Richard Matheson’s Nightmare at 20,000 Feet anthology is 335 pages long and 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 it was revamped and 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 King, 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 with much admiration for taking the ball and running with it all the way.”
The first story, Matheson’s famous “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet”, and it is the tale of a man travelling on a plane. He is a rather 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:
“I 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.
“Blood Son” 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 Dracula.
“Through Channels” 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 officer every 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.
“Mad House” 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, 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.
“Legion of Plotters” is a story about paranoia. The central character 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.
“Slaughter House”, like “Mad House”, is one of the longer stories in the anthology. 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 House.
“Wet Straw” 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 doesn’t.
“Old Haunts” 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.
“The Distributor” 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!
“Crickets” 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 him now.
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.
“Prey” 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 wrapped 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.
The Nightmare at 20,000 Feet anthology 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 readers.