feet: Horror Stories by Richard Matheson Richard Matheson, Nightmare at 20,000 Feet: Horror Stories

This is a story collection that, if you're a horror fan like myself, you'll definitely want to check out. Nightmare at 20,000 Feet is a collection of early stories by Richard Matheson chosen by the author himself. Fans of the Twilight Zone may recall that the title story was adapted twice under the TZ heading: once on the television series -- starring William Shatner in the main role -- and once for Twilight Zone: the Movie -- with John Lithgow playing the terrified airplane passenger. In fact, Matheson was one of the three main writers for the show (only Charles Beaumont and creator Rod Serling equal his prolific production). Personally, I think both versions have something to offer viewers, but Matheson's prose version is infinitely better. (Of course, we all know that the book is always better than the movie, don't we?)

For others who may be unfamiliar with the Matheson moniker, the following books have been the source of popular films: The Incredible Shrinking Man, Somewhere in Time, A Stir of Echoes, and What Dreams May Come (but don't hold that one against him). As well, he wrote some great TV movies: Duel, directed by then-little-known Steven Spielberg, and two starring the character of Carl Kolchak: The Night Stalker and The Night Strangler, which were the inspirations for the series. He has also won the World Fantasy Convention's award for Lifetime Achievement in addition to many other awards. Just consider what author Stephen King says about Matheson in his introduction to Nightmare at 20,000 Feet: "When people talk about the genre, I guess they mention my name first, but without Richard Matheson, I wouldn't be around. He is as much my father as Bessie Smith was Elvis Presley's mother."

And Matheson returns the compliment in his dedication: "To Stephen King, with much admiration for taking the ball and running with it all the way." But enough back scratching, let's get down to the stories. This is a stunning collection. There's not a bad one in the bunch, although a few are flawed. Got time for a rundown? I'll try to be brief:

  • Introduction -- Stephen King praises Matheson profusely but intelligently.
  • "Nightmare at 20,000 Feet" -- Title story, like I said above, from the Twilight Zone.
  • "Dress of White Silk" -- A little girl gets in trouble for wearing her mother's dress. This is a masterpiece of understatement and probably the best story in the book. The last line will floor you.
  • "Blood Son" -- A young boy becomes obsessed with the idea of being a vampire. This story seemed good at the time, but not much of it has stayed with me.
  • "Through Channels" -- I had to look this one up again, as the title has little or nothing to do with the plot. Police question a boy about a mysterious event that is revealed throughout the story. Another good shock ending.
  • "Witch War" -- Teenage girl witches are used to wage war on the enemy. Not terrific, but certainly readable.
  • "Mad House" -- One of the two longer pieces, it is a portrait of how anger never really goes away, but remains in your surroundings long after. The protagonist's anger is so realistic here that I felt uncomfortable long after finishing the story.
  • "Disappearing Act" -- A journal is found in a bar. This story is its contents. A really good story of fear and helplessness.
  • "Legion of Plotters" -- Do you think they are out to get you? Matheson makes it easy to believe that they actually are.
  • "Long Distance Call" -- An invalid lady receives strange telephone calls. The resolution is shudder-inducing.
  • "Slaughter House" -- This other long piece tells of two brothers who buy a haunted house. I am constantly amazed at what writers can do with the old "haunted house" motif, and Matheson is no exception. Well-written and very unnerving, especially when the brothers' relationship starts breaking down.
  • "Wet Straw" -- After his wife's death, a man finds himself surrounded by the smell of wet straw, the meaning of which soon becomes clearer. Very good use of words.
  • "Dance of the Dead" -- Three friends take a girl to a different sort of nightclub and the titular stage show. Although, I didn't have any trouble finishing it, I would have to say that this is the least of the stories in this collection. Nothing in it surprised me.
  • "The Children of Noah" -- A wonderfully creepy tale (originally published in a mystery magazine!) that reminds us not to speed through a small town in the middle of the night.
  • "The Holiday Man" -- Ever wonder where the news media gets the holiday-weekend death statistics they are always spouting? Matheson knows and expresses the source's feelings with relish.
  • "Old Haunts" -- Matheson's version of "you can't go home again." Not great.
  • "The Distributor" -- A delightfully wicked (one may even say Roald Dahl-ian) tale of a new neighbor who is nothing but trouble. One of my favorites in this collection.
  • "Crickets" -- What exactly are crickets saying to one another? This is a difficult one to critique, because I didn't like the way it came together, but it was the only way.
  • "First Anniversary" -- A husband finds he is losing his senses, but only in regard to his wife. A strange beginning gives way to an even stranger ending.
  • "The Likeness of Julie" -- Racy little tale of sexual obsession. Seemed out of place to have such a sexually-oriented piece in with the others, but in the end it fit perfectly.
  • "Prey" -- A woman's Zuni warrior doll wreaks havoc. "Prey" has been adapted several times for TV/movie anthologies and it is a very visually-oriented story. A good ender to this collection.

This review originally appeared in somewhat different form in the column The Book of Tales on The Green Man Review. Copyright 2003. Reprinted with permission.

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