In the introduction to this collection of classic Richard Matheson short stories, no less of a figure than Stephen King delivers oodles of praise to this author. According to King, Matheson emerged in a time (the 1950s and early 1960s) when the horror genre desperately needed a kick in the pants. King attributes his very existence as a horror writer to Matheson's influence. With that type of praise, the stories here need to live up to a tremendous standard, which they do easily. It should go without saying that Richard Matheson is the grandfather of modern horror; his stories created indelible impressions on millions of people when Hollywood translated "Nightmare at 20,000 Feet" and "Prey" into memorable television moments. But nothing beats going to the source to see how the original stacks up to the adaptation. You will not be disappointed with this collection, I assure you.
This compilation starts off with the slam-bang "Nightmare at 20,000 Feet," a story made into an episode of "The Twilight Zone" with William Shatner staring as the nervous wreck of a lead character. An unbalanced traveler on a flight through a rainstorm sees something terrible on the wing of the plane, something no one else sees and which paints him as a potential troublemaker to the flight crew. This man immediately associates the thing he sees with a gremlin, or creatures that WWII pilots claimed they saw in the skies over Europe while on their bombing runs. Whatever this thing is, time is running out because this humanoid is tearing up exterior parts of the plane. Fortunately (or unfortunately, as the case may be), our neurotic hero has a gun on the plane. When he takes action everyone thinks he is nuts, but is he? And will people think him crazy when they eventually see the outside of the plane?
Then there is "Prey," a story instantly familiar to anyone who ever saw Karen Black's performance in "The Trilogy of Terror." In this tale, a young woman named Amelia is planning to go out on a big date. She even bought a present for her beau, a Zuni fetish doll. Then Amelia's overbearing mother steps in and insinuates that Amelia needs to cancel the date in order to spend time with her instead. This is regrettable for Amelia because she is now cut off from the help she will soon need to survive. The doll is no gag gift; it holds the spirit of a real African warrior, and when the charm holding back the spirit in the doll falls off it comes alive and attacks Amelia. The twist ending is nice and scary.
Other stories are not as good in terms of real chills and thrills, but still show Matheson's attempts to challenge conventional narrative techniques in order to create a foreboding sense of doom. "The Dress of White Silk" tells the story of a weird, deceased mother through the crude, rambling baby talk of her young daughter. "Through Channels" takes the form of a police interrogation, with the "swish" of the tape recorder reminding us of the atmosphere the characters are in. These stories work, not because they are overwhelmingly scary, but because they reveal how to rework stories that are usually tired and formulaic (such as the vampire genre) into something that has real potential.
My favorite story in this book was "Disappearing Act." In this frightening description of a man not only losing his identity but also his very being, Matheson traces the increasingly eerie events that occur when a poor bloke realizes the people and places he has known for years either vanish completely or fail to recognize him as a corporeal reality. The chills come in the languid way Matheson unfolds the story, quietly escalating each new shocking realization towards a dreadfully wicked climax. The author never explains why or how this is happening, which makes it even more jarring. For what can be worse than losing your very existence while you are aware that it is occurring? The story makes you wonder how you would react in the same situation.
Nearly every type of horror story is present in this collection. Vampire tales, ghost stories, haunted towns, plagues, and yarns about psychotics all appear throughout the book. Stephen King almost certainly borrowed the plot of "Needful Things" from the Matheson story "The Distributor," a tale about a new neighbor who creates all sorts of problems for those living around him. In short, nearly every story here shows Matheson's huge influence on succeeding generations of horror hacks. The stories included in "Nightmare at 20,000 Feet" makes me want to go out and pick up other classic Matheson collections, both his short stories and his novels. This author strikes quite a figure in the world of the horror fan, but he ought to be better known in the general population because his stories have a timeless quality to them that promise to entertain again and again.