Friday, March 6, 2015

Four stories by Richard Matheson from 1953

Joachim Boaz recently acquired a copy of Third From the Sun, a collection of 1950s stories by Richard Matheson, which brought Matheson to the forefront of my mind. Like everybody, I love I Am Legend, "Prey," and "Blood Son" (which also goes by the name "Drink My Blood."  Sneaky.) Since I started this blog I have not read very much Matheson, so I decided that the time had come to read some Matheson stories that were new to me.  While I, alas, do not own a copy of Third From the Sun with the sextastic cover that Joachim finds "horrid" (I respectfully beg to differ!) I do have my own stash of Matheson anthologies, and this week read four tales that first saw light in the year 1953.

"The Wedding" (1953)

A weak joke story about a groom who believes in dozens of silly superstitions, disrupting his wedding to a fat woman.  The punch line of the joke is that the truly dangerous superstition is the bride's--she insists the groom carry her over the threshold of their honeymoon hotel room, and he dies of a heart attack because she is so fat.

Hey, they can't all be as good as "Drink My Red Blood," (yet another of "Blood Son's" titles.)

"The Wedding" first appeared in Beyond Fantasy Fiction--dig that crazy cover!  I read it in my withdrawn library copy of Collected Stories Volume 2.

"Disappearing Act" (1953)

This is a solid psychological/existential horror story.  I guess you could call it a fantasy because what happens is nonsensical and there is no effort made to explain it. "Disappearing Act" originally appeared in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction; I read it in Tor's 2002 collection Nightmare at 20,000 Feet.

The story is a journal, written by a failed writer with a failed marriage.  As I said about "Prey" way back when, Matheson is good at writing about the horror of our everyday lives--defeated ambitions, the agonizing search for love, that sort of thing-- and the first part of "Disappearing Act" is an effective look at the narrator's unhappy life.  And then we get into Twilight Zone territory when the people, and then the institutions, in the narrator's life begin to disappear without a trace.  The narrator begins to worry that he himself might disappear!  Matheson handles this fantastical material just as effectively.    

Quite good.

"Legion of Plotters" (1953)

This one first appeared in Detective Story Magazine.  Like "Disappearing Act" and "Wet Straw," I read it in my withdrawn library copy of Nightmare at 20,000 Feet.

"Legion of Plotters" is a well-written psychological tale with no supernatural or SF elements.  Mr. Jasper works retail in a Los Angeles department store and rides the bus between his apartment and work.  Jasper is hypersensitive, and the sounds, smells, and discourtesies of his fellow city-dwellers drive him to the edge, where he suspects people are conspiring to drive him insane, and then over the edge, to violence.

I liked it.

"Wet Straw" (1953)

"Wet Straw" was first published in Weird Tales.

John, a widower, is haunted at night while he lays in bed.  Each night the supernatural episodes, which start off with the smell of wet straw, grow more vivid and terrifying.  It turns out his wife is haunting him; one day years ago, on their honeymoon, they took cover in a barn during a rain storm, and agreed that they would always be together, even should one of them die.  The ghost of the wife has come to make good that promise, and reveals to us readers that John murdered her.

This one is just OK; somehow the writing is not as sharp and clear as in Matheson's best work, and the plot is a little more obvious and less innovative than "Legion of Plotters" and "Disappearing Act."  For example, I figured from the first page that John had killed his wife.  Also, there are scenes in which we are supposed to visualize how far from John's bed a window is.  At one point he has to stretch to barely reach the window, and then later the window is close enough that he punches his fist right through it.  When the doctor comes to look at John's hand, John lies and says he cut himself with a knife, but the doctor is skeptical because there is blood on John's sheets and blanket.  Doesn't the doctor see the broken glass?  Maybe I am nitpicking, but these kind of little discrepancies take me out of the story as I try to figure out what is going on  (maybe the window is in the ghost world and John didn't really break the window in our world?)


I have to call "The Wedding" a miss, and "Wet Straw" just acceptable, but "Disappearing Act" and "Legion of Plotters" get the MPorcius Seal of Approval.


  1. I'm going to read my collection soon. I've wanted to read his work for quite a long while --- I don't have the highest hopes from your review of these four but I am intrigued.

  2. I'm curious to hear what you think of the stories in Third From the Sun; I have read quite a few of them over the years ("Born of Man and Woman," "F---," "Mad House," "The Traveller," and "Dress of White Silk" besides the ones mentioned here) and I wonder if they are on your wavelength.

    "Born of Man and Woman" is in the SF Hall of Fame, so I guess the consensus is it is an important part of SF history.

  3. I am notoriously fickle when it comes to 50s SF. I wonder what side of the divide he'll fall on...