Almost precisely two years ago, I had some words to say about a then-new anthology that had been released by Penguin Classics: Perchance to Dream, a 300+-page collection of short stories by the author Charles Beaumont. Flash forward two years, and I am now here to tell you of a 2017 Penguin release that almost serves as a companion volume to that earlier book: The Best of Richard Matheson, a generous, 400+-page whopper that should come as a welcome treat for fans of the late, great author. I say “companion volume” for several reasons. The authors were good friends, for starters, and both are popularly known for their screenplays for episodes of the cult TV program The Twilight Zone (Beaumont contributed 22 such scripts; Matheson, 15; and host Rod Serling, an astounding and practically superhuman 89, of the five seasons’ 151 episodes). Plus, of course, the fact that both authors wrote in a bewildering number of genres, as both anthologies make abundantly clear.
So is the new volume “The Best” of this beloved author? Naturally, opinions will always vary. Personally, I feel that any “Best of Matheson” that fails to include his uber-scary story “Slaughter House,” as well as the sci-fi masterpiece “Steel” (later adapted as one of those 151 TZ eps) cannot fairly claim that title, although I will admit that the book’s editor, Victor LaValle, had his work cut out for him in winnowing down Matheson’s lifetime output to the 33 stories presented here. Regardless, what we have been given is a generally pleasing and wide-ranging collection, and I was happy to note that only three stories overlap with another Matheson collection that I had recently enjoyed, The Shores of Space.
As for the stories here themselves, let’s deal first with those you may be familiar with, by dint of their later adaptations as various television entertainments. Four of those TZ adaptations are here in their original forms. There is “Death Ship,” in which the three-man crew of a space vehicle lands on an unknown world and discovers a wrecked craft containing … their own corpses; the tension-filled “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet,” a marvelously ambiguous story in which a man sees (or seems to see) a gremlin perched on the wing of his airplane in flight (readers will marvel at the ease with which the tale’s protagonist, Wilson, manages to bring a gun aboard that plane!); “Third From the Sun,” which gives us two families attempting to steal a spaceship and fly to another planet, capped by a wonderful twist ending; and “Mute,” a beautifully written, moving tale — the longest in this anthology — about a 7-year-old boy who has been raised by his scientist parents to be a telepath, and what happens when those parents suddenly perish.
Also included here is the frightening tale “Prey,” in which a woman does battle with a grim-visaged, knife-wielding Zuni fetish doll in her locked apartment; a tale that was later adapted by Matheson as the third chapter in the fondly remembered TV movie Trilogy of Terror, starring Karen Black. And then there’s the remarkably suspenseful story “Duel,” in which a driver does battle on the open road with a maniac trucker; a story that was later turned into another TV movie, this one directed by some first-timer named Steven Spielberg. All six of these tales should surely prove of great interest to fans of those later TV incarnations.
For the rest of it, I suppose the Horror category comprises the largest segment of the remaining stories. In “Blood Son,” a strange young boy wishes that he were a vampire, with unfortunate (?) results. (I must deduct a few points from this story for the egregiously misplaced modifier in the sentence “An only child, they noticed his flaws quickly.”) “Where There’s a Will” is a deliciously morbid tale of premature burial, wrapping up with a conclusion straight out of the old EC Comics. In “Button, Button,” a married couple is told that a strange gizmo that they are given, if pressed, will result in a stranger’s death somewhere in the world … and $50,000 for them. What would you do? “Day of Reckoning” gives us the truly unpleasant story of a young mother’s revenge on her unwanted child, while “Haircut” depicts the plight of a zombie who just happens to need a little taken off the top. And then there’s “Long Distance Call,” in which a spinster invalid keeps getting hang-up phone calls that grow increasingly frightening in nature. In “Deus Ex Machina,” a man cuts himself while shaving one morning, only to discover that he’s actually a wire-filled robot! And in the remarkably clever “No Such Thing as a Vampire,” the wife of a 19th century Transylvanian doctor is slowly being drained by one of the living dead. (Trust me, you’ll want to reread this story as soon as you finish it, to better appreciate its ingenious qualities.) And finally, there is “Shock Wave,” the collection’s last offering, in which a church organ rouses to malicious life.
