June 26, 2006

Road rage

The short story has hit upon hard times in recent years as a literary form. Now basically the property of "serious" authors, it survives in the mainstream almost exclusively in the imaginative genres of horror, fantasy, and science fiction. (I suspect that at least part of the reason is plain old laziness: it takes work to compact a whole story into ten or so pages and still have it cohesive and well-formed. I'm not slamming novelists, it's just that they don't have to work with quite the same limitations.)

Mind you, you can't get much more mainstream than Stephen King, reputedly history's bestselling author. Throughout his career, he has continuously published collections of short fiction. I've said before that I regard him as the reigning master of the form.

So who influences the influencers? King is known as an aficionado of the seminal horror writer H. P. Lovecraft, another short story master; indeed, he is largely responsible for a revival in Lovecraft's popularity. But another influence is Richard Matheson, whose work I was recently introduced to through his 2003 collection of stories, Duel.

Far and away the best story of the collection is its namesake. In this tale of suspense, a travelling salesman, Mann, gets caught in a deadly battle of wits with the driver of a battered old gasoline tanker. For no stated reason, the trucker singles Mann out to run him off the highway.

What makes this story work so well is the apparent pointlessness of the violence. Hitchcock did the same thing in The Birds. Mann does nothing to warrant the attack; he is arbitrarily marked for death, the trucker even lying in wait for him at the side of the road. Mann's would-be murderer is not only arbitrary, but anonymous: the salesman never sees his face, only a hand here, an arm there, and the name "KELLER" (which, Mann observes, looks an awful lot like "KILLER") painted on the side of the dilapidated rig. At one point the trucker even follows Mann into a truck stop, but since the salesman never saw Keller's face, he can't tell which of the other customers wants him dead.

The nature of the act is all the more poignant in our own short-tempered society with its road rage (not to mention air rage, cellphone rage, shopping rage, and anything else that drives people into a frenzy). Our tendency to fly off the handle over the most trivial things would be comical, if it weren't for the fact that a complete stranger might kill you now for talking too loudly on your telephone.

Matheson himself wrote the screenplay of a made-for-TV adaptation of "Duel," which also happens to be Steven Spielberg's feature debut, starring Dennis Weaver. I've never seen the movie, only a few clips. The rusty, indeterminately coloured old 1960 Peterbilt 281 that takes on Mann in his underpowered Plymouth Valiant is as much a horror-movie icon as Stephen King's Christine.

Duel is subtitled "Terror Stories by Richard Matheson." One minor disappointment was that "Duel" itself is the only true horror story. The rest of these 18 short stories are science fiction published in the 1950s ("Duel," published in 1971, is again the sole exception). But the stories are good for what they are, and to be fair many of them have a suspenseful edge or a twist ending that would do Alfred Hitchcock or M. Night Shyamalan proud. (Much of Matheson's work has been televised on suspense series such as The Twilight Zone and The Outer Limits.) Some of the highlights:

  • In "Return," a time-travelling scientist named Robert Wade visits the 25th century, only to find out that they want to use him to research the 20th century, and won't let him leave. Professor Wade returns in "F---," discovering a future society where, having found new ways of ingesting nutrients, eating and drinking have become obscene. Food is the new F-word.
  • A man thinks his wife has gone crazy in "Shipshape Home," when she insists that the janitor of their new apartment building has a third eye in back of his head and that she found huge engines in the basement.
  • In "Death Ship," a crew of interplanetary explorers land on a world where they discover a crashed rocket - crewed by copies of themselves. Believing they are seeing their future, they wonder if they can avoid the inevitable.
  • A couple's young daughter crawls under the couch in "Little Girl Lost," and accidentally drops into another dimension. (I could swear I've seen this story on television, unless I'm just thinking Spielberg cribbed it for Poltergeist. "Homer3," the famously computer-generated story from an early Hallowe'en episode of The Simpsons, is eerily similar.)
  • A travelling couple in "Being" learn that the proprietor of a remote gas station runs a human "zoo" as a food supply for the alien monster that has enslaved him.
  • A simple farmer becomes omniscient for no apparent reason in "One for the Books."

Matheson seems to be almost unheard of these days, but in addition to "Duel," many of his novels have been adapted for film: Stir of Echoes, What Dreams May Come, and The Incredible Shrinking Man, to name three. After reading Duel, I'm convinced to try out some of his longer fiction. But if you're looking for a good collection of tight short stories by an author you probably haven't read before, you can't go wrong with this book.