Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Book Review: The Best of Richard Matheson

Award-winning author and editor Christopher Conlon returns to the Vortex to share his thoughts on a new career retrospective of Twilight Zone scribe Richard Matheson.

The Best, and the Rest
by Christopher Conlon

The Best of Richard Matheson. Victor LaValle, ed. New York: Penguin Classics, 2017.

Choosing the “best” of a writer—especially a prolific writer—is by its nature problematic. Once editors get past the obvious classics, their choices inevitably become subjective and thus open to criticism, especially from the writer’s most passionate and well-informed fans. In fact, even the inclusion of a writer’s classics can become a bone of contention, as happened two years ago with Penguin’s unfortunate Charles Beaumont volume, Perchance to Dream—an anonymously-edited “Selected Stories” in which the stories were mostly incompetently selected, reprinting numerous dated and unremarkable tales while inexplicably omitting much of Beaumont’s best work, including “The Hunger,” “The Crooked Man,” “Miss Gentilbelle,” and what many Beaumont fans consider his single greatest story, the astonishing “Black Country.” And so when Penguin announced The Best of Richard Matheson, fans couldn’t help but feel some trepidation. Would this volume, like the Beaumont, also be curated by some anonymous hack who clearly possessed little knowledge of the subject at hand?  What would the final result be like?

Happily—and perhaps due in part to the criticism the Beaumont book received—Penguin has chosen another tack with Matheson, whose oeuvre constitutes over sixty years of top-flight work in nearly every genre and whose short stories are considered among his finest accomplishments. As editor Penguin has enlisted the services of that fine fantasist Victor LaValle, perhaps best known for his wonderful short novel The Ballad of Black Tom, a variation on Lovecraft’s “The Horror at Red Hook.”

The vast majority of the stories editor LaValle has chosen will certainly be welcomed by any Matheson fan as representing this great writer’s “best.” Matheson’s first published tale, the groundbreaking “Born of Man and Woman,” is here, along with “Prey” (the TV movie version with Karen Black being chased by a Zuni fetish doll is as well-remembered as the story itself), “Duel” (filmed unforgettably by Steven Spielberg at the beginning of his career), and five pieces that were turned into memorable episodes of The Twilight Zone—“Death Ship,” “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet,” “Third from the Sun,” “Long Distance Call,” and “Mute.” “Button, Button” is here too, and “Witch War,” and “Dress of White Silk,” along with over twenty more tales—all wrapped up in a handsome package, with the distinguished Penguin Classics label lifting Matheson’s stories permanently out of the realm of mere pulp fiction and placing them where they have always really belonged, on the shelf marked American Literature. Could a Matheson fan possibly ask for anything more?

Well, as a matter of fact, yes.

To be clear: The Best of Richard Matheson is a fine collection, surely the best one-volume introduction available to Matheson’s stories—and it certainly beats Perchance to Dream by miles in terms of the wisdom and appropriateness of its selections.

And yet…the truth is, this book might have been better. For all his editorial acumen, LaValle has made a mistake by including several of the author’s “rarities”—i.e., trunk stories—that were not published until many decades after their original composition. In each case (“Man With a Club,” “The Prisoner,” “Haircut”) it’s quite obvious why these pieces went unpublished at the time. Simply put, they’re not very good. They certainly have no place in a volume purporting to represent the cream of Matheson’s particular crop, especially when by taking up space they bump other, far superior tales. Of course any editor is limited by a publisher’s maximum word count for a project, but it’s still a little startling to see a book called The Best of Richard Matheson that doesn’t include “The Distributor,” “The Children of Noah,” “Mad House,” or, most egregiously, what is perhaps Matheson’s single most emotionally wrenching story, “The Test.” Cutting the unimpressive “rarities” would have made room for at least one or two more of Matheson’s truly indispensable tales.

The editor’s introduction is also, unfortunately, something of a loss. While LaValle makes some perfectly valid points regarding Matheson’s influence—“He’s in the DNA of too many other writers to count”—a large chunk of the essay is taken up with a lengthy personal narrative about LaValle’s own youth, detailing a series of events which he claims led to his own “Matheson moment” but which in fact (spoiler alert) has absolutely nothing to do with Richard Matheson. This kind of self-indulgent logorrhea should have been removed by the publisher before the book ever went to press—and trimming this tedious, overlong piece might have made sufficient room for one more Matheson masterpiece.  

But whatever this collection’s problems, they are relatively minor in comparison to the riches that await both experienced and novice readers of Richard Matheson in these pages. While it’s not quite all it could have been, The Best of Richard Matheson stands as a worthy tribute to a writer whose importance to the American literary landscape only seems to grow with each passing year.

The Best of Richard Matheson is available October 10. Get the book. 

Thanks again to Christopher Conlon. Visit Chris’s site. Buy Chris’s books.

