Wednesday, October 17, 2012

The Box: Uncanny Stories by Richard Matheson (book review)

            The Box: Uncanny Stories (originally titled Button, Button: Uncanny Stories) was released in 2008 and contains stories published between 1950 and 1970.  The name was changed to capitalize off the (then upcoming) film adaptation of the previously titular story, Button, Button. 

See The Box on Goodreads

            Button, Button is a good place to start when discussing Matheson’s short stories.  Most of his stories have a compelling “what if?” scenario behind them and end with a sort of poetic justice twist.  While reading this collection, I immediately made comparisons to The Twilight Zone.  A quick bit of research on Matheson turned up that he was a writer for The Twilight Zone.   Another comparison I’d like to mention is how some of his stories are reminiscent of the old radio program Suspense.  The stories Dying Room Only, No Such Thing as a Vampire, and Clothes Make the Man are very suited for a radio adaptation. 

            What follows is a brief (spoiler free) review of each of the twelve stories in the collection.

            Button, Button (originally published in 1970): A stranger offers a married couple $50,000 if they press a button.  However, pressing the button will kill someone they don’t know.  The real effect of this story is in the ending, which you can find for yourself.

            Girl of My Dreams (originally published in 1963): The story follows a woman who dreams future tragedies and her exploitative boyfriend.  Together, they sell the information the woman receives in her dreams to those that would be affected.  Like Button, Button, there is a definite Twilight Zone poetic justice air to this story.

            Dying Room Only (originally published in 1953):  A married couple stops at a diner in the middle of the desert, and the husband disappears.  This is more of a mystery/suspense story than a sci-fi/horror story.

            A Flourish of Strumpets (originally published in 1956): What if prostitution became a door-to-door business?  That’s the premise of this story, which leans toward the humorous.

            No Such Thing as a Vampire (originally published in 1959): A Romanian doctor’s wife starts to succumb to symptoms of vampiric assault.  The story’s prose is very melodramatic, the first sentence describing the how doctor’s wife “awoke one morning to a sense of utmost torpor.”

            Pattern for Survival (originally published in 1955): A very short story about the dreams of a writer.

            Mute (originally published in 1962): At nearly 50 pages, this is the longest story in the collection.  It follows the story of a child named Paal, who is adopted by the town’s sheriff and his wife after the boy’s parents die in a fire.  Paal cannot speak, but has some telepathic ability.

            The Creeping Terror (originally published in 1959):  Despite having the most cliché title of any story in the collection it is the most original.  It’s written as a college paper (with brief interludes of third person omniscient narration) about a historical event known as the L.A. Movement.  Not only is Los Angeles alive, but it’s spreading.  This is a humorous story, which pokes a bit of fun at Los Angeles (as an Angelino, I’m all for this).

            Shock Wave (originally published in 1963): A church organist is convinced that the organ has gained sentience.

            Clothes Make the Man (originally published in 1950): There is a man who cannot think without a hat, walk without shoes, use his hands without gloves, etc.

            The Jazz Machine (originally published in 1962):  This is the only story where the prose is worth mentioning.  Written in non-rhyming verse, The Jazz Machine is the first person narrative of a jazz musician who is approached by a man who claims that he has a machine that can translate jazz into the sentiments it is meant to express.  While I’m not a fan of beat poetry, this story is very well written.

            ‘Tis the Season to be Jelly (originally published in 1963): A slice-of-life story about mutants living in a (presumably) post-apocalyptic world.  This is probably the strangest story of the lot.

1 comment:

  1. Before it became the basis for THE BOX, "Button, Button" was an episode of the 1980s TWILIGHT ZONE revival, but Matheson was so disappointed with the final results that he substituted his Logan Swanson pseudonym on the screenwriting credit. If you're interested, several other stories in this collection were also adapted for the large or small screen:

    "Girl of My Dreams" was adapted by Matheson's friend Robert Bloch (best known as the author of PSYCHO) and Michael J. Bird into a 1968 episode of JOURNEY TO THE UNKNOWN, an anthology series co-produced by England's Hammer Films.

    Matheson himself adapted "Dying Room Only" into a highly regarded 1973 TV-movie of the same name, with Cloris Leachman giving a standout performance as the terrified wife, and an up-and-coming Dabney Coleman as the husband who disappears.

    "No Such Thing as a Vampire" was filmed twice, first as a 1968 episode of the obscure BBC-TV series LATE NIGHT HORROR, and then by Matheson in the Dan Curtis TV-movie DEAD OF NIGHT (1977). The latter starred Patrick Macnee, best known as John Steed on THE AVENGERS.

    Finally, "Mute" was one of two stories (the other being "Death Ship") that Matheson adapted into hour-long episodes during the fourth season of THE TWILIGHT ZONE. The boy became a girl played by a young Ann Jillian.

    For further information, see my book RICHARD MATHESON ON SCREEN (