Shopping the local B&N late one evening for some trashy sci-fi to read, I spotted a copy of a book of stories by Richard Matheson. I’d never heard of him, actually, but I had indeed heard of “The Incredible Shrinking Man.” You remember the classic black-and-white movie, featuring the climactic battle between the title character and a black widow spider that towers over him, I’m sure. I haven’t seen it in probably 40 years, but some scenes still resonate.
The story centers around the fate of a man, out on a boat in the ocean on a pleasure trip, who has a cloud of mist wash over him. His brother, below decks, is safe; Scott Carey, not so. Chapter by chapter, we follow two parallel tracks. The first is the beginnings, his “macro” existence as a shrinking man. He starts out at six feet tall, but shrinks 1/7 of an inch a day, a full inch every week. And little by little not only does his life become more difficult, but — and this is the interesting part — he becomes kind of emasculated.
In time, he’s shorter than his wife. When he’s the size of a younger teenager, there’s a pitiable and poignant scene where he has sex with her one last time. And even though he needs it and wants it — a lot is made of how his sex drive is thoroughly undiminished, even to the end — it makes him feel even more an object of pity. His young daughter loses respect for him, and becomes more disobedient. He’s approached by pedophiles, and teenage bullies that think he’s just another little kid. Even his wife speaks to him as though he were a real child.
Eventually all he can wear are baby clothes. Meanwhile, he loses his job and for obvious reasons can’t find a new one. He can’t provide for his family, losing even the self-respect that provides. Towards the end, he sells his story to newspapers, and writes a book. It’s a big seller, to the extent he’s able to finish, and brings in a good living. But by then, he’s shrunk so small that he can’t hold a pencil or even push typewriter keys. His voice is so small that he’s “beyond communication.”
The second parallel track is what he perceives to be his last week on Earth. He’s an inch tall and, shrinking a seventh of an inch a day, the conclusions are clear. He’s been forced into the basement, first by the family cat chasing him out into the snow, then by a predatory bird forcing him back in the cellar window. No one knows he’s there, he can’t call out loud enough to be heard, and eventually — in a rather moving section — his family gives up looking for him. This is the action-adventure phase of the book. He’s dwarfed by the common household articles around him. He can walk upright through a garden hose to get water. He sleeps on a bit of sponge under a matchbook cover. He devises hooks and ropes out of a sewing kit to climb up on top of furniture looking for food.
And he’s plagued by that black widow. At first she’s the size, relatively speaking, of a big dog. But it’s not long before he’s dwarfed. And in a brilliant last attempt at gaining back some measure of himself, he devises a trap in which to kill it.
Midway through his descent, his family goes to the circus. He tags along for some reason, even though at 18 inches high he has to wait in the car. But he climbs out, and wanders around the perimeter. He finds the freak show, and in it a beautiful woman in a beautiful room. A midget, with furniture custom made for her. He stays with her, even though he knows in time he will be to her as he is to his wife. He doesn’t stay long, and Matheson doesn’t hit us over the head with it. We know that it’s just going to be a replay of what’s happening in his original family.
Like I said, I was looking for trash, but that isn’t exactly what I found. Matheson has a way of getting inside his character’s heads, with a solid first-person focus on their emotional state, and that is what the story is all about. What happens when you lose everything that makes you you, yet still in some way you are still there?
The novel takes up most of the compilation, the rest are short stories. You know this one:
There was a faint tingling at the back of his neck as he pressed close to the window and stared out. He sat there motionless, squinting. He could have sworn —
Suddenly his stomach muscles jerked in violently and he felt his eyes strain forward. There was something crawling on the wing.
Yes boys and girls, it’s the classic Twilight Zone episode. William Shatner played the man in the original, John Lithgow in the episode in the Twilight Zone movie. Even Rod Serling was a victim (or a perpetrator?) of the mass-media delusion that TV shows need a clean and unambiguous wrapup. So it’s made clear that, yes, there indeed was something on the wing. Not so Matheson and the freedom of the short story. He’s simply wheeled off on a gurney, and has a dreamless sleep for once. It’s up to you to figure out if he was crazy or not.
For a long time, Philip K. Dick has been getting all the love. Well that’s fine, though I do find his works to be a little incomprehensible. I’ve noticed that the movies they turn into are pretty far removed as well. It’s all good though. Personally I’d like to see Fredric Brown get a little more attention.