By Dale D. Dalenberg, M.D.
November 10, 2013
Even in the Internet era, news sometimes travels slowly, as I just learned this month of the passing of Richard Matheson on June 23. There has always been a special place in the Dalenberg Library for Mr. Matheson. His stories, novels, and screenplays occupy a unique position at the cusp between science fiction, horror, and fantasy, and an even more unique position at the intersection between genre science fiction and popular entertainment. Long before anybody else was able to pull it off, Matheson brought legitimate science fiction from the world of paperback originals and sf digest magazines into the mainstream entertainment world, starting with his screenplay for his own novel The Shrinking Man (1956; filmed in 1957 as “The Incredible Shrinking Man”) and culminating in his 16 teleplays for Rod Serling’s Twilight Zone TV series. Duel became Steven Spielberg’s first film, an effective made-for-TV thriller in 1971. Later years saw a succession of fine films either written by or inspired by Matheson, memorably including Somewhere in Time (1980), What Dreams May Come (1998) and Real Steel (2011).
The Dalenberg Library boasts a copy of the Summer, 1950, issue of The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, only the 3rd issue of that long-running digest. F&SF from the 1950’s is a veritable cornucopia of classic or soon-to-be-classic authors and stories. It is a joy to pick up many of the issues from this period and read the who’s-who list of writers on the contents page. Matheson’s very first published story “Born of Man and Woman” was an instant classic and has been occasionally anthologized since. I was very affected by it in high school, and I tried to do a pantomime to it in drama class, but the teacher couldn’t figure out what I was trying to portray. That was more a testament to my mime skills than to Matheson’s story, however.
The May, 1956, 1st printing of The Shrinking Man was Matheson’s second Gold Medal paperback original novel, after I Am Legend. These two books are pivotal 1950’s science fiction works with influence far outstripping their humble origins as throw-away paperbacks. The Shrinking Man was Matheson’s foot in the door to Hollywood. His screenplay the following year became “The Incredible Shrinking Man,” still one of the films of that era that rang truest to the sense of awe and wonder that sf fans got out of their literature. When I saw it as a child, I thought the ending was mind-blowing as the hero was shrinking ever and ever smaller with the unknown microscopic cosmos awaiting him with new discoveries and new terrors unimagined. It’s still powerful today.
1958’s A Stir of Echoes became a rather average Kevin Bacon vehicle in 1999 (Matheson didn’t write the screenplay.) But I had discovered it several years earlier in this Detective Book Club 3-in-1 edition. It is a creepy mystery that morphs into a ghost story. The Detective Book Club editions are ubiquitous in antique or used bookstores that have lots of vintage mystery fiction. As collectibles, they are generally not worth that much, but they are fun to collect and look good on the book shelf. I have never been able to find a definitive list of them, but collectors on line have reported finding up to 900 unique editions in the 3-in-1 format. Based on my own reading, the selections are a remarkably solid cross-section of popular mystery fiction published between the 1940’s and 1970’s. They are not to be confused with the Reader’s Digest Condensed Books, which were in a similar multiple-novel-in-a-single-volume format during most of the same years. The Reader’s Digest Condensed Books were abridgements of bestsellers, and like most of Reader’s Digest’s output, completely distasteful to discerning readers. The Detective Book Club editions are NOT abridged, and from what I can tell, they were tastefully selected by people who care about mystery fiction.
This 2002 anthology of Matheson’s horror stories is dedicated to Stephen King and kicks off with an effusive intro by Mr. King himself. The stories are a diverse mix of 1951 to 1969 material first published in magazines as diverse as Fantasy & Science Fiction, Weird Tales, and Playboy. The title story, of course, is the basis for the famed Twilight Zone episode starring William Shatner as a man afraid of flying who sees a monster on the wing that is going to bring down the plane, only nobody believes him. John Lithgow did a fine, paranoid turn on the same character in the only good segment of the otherwise forgettable Twilight Zone: The Movie in 1983. A number of years ago, I slogged through all the original Twilight Zone TV episodes, back when Columbia House used to charge too much money for VHS tapes of old television episodes, but I bought them anyway, because it was the only way to see the shows. Now the tapes are worthless, because you can get everything on DVD or even Blu-Ray. But I keep them anyway, because I must have spent about $1,000 on Twilight Zone episodes. Anyway, I rated all the shows and found that about one-third of Twilight Zone was excellent classic television, one-third was at least average fare, and one-third was awful (mostly because of preachiness or Rod Serling’s purple prose). Of 5 seasons and 159 episodes, the 16 Richard Matheson episodes are heavily represented in the excellent third. October 4 and October 11, 1963, featured the television premieres in two successive weeks of Matheson’s arguably best screenplays based on his own short stories, “Steel” and “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet.”