Michael's Reviews > The Incredible Shrinking Man

The Incredible Shrinking Man by Richard Matheson
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Dec 04, 08

bookshelves: fantasy, science-fiction, read-in-2008
Recommended for: Sarah Hadley,
Read in December, 2008, read count: 1

** spoiler alert ** One of the good things to come out of the success of last year's "I Am Legend" is that a lot of Richard Matheson's catalog has come back into print. This collection looks like two separate works put together--the short novel "The Incredible Shrinking Man" and a set of short stories by Matheson.

"The Incredible Shrinking Man"
It's interesting to come to a Matheson novel after finishing the latest Stephen King short story collection. The cover blurb has King stating that Matheson was one of his greatest influences and reading works by both authors close together, the similaritites in style and storytelling are very apparent. Both King and Matheson excel in putting ordinary people in extraodinary situations and showing how they react.

In "Man," it's Scott Carey who is slowly shrinking at the rate of an inch per week. Interestingly, the story begins with Carey about an inch tall and slowly shrinking away to nothingness. Flashbacks then tell us how he got to this point.

On one level, "Man" is an adventure and survival story (and a rather thrilling one at that) about a man vs his environment. But, as with most Matheson I've read, the story works on an entirely deeper level. Matheson examines the nature of masculinity in the novel. As Scott shrinks, we slowly see his authority and masculinity shrink with him. In the novel, he's married with a young child (I believe the film version eliminates the daughter) and, at first, everything is fine. But as the novel progresses, Scott is slowly seen as less and less of a man as he shrinks. His wife's desire for him slowly diminishes and she begins to treat him like a child more and more. This leads Scott to lust for his daughter's babysitter, becoming almost like a teenager in his fixation on her and his desire to catch a glimpse of skin. It also leads to Scott's encounter with a female midgit. Scott has a one-night stand, demanding that his wife allow it because she can't or won't see him as a sexual being anymore and brought about by his desire to feel virile and manly again. However, Scott quickly realizes that he will keep shrinking and it's only a matter of time before Clarice, the midgit, begins to see him as his wife does.

Matheson also explores the nature of how children react to their parents. At first, Scott is able to be a parental figure to his young daughter, Beth. However, as the story progresses and he shrinks smaller and smaller, his authority is slowly lost up to the point that she treats him as little more than a doll. Scott is injured and could have been killed by his daughter and is forced to cut off all contact with her.

And Matheson also explores some other extremely "adult" themes in the novel. At one point, Scott is picked up a child predator (his car has a flat tire) and the horror of what is unfolding is well realized by Matheson. It's interesting that Scott doesn't pick up on the vibes of what's going on earlier but maybe it's the day and age we live in more than Scott himself. The fascinating part is how Matheson is able to present what's happening without making this section overly prurient. It's a good example of how less can be more in some storytelling.

In his cover blurb, King says this is a horror story that he eagerly shares with readers and envies their discovering it for the first time. After reading it, I can see why he feels this way. The story is compelling, suspenseful and scary. Watching as every day things become objects of terror and horror for Scott is fascinating and Matheson conveys the frustration and terror Scott feels in the scenes with Scott trapped in his own basement. Scott's battle to find food, get water and fend off a spider that weeks before he could have easily crushed under his foot are compelling. The spider has seven legs and we find out in a flashback that ironically, Scott is the one who cost it that leg. Whether or not Scott "deserves" the fate of being terrorized by the spider, Matheson leaves up to the reader to decide.

Matheson wisely makes Scott not always a likeable character. He's not accepting of his fate and he alienates his family. He becomes extremely myopic in how he perceives the changes to himself and his family. And while we feel Scott's plight, it's not always easy to side with him, though his reactions are always believable.

In short (no pun intended), this short novel is something far more than just a simple story of a guy slowly getting smaller. It's a fascinating exploration of what it means to be masculine, adult and a a human being.

Short Stories:
Billed as a selection of Matheson's short fiction, I'm not sure if these are intended as a "best of" or just simply to show what Matheson could do in short form fiction. There are some great stories, some good stories and one that I could see what he was trying to do but I didn't necessarily care for it as a whole.

Knowing that Matheson was a prolific writer for television in the 60's, it's fascinating to see two stories here that would later become the springboard for adaption for the screen. The first is the famous "Nightmare at 20,000 Feet" which became the famous "Twilight Zone" episode of the same name. Reading the story, it's interesting to note differences between the story and the classic TV show. The same starting point is there, the same germ of an idea, but the Matheson story digs into the psychological aspects of the dilemma and is a bit more ambiguous on whether or not there is an actual gremlin on the wing. It's also odd to read the story today in our time of heightened plane security with our hero being able to openly take a handgun on the flight.

Then there's Matheson's story "Montage" which could be the basis for the Adam Sandler movie, "Click." A writer sees a movie and gets upset at the way the movie montages past the writing process. He wishes he could to his in real life and the wish is fulfilled. Large chunks of his life are gone in seconds and he misses out on actually living and enjoying life in the smaller moments. I am not sure if this was any influence on "Click," but it's fascinating to read how Matheson works with the same concept--and might I say, actually does it a lot better.

My favorite two stories in the collection are among the shorter. One is called "The Test" and presents a future (2003) in which citizens are given a test past a certain age to determine if they are still useful to society. If they fail, they are given a month to live and then killed. The story looks at the impact of this on a family, the stress and how the younger generation begins to see the value of older generations diminished. The story of a young son agonizing over the fact that he voted for the measure and that his father will fail the test is well done. To see how the son debates between having the father gone from his life and how he's a "burden" to the family really drives the story along. The ending is inevitable and heartbreaking. This could be my favorite story from the collection.

The other story is a model of economy. Clocking in at four pages, "By Appointment Only" tells the story of a barber who takes patients by appointment only. His one patient isn't feeling well, having just come from the doctor. There's a fascinating twist half way though and the story leaves you haunted. Basically, the barber has married a woman who practices voo-doo and is using hair and nail clippings to keep the customers sick and get kick backs from the doctor in question. It's four pages long, but it gets in, gets out and packs the punch it needs. The revelation of what's going on is nicely done, coming in one of the final paragraphs. But in just four pages, Matheson ably sets up a mystery and then solves in a satisfying manner that stuck with me long after I'd moved on to other stories in the book.

As for the story, I didn't like, it concerns a guy moving into the neighborhood and manipulating the neighbors into various acts. It's interesting and maybe I've read or seen other stories like it, so I kind of had an idea of what was going on early in the story. It's not a terrible story, but it's just not as good as the others in this collection.



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Reading Progress

12/01/2008 page 76
20.38%
12/02/2008 page 98
26.27% "Reading Mattheson right after finishing Stephen King is fascinating."
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