By Richard Matheson
Nightmare at 20,000 Feet anthology is 335 pages
contains 20 short stories. The first of which I am sure you will be
familiar with because it was used in an episode of The Twilight Zone,
starring William Shatner and called, of course, Nightmare at 20,000
Feet. It was such a popular episode, in fact, that it was
used in Twilight Zone:
The Movie (1983)
All of the stories in the anthology are very good and the book contains
an introduction by Stephen King who seems to be a great admirer of
Matheson. Most people reading this review will be familiar with Stephen
but younger readers might be totally unfamiliar with Richard Matheson
and his work. If you are one of the latter group, you are missing out
on something special and the fact that King is so full of praise for
Matheson should probably tell you this. That admiration works
both ways though, and the dedication in the book reads:
To Stephen King
taking the ball
running with it
The first story, as previously stated, Matheson's famous "Nightmare at
20,000 Feet" and it is the story of a man travelling on a
plane. He is
rather a nervous passenger and it does not help the poor guys nerves
any when he looks out of the window and sees a gremlin on the wing,
busy sabotaging the plane's engines. The only problem is no one
believes the man when he tells them about it and every time the
gremlins sees anyone else about to look out of the window it pulls a
disappearing act. Damned sneaky blighters, gremlins. Ugly too.
"Dress of White
Silk" is written in the first person and from the
viewpoint of a young child. The use of language reflects this, with the
thought patterns of the child coming across as being very disorganized
when compared to an adult train of thought:
guess that is why granma is mad at me. But amnt sure. All day it
was only like everyday. Mary Jane came over to my house.'
It takes a little getting used to, but it is a very clever way of
telling the story. The child's mother is dead. She now lives with
her grandma who forbids her to enter her momma's room. When her grandma
is asleep though, she goes in anyway and is especially enthralled by
momma's white dress.
is the story of a strange young man called Jules and Jules
has a rather unorthodox ambition. He wants to be a vampire
and smell of death. There, I told you it was unorthodox and it
certainly gives his class, not to mention his teacher, quite a shock
when he reads out his composition in school: My Ambition by Jules
takes the form of an interview between some police
officers and a young man named Leo. The police officers are taping the
interview and they keep switching off the tape recorder when Leo is
slow in answering. It is obvious that something bad has happened at
Leo's home and the police seem to be trying to get to the bottom of it.
I must come clean here, though, and admit that I didn't understand this
story. This does not mean that it is a bad story; it probably just
means that I failed to pick up on something in it, or was perhaps
looking at it from all the wrong angles. This happens sometimes and
what might be blatantly obvious to one reader is an enigma to another.
I understood "Witch War"
just fine. Seven pretty little girls all sitting
in a row and all of them witches, who kill to order for their military
masters. This is a strange story and the hypocrisy did not escape me
when an officer from the communications room goes to tell the seven
girls that the enemy is approaching. He wants them to use their powers
to destroy the enemy and they do, in spectacular fashion. Under his
breath the officer calls them "Monsters!" But they were
just following orders, just like him, and isn't their commanding
bit the monster as well? I found this story quietly
disturbing: young girls whispering, giggling and chewing bubble gum,
after destroying so many lives, then saying, "Aren't we awful?" and
going downstairs for breakfast.
is one of the longer stories in the book. It is about a
frustrated writer who is full of excuses for why he never gets anything
written and just as full of anger about it. His anger is the real
problem. He has no control over it and it is alienating him from his
wife and holding back his career. And if his career prospects are now
so poor and his marriage is failing, well all of that just makes him
angrier still and all of that negative energy his is producing might
just come back to haunt him.
"Disappearing Act" is
the story of a married man who is having an affair.
Feeling guilty about his infidelity, and not wanting to hurt his wife,
the man decides to avoid contacting his mistress. When temptation
proves too strong though, he tries to ring her, but finds he
cannot remember her number. Nor can he find it in the book. Worse
still, no one seems to remember her; no one at all—at her work,
where she lived, anywhere. It is almost as if she never existed.
Plotters" is a story about paranoia. The central
believes that everybody is out to get him and he decides to do
something about it. After reading this story you might feel a little
paranoid yourself and think: gosh, I hope I never meet a guy like that.
But how can you be sure that you won't?
"In Long Distance
Call" an old lady who is confined to her bed keeps
receiving strange telephone calls. "Hello," she repeats again
and again, but nobody ever replies. It is a very worrying situation for
the old girl and things take a turn for the worse when someone
eventually does begin to speak at the other end of the line.
like "Mad House", is one of the longer stories in the
book. It isn't, as the name might falsely suggest, a story about an
abattoir and the only thing to get butchered in this tale is the
relationship between two brothers. The slaughter house of the title is
actually an old haunted house that used to belong to a family who bore
the unusual name of Slaughter. The house has stood empty for many years
and when they were young boys the two brothers always planned to one
day own it. When they are fully grown they make that dream a reality
and together they buy the house. One brother is a painter, the other a
writer, and neither one of them believe any of the stories about the
house. They do not believe in ghosts. They have barely settled into
their new home though, when things start to happen that force them to
see things a little differently. By then, however, a strange change has
come over one of the brothers and the two men who have been so close
all of their lives become suddenly and quite drastically alienated from
each other. There might very well be no place like home, but after
reading this story most readers will probably agree that having no home
at all would be preferable to living in a house like the Slaughter
is the short tale of a widower who moves into a boarding
house after the death of his wife. He lives a quiet life reads a book a
day, visits museums and goes to concerts. This sort of existence would
not be for everyone I am sure, but he is happy enough. The only thing
to spoil his happiness are the bad dreams he begins to have, dreams
where he knows that he is in bed, yet can feel a cool breeze on his
face and smell something that can only be wet straw.
