I’m ashamed of myself. I have been writing about horror fiction on this blog since 2015, but this is the first time I will feature the work of Richard Matheson. Silly me. I have written about these books in the order that I read them. This order does not reflect their date of publication or their merits.
I Am Legend
Gold Medal Books – 1954
I first read I Am Legend about 6 years ago. I remember absolutely loving it. I had seen the abominable Will Smith movie with the same title and had been terribly disappointed with that film’s optimistic ending. I could not say the same thing about the novel. I started this blog a year or so afterwards, and somehow never got around to reviewing the book. I read Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House a few months back and decided immediately thereafter to read Matheson’s similarly titled Hell House. Just before doing so, I thought about revisiting I am Legend so that I could do a multi-book post on Matheson. I am extremely glad I did. I loved I am Legend the first time I read it, but I’m pretty sure I enjoyed it even more the second time around. I think it’s fair to say that this novel is one of my favourite books.
There was no sound now but that of his shoes and the now senseless singing of birds. Once I thought they sang because everything was right with the world, Robert Neville thought, I know now I was wrong. They sing because they’re feeble minded.
This is the violent, dark and crushingly bleak story of Robert Neville, the last man on a vampire ridden Earth. For a novel with so little hope, Matheson does an impressive job of pushing the disappointment. The dog! Oh Jesus, the dog! Come on Richard, why would you do that to your protagonist? Everything always gets worse. I don’t want to spoil how the book ends, but holy shit, that last paragraph, that last sentence, is phenomenal. This is what I want from a horror novel. It’s well written too, really enjoyable stuff. Both times I’ve read it, I’ve finished it in less than a day. Damn, this book is awesome. Seriously, if you’re into horror at all, you should really check this one out.
Viking Press – 1971
I don’t know much about the writing of Hell House, but I believe that it’s a fact that Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House had a pretty big influence. The set up for both tales is almost identical – a scientist and two psychics are sent in to study a haunted house. While Jackson’s book relies on subtle, psychological terror, Matheson’s goes for an all-out onslaught of horror.
The title of this book is an apt one. This is a blasphemous, perverted, blood and guts, kinda haunted house. Matheson doesn’t shy away from getting gritty, but the pacing, characterisation and general decent standard of writing prevent this from feeling exploitative. The nastiness in here is effective too; this is quite a scary book.
Hell House is almost twice as long as I Am Legend, and I don’t think it packs quite as much of a punch, but its drawn out descent into Hell is effective in its own way. This is definitely worth reading if you like horror.
Valancourt Books – 2017 (Originally published 2002)
Offbeat is a collection of Matheson’s stories that had not been previously collected in an anthology. Matheson wrote a lot, and these stories’ failure to be included in other collections was not due to their quality. (One of these tales is actually featured in Penguin’s The Best of Richard Matheson.) Still though, I was a bit underwhelmed by a few of the stories in the collection. The twist endings of a couple of them seemed very predictable. My favourites were ‘And Now I’m Waiting’, ‘Maybe You Remember Him’ and ‘Phonecall from Across the Street’. I didn’t enjoy this book quite as much as the novels I had read beforehand, but I certainly don’t regret reading it. If you were already a fan of Matheson, I reckon you’ll enjoy this.
The Best of Richard Matheson
Penguin Classics – 2017
When I found out that Penguin had recently put out a “Best of Matheson” collection, I realised I had done things backwards. I should have read this first and Offbeat afterwards. That being said, it is a testament to the quality of the tales in Offbeat that I started reading another collection of Matheson’s stories directly after finishing that one. I didn’t know quite how prolific Matheson had been, and I didn’t know how well I already knew his work. He wrote a bunch of stories that turned into episodes of the Twilight Zone. I’ve never watched an episode of the The Twilight Zone, but I’m familiar with the plots of some of the episodes from the times the Simpsons parodied them. Also, this collection contains ‘Duel’. I remember watching the movie version of this with my dad when I was a kid. I had no idea it was based on a Matheson story.
Honestly, this collection is a much, much better place to start if you haven’t read any of Matheson’s short stories before. These stories are quality. There’s one near the end called ‘Mute’ that I particularly enjoyed. It’s not really a horror story, but it contains some pretty interesting insight on language. This Matheson was a smart guy.
The Shrinking Man
Bantam Books – 1969 (Originally published 1956)
I had no great desire to read this book, but it was discussed at length in Stephen King’s Danse Macabre, so I thought I’d better read it and get it into this post. It’s the story of Scott, a man who gets hit by a radioactive wave that causes him to shrink exactly one seventh of an inch every day. I had this pegged as more of a science fiction novel than a horror novel, but, as Stephen King points out, there isn’t much science in here at all.
I actually want to talk about the science, or lack thereof, because it really annoyed me when I was reading this book. This chap doesn’t shrink a certain percentage of his body height every day. He shrinks the same amount every day. If you think about this, it’s pretty ridiculous. If a 6’4″ man shrinks 1 seventh of an inch in a day, he is losing approximately 0.2% of his overall height. If he keeps losing the same amount every day, after another 529 days, he will only be 2 sevenths of an inch tall. By the next day, he will have lost 50% of his height. By then he will be one seventh of an inch tall and will continue to lose 100% of his height in one day. This doesn’t make sense. I’m not a scientist, but I feel that I know enough about the basic laws of reality to state that this rate of shrinkage is a physical impossibility.
Ok, I am going to discuss the ending of the book, so skip to the next paragraph if you haven’t read it yet. The book ends with the protagonist entering a microscopic existence. It is a weird upbeat ending full of optimism. This doesn’t make sense. Ok, maybe it’s possible he was a teeny tiny little bit taller than 1 seventh of an inch and that it will take another day for him to completely shrink out of existence, but that isn’t what the book suggests. Matheson suggests that the protagonist will continue to shrink interminably. But he can’t keep shrinking at the same rate! This would only work if he had been shrinking a percentage of his height, not a fixed amount. Things can always get a little bit smaller, but they can not decrease their size by more then their size. The other option that Matheson had to end this novel was for Scott to find himself in some kind of opposites universe of anti-matter or something where he actually finds himself growing larger every day. Sure the science is ridiculous, but at least that would work mathematically (which is more than can be said for the ending as it stands).
Really, this is more of an adventure story than anything. While half of the novel describes the shrinking process and its unpleasant effects on Scott’s life, the other half details his struggles with a spider after getting locked in his cellar alone. The spider stuff is exciting, but the real horror lies in Scott trying to come to terms with his inevitable disappearance. My favourite part was when a pervert thinks the shrinker is a kid and tries to diddle him. It’s obviously a horrible, horrible thing to happen, but the dialogue was pretty funny.
Silence a moment. Then the man said. “Women. Who come into man’s life a breath from the sewer.” He belched. “A pox on the she.” He looked over at Scott. The car headed for a tree.
This book was fine, but it was definitely my least favourite of Matheson’s novels.
I Am Legend is absolutely crucial. You should definitely check out the Best of short story collection too. If you like those, check out the others listed above. Matheson has plenty of other books, but I reckon I’ll give it a while before I seek those out. (5 books by one author over the course of 3 months was a lot for me.) This guy had a huge effect on the horror genre, and it’s not surprising. These books are imaginative, well written and sometimes truly horrifying. Richard Matheson was a cool guy.