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

September 6, 2022 Leave a comment
Image of a book cover. A figure stands on the wing of a plane in shades of blue, gray, and black.

Summary:
Remember that monster on the wing of the airplane? William Shatner saw it on The Twilight Zone and Bart Simpson saw it too. “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” is just one of many classic horror stories by Richard Matheson that have insinuated themselves into our collective imagination.

Here are more than twenty of Matheson’s most memorable tales of fear and paranoia. Personally selected by Richard Matheson, the bestselling author of I Am Legend and What Dreams May Come, these and many other stories, more than demonstrate why he is rightfully regarded as one of the finest and most influential horror writers of our generation.

Review:
I picked this up because I remembered enjoying I Am Legend (although my review is only 3 stars, when I looked it up just now…) I also had familiarity with The Twilight Zone episode based on the first story in the collection. I individually rated each of the twenty stories then calculated the average to give the collection a rating.

I rated two stories 5 stars. “Mad House” (made me make shocked and thrilled faces) and “First Anniversary” (I called it timeless in my notes). The former is a very meta commentary on being a writer. The latter reminded me of Buffy in that who you’ve fallen in love with changes, only in this case it was the woman changing instead of the man.

There were quite a few stories that I found moderately engaging and enjoyed their historic vibe. Like “Disappearing Act,” whose whole idea is it’s someone’s personal notebook left in a cafe. Or “Crickets” whose idea is what if crickets’ chirps are really a form of Morse code?

But there are also two stories where, just, the entire structure idea is racist. One “The Children of Noah” involves the idea that a town’s inhabitants are all the descendants of a sea captain and his Pacific Islander bride. The racist part is that they’re dangerous BECAUSE of being part Pacific Islander. The story “Prey” is about a “Zuni” doll that’s inhabited by the spirit of a great warrior. The whole idea made me cringe. One story, “The Distributor” confused me so much that I’m still not sure what the overall point was. A character who I think is a bad guy uses the the n word and another racial slur, but it’s a little unclear to me if he was meant to be a bad guy.

There are also definitely outdated gender ideas here. The least offensive is that it’s oh so scary for teenage girls to wage war as witches in “Witch War.” The worst is “The Likeness of Julie.” Most of the story is from the perspective of a college undergrad male rapist. That’s bad enough. If you want to know how it manages to get worse, check out the spoiler paragraph below in brackets. 

[The twist ending is that the college woman he rapes, Julie, in fact got inside his mind supernaturally and made him rape her. It’s the worst victim blaming I’ve seen in forever, and I honestly wanted to scrub my own brain out with soap. I’m suspicious that Matheson knew on some level how awful this story was, because the collection notes that he published it under the pseudonym of Logan Swanson in Alone by Night, which appears to have been some sort of anthology.]

So, there we have it. Some stories manage to be timeless. But definitely not all. Come into this collection prepared for a mixed bag.

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4 out of 5 stars

Length: 336 pages – average but on the longer side

Source: Purchased

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Book Review: American Science Fiction: Four Classic Novels 1953-56

October 4, 2012 2 comments

Book cover featuring space ships and people.Summary:
The Library of America collects together great pieces of American literature into themed books.  This can be anything from an author, to writing on aviation, to the Harlem Renaissance, to transcendentalism.  Clearly this is a collection of classic 1950s scifi, in particular covering the time period from 1953 to 1956.  The books included in the collection, in order of publication date, are:

The Space Merchants by Frederick Pohl and C. M. Kornbluth (1953)–In the future the entire world runs on the basis of consumerism, and ad men have risen to the top of the heap, above even the president.  Courtenay is one of these ad men whose agency is assigned colonizing Venus.  Soon, Courtnay finds himself in a battle of minds and more with the Consies–the Conservationists who want to save the people and the planet from consumerism.

More Than Human by Theodore Sturgeon (1953)–A village idiot finds himself caring for twins with teleportation abilities, a precocious little girl with telekinesis powers, a baby with Down’s Syndrome, and a boy who he found near to death on the street.  What they can accomplish together could change the entire world.