"Dance of the Dead"
is the story of a young college girl who is out on a
double date with three characters who are perhaps not the best choice
that she could have made for company. She knows her mother wouldn't
approve, but she has been finding it hard to make any friends at all
and sometimes beggars can't be choosers. So while they pass around
drugs in the car she tries to play it straight. "Live it up!" they urge
her, but the girl sticks to her ideals. Good for her! The two couples
end up going to see the Dance of the Dead. This is something that the
young girl has never seen before and she seems less than keen on seeing
now. With little choice in the matter though, she tags along anyway
and, in a way, lives to regret it.
"The Children of
Noah" is the story of Mr Ketchum and what happens to him
when he breaks the rules. SPEED 15 LIMIT the sign by the side of the
road warns him, but Mr Ketchum ignores it and flies through the little
town of Zachary at 50 miles an hour. Mr Ketchum doesn't think that
there will be anyone around at three o'clock in the morning to see him.
Mr Ketchum is wrong, as the flashing red lights behind him signify and
he is in a lot more trouble than he at first realizes because they do
things a little differently in Ketchum.
"The Holiday Man"
is rather an unusual story and you don't know what it
is about until the very end. The central character, David, does not
like his job and seems less than keen on going to work, but as his wife
reminds him, it pays well and he couldn't do anything else anyway.
"Have a—" she starts to say as David walks out the door. "-nice day?"
he finishes for her. "Thank you. I'll have a lovely day." But he
is a cautionary tale of sorts that reminds the reader that
although you can look back, you can never really go back. It is the
story a man who returns to the town where he used to go to college. He
takes his old room at the boarding house where he used to stay as a
student and he visits all of his old haunts around the town and campus.
He feels rather nostalgic, as you can imagine, but also a little ill at
ease and learns the hard way that he can't go back.
is one of those stories which could all too easily
happen in real life. Someone new moves into a neighbourhood and for no
apparent reason at all, except perhaps his own amusement, he begins to
stir up trouble between all of his new neighbours. He is very adept at
what he does, is equally imaginative and soon has everyone at each
other's throats. Nice guy!
are the things that scare Mr Morgan the most. Lots of people
are scared of spiders, or scorpions, or any number of creepy-crawlies.
But crickets? What's so scary about crickets? Well, Mr Morgan has
cracked their code and he knows what all of their singing means. Worse
still, he knows that they know that he knows and that they are after
In "First Anniversary"
Norman and Adeline have just celebrated their
first wedding anniversary. Then it happens. Adeline begins to taste
sour. Her kisses are not sweet at all and Norman cannot understand
why. Fortunately the condition is only a temporary one. By
the following day he cannot taste her at all. The doctor thinks that
Norman might be allergic to his wife and it is while Norman is waiting
for the results of the doctor's tests that something else happens—the
smell. "Is the garbage out?" he asks, cuddling up to his wife. She is
less than impressed and more than a little hurt by this and all Norman
can do is to hold her tight, say how much he loves her and try to
ignore the awful smell. This is quite an amusing story in places, but
it is also a little sad because Norman and Adeline really do love each
other. All is explained at the end though, and this was one ending that
caught me a little by surprise.
"The Likeness of
Julie" also gave me quite a surprise at the end. Nothing
was as it seemed to be at all. It is the story of a high school student
called Eddy Foster who seems to be more than a little sure of his
capabilities with the ladies and is, to put if mildly, a bit of a shit.
He has never really noticed the girl sitting behind him in the English
class before. Her name is Julie and although he has been aware of her,
he never really noticed her. Suddenly he does. She isn't much to look.
There is nothing sexy or glamorous about her. Except now there is.
Maybe it is because she looks so much like a child, or appears to be so
virginal. Eddy has to have her, has to corrupt her. So Eddy takes what
he wants but gets more than he bargained for.
is the final story in the book. It is about thirty-three-year-old
Amelia who has never really broken free from her mother. She is still
tied to mom's apron strings and they are tied around her throat like a
noose. Amelia has her own apartment, but not her own life. Her mother
is still very much pulling the strings while Amelia dance like a puppet
on the end of them. If Amelia is like a puppet though, perhaps that
gives her something in common with He Who Kills because he is a doll. A
Zuni fetish doll to be precise, with a gold chain wrapped around his
waist to stop the spirit of the hunter trapped inside it from escaping.
Unfortunately for Amelia He Who Kills is more successful at escaping
his bonds than she has ever been.
I enjoyed reading the Nightmare
at 20, 000 Feet anthology. It contains
a good selection of stories that are all very different. It would be
hard for me to pick a favourite from amongst them because I like so
many of them. This is the sort of book that it is pretty hard to fault
and it probably contains something to satisfy the tastes of most
of Richard Matheson books reviewed on this site ~