The Shores of Space by Richard Matheson
The four novels that I had previously read by New Jersey-born Richard Matheson — namely, 1954’s I Am Legend, 1956’s The Shrinking Man, 1958’s A Stir of Echoes and 1971’s Hell House — all demonstrated to this reader what a sure hand the late author had in the fields of science fiction, fantasy and horror. Thus, it was no surprise to me that his 1957 collection The Shores of Space, which features short stories in all three genres, turns out to be yet another winner from this beloved author. The collection gathers 13 of Matheson’s shorter pieces from the 82 he penned before his passing, at age 87, in 2013; the stories here were written between the years 1951 and ’56.
This reader was fortunate enough to acquire The Shores of Space’s second Bantam printing, which came out in ’69, at Brooklyn bookstore extraordinaire Singularity, paying 10 times the book’s original cover price of 50 cents. And a wonderful investment it’s turned out to be, as all 13 tales in the collection are very pleasing affairs. Remarkably, not only do the stories deal with those three genres mentioned up top — sometimes mixing two in one tale — but Matheson reveals here an ability to alter his writing style to fit each particular piece. Thus, some of the stories are simply written, utilizing what Matheson has called in interviews a “less is more” approach, and some are hilariously overwritten, to great comedic effect. Displaying an unbridled imagination, a splendid knack for dialogue, and situations and denouements that simply cannot be anticipated, all 13 tales share one thing in common: tremendous entertainment value.
The collection kicks off in a big way with one of its two longer pieces, “Being,” which expertly melds horror and sci-fi. Here, a young couple driving across Arizona is captured at gunpoint by a gas station owner and put into a sweltering cage under the desert sun. Their captor’s predicament is soon made apparent: He’s being compelled to provide human food sources for a blob-like alien whose spaceship has landed nearby! This story is told from the points of view of the young couple, the possessed captor, and the alien itself, and builds to an agonizingly suspenseful conclusion. A bravura piece of work here from Mr. Matheson.
“Pattern for Survival” depicts a nuclear-shattered world of the near future, and the important role that an author of escapist fiction (such as Matheson himself) might have in such a depleted landscape. This tale, short as it is, yet manages to make its succinct point.
In “Steel,” we encounter two men who are bringing their boxing robot, Battling Maxo, to a bout in a small Kansas town in the futuristic year of, uh, 1980, when human matches have been outlawed. But when Maxo breaks down, its owner, Tim “Steel” Kelly, decides to simulate being a robot and fight the state-of-the-art Maynard Flash himself. This is a violent and downbeat story, to be sure, and if it sounds a bit familiar, it could be because Matheson adapted the tale, very faithfully, as the 10/4/63 Twilight Zone episode, also called “Steel” … although Lee Marvin is hardly the Steel as described in the original story.
“The Test” also takes place in the near future, and posits a world in which senior citizens must pass mental and physical examinations every five years, or else be put to sleep. Here, a family man helps his elderly Dad prepare for the following day’s test, knowing full well that the senior has no chance of passing. The story examines the family’s mixed feelings — sorrow at the elder’s likely euthanasia, relief at not having to care for him anymore — and builds to a quiet finale of great emotional impact. This story, to my great embarrassment, got me all misty eyed on the NYC subway, where I read it; it is easily the most moving story in the collection, especially if you have recently lost your father, as I have.
“Clothes Make the Man” is a lighthearted fantasy of sorts, telling as it does the story of a suit of clothes that has more life than the person who wears it. A very strange twist ending caps off this playful little tale.
In “Blood Son,” the reader meets a very odd little boy, Jules, whose stated ambition is to drink blood and be an undead vampire. After shocking his parents, teachers and schoolmates, Jules ultimately befriends and steals a vampire bat from the local zoo, leading to still another wonderful Matheson twist ending. Great fun!
Up next we have the longest story in the collection, “Trespass,” in which a husband comes home from a six-month scientific trip to South America, only to find his wife two months pregnant. The wife insists that she has had no relations with any other man during that time, so what gives? After the little Mrs. evinces some very unusual pregnancy symptoms — a craving for salt, speaking in an unknown tongue, and a fetus with a double heart — the fearful answer is gradually revealed, in this increasingly suspenseful story.
“When Day Is Dun” presents us with another writer in a post-apocalyptic world. This time, it is a poet — indeed, the last man on Earth — who is endeavoring to write an acid-filled screed on Earth’s destroyers, before taking his own life. But when he learns that he is not, after all, the very last man on Earth, his plans get somewhat altered, in this very strange little story.
“The Curious Child” gives us the tale of Robert Graham, a NYC office worker, who one day finds that all his memories are slipping away from him. He can no longer remember where he parked his car or even where he lives. The answer to Graham’s dilemma, however, is not early-onset dementia, but one having a rather science fictional basis, and one that few readers will foresee.
“The Funeral” is one of those amusingly overwritten comedic stories that I previously alluded to up top. Here, a witch, a hunchback, a werewolf and other ghastly celebrants gather at a mortuary to hold an honorary ceremony for their undead vampire friend, Asper. The events are witnessed by the director of Clooney’s Cut-Rate Catafalque, one Morton Silkline, who becomes understandably aghast as the rites proceed. Some very amusing stuff here, truly.
In “The Last Day,” the Earth is about to be snuffed out by the sun (at least, I think it’s the sun; Matheson tells us that it is the sun, but confuses matters when he says, at one point, that the flaming object in the sky has blotted out the sun!), and we witness the orgies, violence, drunkenness and despair attendant on Earth’s final hours. Could this 1953 story have been the inspiration for the British film The Day the Earth Caught Fire (1961), or the 11/17/61, Rod Serling-scripted Twilight Zone episode “The Midnight Sun”? I wonder…
In “Little Girl Lost,” still another young married couple is faced with a truly bizarre conundrum. Their young daughter, it seems, has vanished. Although they can hear the girl’s cries for help from beneath the living room sofa, the little missy herself is invisible. As it turns out, she has fallen into a gateway leading to another dimension, in this grippingly well-told story. And again, if this plot description seems to ring a bell, it might be because you have seen the 3/16/62 episode of The Twilight Zone, also called “Little Girl Lost,” and featuring a very faithful screen adaptation by Matheson himself.
The Shores of Space is closed out by another humorous short tale, told with rococo language, “The Doll That Does Everything.” In this one, a poet husband and his sculptress wife have their lives made impossible by their holy terror of an infant, and purchase the play toy of the title in the hopes of keeping the little tyke quiet. But things don’t go quite as planned, and are capped off by a morbidly delicious finale that Roald Dahl himself might have grinned at with approbation. And, oh, the language in this story!
“Foaming moonstruck octopus! Shovel-handed ape!” The blood-laced eyes of Ruthlen Beauson bagged gibbously behind their horn-rimmed lenses. At hipless sides, his fingers shook like leprous stringbeans in a gale. Ulcers within ulcers throbbed…
I love it!
So there you are … a baker’s dozen from Richard Matheson, whom Stephen King has famously called “the author who influenced me most as a writer.” As I’d expected, the man is now an impressively solid 5 for 5 with me, and I have a feeling that when I soon read his 1978 novel What Dreams May Come, he will be an even more solid 6 for 6…
It’s a shame this isn’t in print any more!
Well, that’s what Amazon, eBay and especially bookfinder.com are for….