The Best of Richard Matheson (Penguin Classics, 432 pages)

Table of Contents (date of story publication):

-Introduction by Victor LaValle
-Born of Man and Woman (1950)
-Prey (1969)
-Witch War (1951)
-Shipshape Home (1952)
-Blood Son (1951)
-Where There’s a Will (with Richard Christian Matheson) (1980)
-Dying Room Only (1953)
-Counterfeit Bills (2004)
-Death Ship (1953)
-Man with a Club (2003)
-Button, Button (1970)
-Duel (1971)
-Day of Reckoning (1960)
-The Prisoner (2001)
-Dress of White Silk (1951)
-Haircut (2006)
-Nightmare at 20,000 Feet (1962)
-The Funeral (1955)
-Third from the Sun (1950)
-The Last Day (1953)
-Long Distance Call (1953)
-Deus ex Machina (1963)
-One for the Books (1955)
-Now Die in It (1958)
-The Conqueror (1954)
-The Holiday Man (1957)
-No Such Thing as a Vampire (1959)
-Big Surprise (1959)
-A Visit to Santa Claus (1957)
-Finger Prints (1962)
-Mute (1962)
-Shock Wave (1963)

Here follows additional notes on select adaptations of the stories for those interested in such things.  –JP

--“Prey” was adapted by Matheson as the third and final segment of the 1975 television film Trilogy of Terror. The film was directed by Dan Curtis and featured Karen Black. Matheson’s friend William F. Nolan wrote a sequel to the story, “He Who Kills,” as a segment of the 1996 television film Trilogy of Terror II, directed by Dan Curtis.

--“Dying Room Only” was adapted by Matheson into a 1973 television film directed by Philip Leacock and featuring Twilight Zone actors Ross Martin and Cloris Leachman.

--“Death Ship” was adapted by Matheson as the 108th episode of The Twilight Zone, the 6th episode of the fourth season. The hour-long episode was directed by Don Medford and featured Jack Klugman and Ross Martin.

--“Button, Button” was adapted as a segment of episode 20 of the first season of The Twilight Zone revival television series. Matheson adapted his short story but, dissatisfied with changes made to his teleplay, placed his pseudonym “Logan Swanson” on the work instead. The segment was directed by Peter Medak and featured Mare Winningham. The short story was also the basis of a 2009 film, The Box, written and directed by Richard Kelly and featuring James Marsden, Cameron Diaz, and Frank Langella.

--“Duel” was adapted by Matheson for a 1971 television film directed by Steven Spielberg and featuring Twilight Zone actor Dennis Weaver.

--“Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” was adapted by Matheson as episode 123 of The Twilight Zone, episode 3 of the fifth season. It was directed by Richard Donner and featured William Shatner. Matheson also adapted his story for the 1983 film Twilight Zone: The Movie. The segment was directed by George Miller and featured John Lithgow.

--“The Funeral” was adapted by Matheson as a segment of episode 15 of the second season of Rod Serling’s Night Gallery. The segment was directed by John Meredyth Lucas.

--“Third from the Sun” was adapted by Rod Serling as episode 14 of the first season of The Twilight Zone. It was directed by Richard L. Bare and featured Fritz Weaver and Edward Andrews.

--“Long Distance Call” was adapted by Matheson as “Night Call,” episode 139 of The Twilight Zone, episode 19 of the fifth season. It was directed by Jacques Tourneur and featured Gladys Cooper.

--“One for the Books” was adapted by Matheson for episode 23 of the first season of Steven Spielberg’s Amazing Stories television series. The episode was directed by Lesli Linka Glatter and featured Leo Penn and Joyce Van Patten.

--“Now Die in It” was expanded into a 1959 novel titled Ride the Nightmare. This novel was adapted by Matheson for the first season of The Alfred Hitchcock Hour. It was directed by Bernard Girard and featured Hugh O’Brian, Gena Rowlands, and Twilight Zone actor John Anderson. The novel was also the basis for a loose adaptation as the 1970 film Cold Sweat, directed by Terence Young and starring Charles Bronson.

--“No Such Thing as a Vampire” was adapted by Hugh Leonard as an episode of the anthology series Late Night Horror. It was directed by Paddy Russell. Matheson adapted the story as a segment of the 1977 television film Dead of Night, directed by Dan Curtis.

--“Big Surprise” was adapted by Matheson as a segment of episode 8 of the second season of Rod Serling’s Night Gallery. The segment was directed by Jeannot Szwarc and featured John Carradine.

--“Mute” was adapted by Matheson as episode 107 of The Twilight Zone, episode 5 of the fifth season. It was directed by Stuart Rosenberg and featured Frank Overton, Barbara Baxley, and Oscar Beregi, Jr.

--One final note: Both “Finger Prints” and “Mute” originally appeared in the 1962 anthology The Fiend in You, edited by Matheson’s close friend and fellow Twilight Zone writer Charles Beaumont.

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