Matheson, of course, was a celebrated author of science fiction novels as well as horror, and this collection gives us a good half dozen in the sci-fi vein. In “Shipshape Home,” a young wife discovers that her building’s super has an eye in the back of his head, and that the entire building itself is actually a rocket ship! “Dance of the Dead,” surely one of the more disturbing tales here, written in a hyper-stylized, beboppish lingo, tells of two couples on a double date in a post-apocalyptic society, and of the very bizarre nightclub entertainment that they witness. The humorous “Man With a Club,” told via heavy Brooklyn slang by its narrator, deals with an Alley Oop-sort of caveman who is inexplicably dumped into the heart of Times Square. “The Prisoner” is another time-travel story, in which a nuclear physicist from the 1940s is somehow catapulted a decade forward, and into the body of a convict on Death Row. Some predicament! “The Last Day” is a wonderfully moving tale of Earth’s final 24 hours, and one man’s attempt to see his mother and sister in Brooklyn one more time. And then there’s “One For the Books,” in which a university janitor discovers himself absorbing the knowledge of every volume that he comes in contact with … automatically! But how much knowledge can this poor man take, and why is this happening, anyway?
The Best of Richard Matheson also offers the reader three tales in the category of Suspense. In “Dying Room Only,” a young couple stops at a lonely diner in the desert Southwest; when the husband enters the Men’s Room to freshen up and then promptly disappears, his wife is thrust into a virtual nightmare amongst that eatery’s creepy inhabitants. In the strangely titled “Now Die In It,” the husband in another youngish couple is told by a mystery phone caller that he is about to be murdered … only to have that caller show up at the house a few minutes later. And in the tense “A Visit to Santa Claus,” an unhappily married man (named Ken Burns!) plots to have his wife killed while he and his son are visiting St. Nick in a department store. (Unfortunately, most readers will have anticipated a more clever ending than the one that Matheson actually gives us here.)
The collection also offers up two tales of outright Humor. In the short short “Counterfeit Bills,” a ribald bit of cloning culminates in a pun of excessive groanability. And in “The Funeral,” a vampire organizes a service for himself at a staid mortuary, with hilarious results. And there is also one decidedly Western story presented here, “The Conqueror;” a tale so well told that it has made me want to seek out Matheson’s Western novel Shadow on the Sun one day.
Anyway, that’s the good news, all 27 pieces of it. This collection, unfortunately, also contains a half dozen tales that just did not work for this reader, either because they were too skimpy to make any genuine impact, or too ambiguous for a full comprehension, or just too lightweight and inconsequential in general. Thus, we have the slim “Born of Man and Woman,” in which a mutant baby tells of his rage in semiliterate fashion. “Witch War” gives us seven little girls with peculiar mental abilities who are used by one country’s army in its military battles; another very brief tale that might have been expanded for better impact, I feel, and yet is, strangely enough, editor LaValle’s favorite in this anthology. “Dress of White Silk” is also narrated by a very strange youngster, and is a story that, I have to confess, I could not understand at all. Likewise, “The Holiday Man” gives us a character who either causes and/or merely observes all the fatalities during a U.S. holiday weekend. Again, ambiguousness reigns here. In “Big Surprise,” a young boy’s digging for gold leads to another EC Comics-type of ending, in this little piffle of a tale. And finally, in “Finger Prints,” a man is sexually molested on a bus (I think) by a lonely and frustrated woman, in still another story that will make the reader think, “Yeah, so what? What’s the point?”
Still, six clinkers out of 33 isn’t exactly a bad ratio, is it? If only three of those clinkers had been excised completely, and the other three substituted with “Slaughter House,” “Steel” and perhaps “Little Girl Lost” (another future TZ adaptation), this volume really might be The Best of Richard Matheson, rather than A Whole Lot of Great Stuff and a Few Bombs by Richard Matheson. Nevertheless, this new collection from Penguin does come highly recommended by yours truly…