Richard Matheson penned strikingly resonant short fictions of horror, fantasy, and science fiction, the best of which he produced during the 1950s up until the early 1960s. During this period of production, Matheson's themes of alienation and of a method, through alienation, in which our perception of reality can be blurred or transfigured to the point that nightmarish improbabilites manifest themselves as physical forces that are very real and very threatening.
This collection showcases some of Matheson's best short fiction but is certainly not "all thriller and no filler". I rate the collection five stars because the stories that are worthy of considerable attention are some of best examples of American short fiction in any genre or study. Half of the stories, however, fall incredibly short of the same worthiness.
The best of the collection showcases Matheson's ability to transcend the horror genre to illustrate the dreadful aspects of the American experience.
"The Distributor" is the finest story in the collection. Published in 1958, it still grips the reader today. Matheson utilizes a minimalist writing style to brilliant effect in a story about the random element of a disciplined sadist named Theodore disrupting the rational order of a typical American neighborhood when his small, purposeful actions cull much larger prejudices and hidden hatred from the neighborhood residents.
"Legion of Plotters" is on an equal level with "The Distributor" in written execution. It deals directly with alienation as a solitary man is driven to unreasonable means of explaining the common, everyday annoyances of American life. Like "The Distributor", the story is carried swiftly to a perfectly executed climax and an ending expression that our lives are, in fact, governed by forces beyond our control.
"The Likeness of Julie", "First Anniversary" and "Disappearing Act" round out the best stories in the collection. All three explore a character's struggle once beset by an unexplainable set of circumstances. Unlike "Legion of Plotters" or "The Distributor", these stories use supernatural reasoning to explain the improbable circumstances. All three feature male protagonists that, in "The Likeness of Julie", force themselves to act upon buried desires; or, in "First Anniversary", are confronted by a discovery that living the dream of the good life may, in fact, be a nightmare; or, in "Disappearing Act", the existential terror of falling out of existence alltogether.
The other notable stories of the collection are: The title story, "Prey", "Mad House", "Blood Son", and "Long Distance Call". Though these stories may seem standard or tired today, it must be remembered that Matheson was the spark that initiated the countless imitations on these themes and plot elements.
The title story is the strongest of this final group. It is related to "The Likeness of Julie" in that it concerns a protagonist that is confronted with the unexplainable and is provoked to fateful action on account of it.
"Prey" is effective in evoking horror but falls short of transcending to greater thematic heights.
"Mad House" is not only horrifies but packs a considerable emotional punch by the final portion of the story. The only flaw is that the story is much too long as well as "Disappearing Act" displaying the common theme more powerfully.
"Blood Son" is original and well written but builds to a predictable and unwarranted ending.
"Long Distance Call" is very well written and builds on themes of alienation and isolation as well as any other Matheson fiction. The story feels very much like a Bradbury tale, "The Emissary" perhaps, and builds to a shocking and sudden ending that has been shamelessly ripped by subsequent writers countless times.
Little of the positive can be said of the remaining stories in the collection.
"Dress of White Silk" is generally uninteresting and Matheson's style of a child narrating the horror was more skillfully achieved in the earlier "Born of Man and Woman", a piece found in his other collection, Duel.
Several stories are ideas or situations that are never fully realized in the light of Matheson's short narratives. As a result, the stories seem terribly formula-based and contrived. Among these are "The Holiday Man", "Wet Straw", "Crickets", "Old Haunts", "Witch War" and "The Children of Noah".
"Slaughterhouse" is an uninspired effort in the tradition of H.P. Lovecraft. "Through Channels" and "Dance of the Dead" are stylish pieces that lack tension due to their sylish construction.
On a final note, many of these stories inspired subsequent writers to the point that it is often forgotten that Matheson was the original seed. Stephen King borrowed endlessly from Matheson, most notably from "The Distributor" for his long novel, Needful Things. The killer fetish doll, from "Prey", is generally responsible for any killer doll treatment that followed. A final interesting observation is that Rod Serling, who borrowed greatly from Matheson for The Twilight Zone adaptations, took great liberties in adapting Matheson stories, like "Disappearing Act", for Twilight Zone episodes, like "And When the Sky Was Opened", but still credited Matheson except in the one case where it seemed to be the most obvious borrowing. The second season Twilight Zone episode "A Thing About Machines" is nearly identical to Matheson's "Mad House" but is not credited to the writer. This has always seemed odd to me since, by that point, Serling and Matheson were friends and frequent collaborators for the show. Anyway . . .
Though only half of the stories are truly worthy, the stories that are good are not only good, they are fantastic. Matheson's writing, at its best in many of these stories, is terse and effective. I highly recommend the collection for any reader looking for horror/suspense fiction that is thoroughly American, where the mundane of everyday life turns savage and dangerous, and transcendant of the genre itself. Though some of the themes and plots seem cliche by today's standards, the reader will soon discover that Matheson handled these better than anyone else.