Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Unsafe as Houses: "Mad House" and "Slaughter House" by Richard Matheson

Like everybody, I love Richard Matheson's novel I Am Legend and his short story "Drink My Blood," and Stephen Spielberg's brilliant TV movie, "Duel," for which Matheson wrote the screenplay.  My wife liked the book and film of What Dreams May Come, neither of which I have yet experienced.  Matheson is a good writer with a broad appeal who deserves his wide popularity and critical acclaim.

Today I read two Matheson stories which first appeared in magazines in 1953, "Mad House," in the Orb trade paperback edition of I Am Legend (1997), and "Slaughter House," in Volume 2 of Gauntlet Press's Richard Matheson: Collected Stories (2005).

"Mad House"

The style of this story, which appeared in Fantastic, is very good, immediate and powerful.  It is the story of Chris, a failed writer with a failed marriage, who teaches English at a small college whose students he hates.  Chris is prone to fits of rage, and we witness him become infuriated when he has problems with pencil leads breaking and typewriter keys jamming.  We learn that he has quite unfairly lashed out at his wife and his students; his behavior is in fact abusive, even villainous.

Matheson does a great job with all the realistic broken dreams, marital strife, crummy job stuff.  At the same time that we can't fail to deplore his abuse of others, it is easy to sympathize with Chris, who was so hopeful in his youth but lacks something (maybe focus, or drive, or talent) that was needed if he was to achieve his dreams.  I think we have all had at least an inkling of that in our lives, and we have all been irritated by little things like razors slipping and cabinets that are stuck and so forth.

The "fantastic" element of the story is that Chris's anger infects the house in which he lives, bringing the house and its furniture to evil life.  The aura of Chris's wife, who is a decent person, keeps the house somewhat balanced and peaceful, but, when she leaves Chris, the house and furniture attack and kill him.

In some ways this story is similar to Matheson's classic "Prey," in that it includes unhappy human relationships and then a fight between a person and an inanimate object or objects.  Maybe it is just me, but I found the supernatural part and the combat portions of "Prey" more convincing and exciting than those in "Mad House."  In "Prey" a doll in the shape of a warrior, made by some primitive tribe and filled with the spirit of some ruthless hunter, comes to life and fights a woman; in the end of the story the spirit of the hunter escapes the doll and enters the woman herself and we have every reason to believe the woman is now going to murder her mother and maybe other people.  In "Mad House" the spirit of the angry man enters furniture and he is killed in a gory fight against pencils, curtains, a bookshelf, etc.  I almost think "Mad House" could have worked better as a conventional story, without any, or maybe with much less, of the supernatural stuff, as well as less hand to hand combat with desks, dental floss, and all the rest.

"Mad House" is good, but pales beside the author's later "Prey."

"Slaughter House"

Two artistic brothers in their 20s buy and move into an old Victorian house full of Edwardian furniture which has no electricity, no TV, no radio.  Sounds like a paradise!  Is there an extra room for me, guys?

Our narrator is the older brother.  These brothers are very close, so close that when they were kids their schoolmates called them "the Siamese Twins."  The narrator talks about how his younger brother, Saul, is handsome, has beautiful eyes.  At one point Saul is sick and the narrator strokes his hair; it seems that they eat every meal together and enter each others' rooms without knocking.  Matheson really seems to be infusing the story with a homoerotic/incestuous subtext. 

All day Saul paints and the narrator writes, but then something goes wrong.  Saul is suddenly short with his brother, inattentive, starts looking a little unkempt and ill.  The narrator is heart broken that his brother doesn't seem to love him any more.

Matheson's horror stories are not just about monsters or supernatural creatures, but are about the real life fears ordinary people have.  (Robert Bloch suggests this is the key to Matheson's success in a blurb on the back of my edition of the Collected Stories: Volume 2.)  "Slaughter House" is about how a woman can interfere in the relationship between two male friends or, as in this case, brothers. This is a phenomenon with which I have personal experience; before we got involved with women, my brother and I, in our teens, would spend untold hours playing Advanced Dungeons and Dragons or computer games like "Doom," and "Telengard," hanging around listening to Led Zeppelin CDs or watching Hammer movies together.  Once women entered our lives, we almost never saw each other.  My brother even referred to this issue in his toast at my wedding (you can believe this did not go over well with my bride.)

It turns out that Saul is in love, or in lust, with the ghost of Clarissa Slaughter, an earlier inhabitant of the old house whose portrait the brothers have not moved from its prominent place.  Saul dances with the ghost woman, and, apparently, has sex with her.  When the narrator interrupts Saul's dancing, Saul assaults his brother.  Saul is wounded in the fight and sent to the hospital.  Clarissa then seduces the narrator.  Clarissa only appears at night, and the narrator begins to hate the day and sunlight.  Then Saul comes home, bitter with envy, setting the stage for a climactic battle between brothers and between the living and the dead!       

The more difficult vocabulary and more convoluted sentence structure of this one made me think Matheson was emulating H. P. Lovecraft, which would make sense since it appeared in Weird Tales.  Or maybe that Matheson was just trying to write in the style of the kind of guy who loves Victoriana and would want to live in a house with no electricity.  This edition includes notes from Matheson after each story, and in the note to this one Matheson indicates that he felt a desire to write a story in the "mid-Victorian style," and wrote "Slaughter House" the way he did in order to get that desire "out of his system."


Two solid horror stories, worth the horror fan's time.

1 comment:

  1. I completely agree with you, in fact I could not have put it better myself, Mad House is a powerful realist fiction and does not need the events of the final 10% of the story - which do indeed lessen the impact.