The Long Tomorrow by Leigh Brackett (1955)–After nuclear war destroyed all cities and broke down society’s ability to depend on technology, the survivors turned to the Amish and Mennonites to learn a new way.  Now everyone is following a simple lifestyle religion of one variety or another but there are rumors that somewhere is a place called Bartorstown that still follows the old, sinful ways.

The Shrinking Man by Richard Matheson (1956)–A married WWII vet with a young daughter discovers that he is shrinking by 1/7 of an inch a day.

Review:
This is my second Library of America read, and I think I’m officially addicted.  There’s something delightful about burying yourself in a topic or theme of American literature complete with useful notes that are not overwhelming but still give you enough background knowledge to come away with more than just the joy of reading the books but some understanding of the time period and genre.  Since this collection gathers up books written by different authors, I will review the books individually but first I want to say that any Library of America book is always worth your time. Just be sure to choose a topic or author that interests you.

The Space Merchants by Frederick Pohl and C. M. Kornbluth
This was my favorite book in the collection by far. I’ve been telling anyone who will listen that it is basically Mad Men IN SPACE. What is not to love about that?!  In addition to that, it can sometimes be difficult to be sucked in by older scifi because even if the theme or ideas it addresses was new in its time, I’m from a later time and have heard it a million times already.  This book somehow manages to be unique in spite of all the books about a future awash in consumerism that I’ve read.  I think what gives it the unique edge is the dual focus on advertising and the conservationist movement.  Also the relationship between the main character and his doctor wife is progressive and refreshing.  She is smart, her own person, has her own career and ideas, and she is still depicted in a positive light.  Also the idea of a trial marriage is essentially the couple living together before getting married, which was surprising to see in something from the 1950s.  It also manages to be witty while addressing hard-hitting issues.  It’s the perfect scifi.
5 out of 5 stars

More Than Human by Theodore Sturgeon
This book in contrast was dull and borderline offensive, repeatedly, throughout.  Sturgeon utilizes lyrical prose to the extent that the plot suffers.  He gets so caught up in making the language beautiful that the plot gets shoved to the side, and the reader is left wondering what, precisely, is going on.  The book is divided into thirds, and the first third is the most confusing of all.  Sturgeon repeatedly changes perspectives between different characters with no rhyme, reason, warning, or even signal.  There’s not even handy squiggly lines letting you know you’re into a new section.  This improves a bit in the final two sections of the book, but only a bit.  The borderline offensiveness comes in with three of the characters.  There are twin girls who can teleport, and beyond their teleportation skills their most identifiable characteristics are: 1) they never keep their clothes on and 2) they are black.  They of course are referred to as “Negro” or “colored” throughout the book, which is better than the baby with Down’s Syndrome who is described as a “mongoloid,” and never even is given a name but is simply referred to as “Baby.”  The crux of the idea–that people come together with different psychic abilities as the next step of evolution–is creative and interesting, but the execution is dull and drags.
3 out of 5 stars

The Long Tomorrow by Leigh Brackett
It’s not an unheard of idea for a post-apocalyptic society to revert to less technology-laden ways of doing things, but the execution is certainly unique here.  Many people are fascinated by Mennonite and Amish culture, and this takes that culture and adapts it to a scifi, post-nuclear future.  It is definitely engaging.  The plot is strong and consistent.  I was particularly impressed with how Brackett shows the passage of time when nothing necessarily happens, such as when the main character spends a few months laying low and helping with the crops.  Motivation is clear, and the setting is well-done.  I was disappointed though with the very narrowly envisioned role for women.  It makes sense that women would be put into traditional roles in the groups modeled after the Mennonites and the Amish, but even the most progressive group presented in the book still seems to think women can only cook and clean.  It’s disheartening.  The male main characters spend their time striving for knowledge and indeed the point of the book seems to be about the need humans have to acquire knowledge, but it also gives the impression that this should only be embraced in men.  The one female character who shows any similar leanings is fairly quickly quashed back to the home.  I found this extra disappointing since this is the only book in the collection written by a woman.  The rest of the read is enjoyable and imaginative though.
4 out of 5 stars

The Shrinking Man by Richard Matheson
This book feels the most formulaic of the bunch, perhaps because this trope has made its way so solidly into scifi.  Some person finds something about themselves slowly changing and they can’t do anything to stop it.  Toss in the ant-sized person, and it struggles to find anything unique to say.  I’m no expert, so perhaps this was the first book to have this kind of plot, but the fact remains that there’s nothing that makes this one stick out as special.  In fact, as a child of the 90s, I found myself repeatedly thinking that Honey, I Shrunk the Kids was more engaging and less fatalistic.  I am sure scifi purists would argue in favor of this book.  It’s Richard Matheson (of I Am Legend fame).  It has an exciting plot and addresses gender norms and what makes a person feel like a man in an interesting way.  But I found it to largely be an average product of its time with an expected plot and the usual nuclear catalyst.  I also found the ending to be a bit of a cop-out, particularly since it’s evident that Matheson meant it to be inspirational, and I found myself rather unmoved.  It is clearly a classic for a reason–representative of its times, strong plot, interesting themes–but I did not find it to be particularly engaging.
3 out of 5 stars

In Conclusion
This is an interesting collection of 1950s scifi that clearly shows what scientific advancements had people thinking and concerned, primarily nuclear war/weapons/power but also the newly highly commercialized culture, as well as possibilities in psychiatry.  A couple of the books fall short of being truly entertaining in modern times, but they are still interesting to anyone who enjoys the history of scifi.  Additionally, The Long Tomorrow could easily become a sleeper hit today with the current interest in “bonnet” books.  Without a doubt, though, the book that stands the test of time the best is The Space Merchants.  It is unique, engaging, and has a thought-provoking vision of the future.  The collection itself is primarily recommended to scifi fans or those with an interest in 1950s American culture, but The Space Merchants is recommended to all.

4 out of 5 stars

Source: NetGalley

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Book Review: I Am Legend by Richard Matheson

May 19, 2011 1 comment

Vampire horde.Summary:
A worldwide virus pandemic has turned most of the world’s population into vampires–both alive and undead.  Robert Neville might, quite possibly, be the only uninfected left.  Every day he goes out on his quest to simply kill the vampires while they sleep.  Every night he curls up in sound-proofed home drinking whiskey and listening to records.  Will anything ever save him from this monotonous existence?

Review:
It’s difficult to read a highly influential scifi book that inspired both the trend of writing of a worldwide pandemic and the original Night of the Living Dead and find that you actually are a bit unimpressed by it.  I was simply expecting more from such an influential book.

Claustrophobic.  That is the best word to describe the book, and it is also what Matheson excels at.  Depicting the effects of painful ostracism and loneliness on a person’s psyche.  For Robert isn’t alone per se.  He is surrounded by those infected with the virus.  Yet he can’t hang out with them or converse logically with them.  They are entirely at odds, and whereas the infected have each other, Neville has no one.  What this book depicts is what happens when the world moves on, and someone is left behind.  This is truly well done and what makes the book periodically powerful.

Yet it struggles with things, particularly the most simple story-telling and pacing.  The order of events is disjointed and difficult to make sense of.  Neville is a rather unsympathetic character because we only get rare glimpses into his past life before the apocalypse.  His relationship with Ben Cortman, an infected neighbor, is built up to be important and influential, yet it is dropped at the last minute.  One plot point in particular toward the end of the book truly makes very little sense.  The actions of the infected seem to be ludicrous at best.  At the base of it, we see Neville’s insanity much more clearly than we see his previous sanity, which makes his gradual changes due to loneliness less powerful.  Thus, both the characterization and the plot suffer from a certain ever-present disjointedness.

This reads as a great idea that was a bit poorly executed.  Perhaps this is why it has inspired so much other creativity.  The germ of the idea is excellent and easy to ponder upon in spite of a far less sophisticated story-telling.  I thus mostly recommend this to fans of the worldwide pandemic or Night of the Living Dead franchise to see where it all started.  Those who are intrigued by the look at ostracism may enjoy it as well, but others probably should steer clear.

3 out of 5 stars

Source: Borrowed

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