Sunday, February 5, 2012

Nightmare at 20,000 Feet by Richard Matheson

Nightmare at 20,000 Feet
By Richard Matheson
Copyright 2002

Introduction by Stephen King
Stephen King, unrivaled master of the genre of horror, credits Richard Matheson for reinvigorating it after masters such as Robert Bloch abandoned it in the late 1950s. Without Richard Matheson, there would be no Stephen King.

It is remarkable that it is Matheson that King looks to and names as his inspiration. Not because Matheson is not worthy. He is one of the most remarkable writers who ever lived with extensive work in books, television and movies. It is remarkable because Matheson’s prose is delightfully honed. King’s prose is expansive and massive. No two writers could be more different in their style.

Nightmare at 20,000 Feet

A man who desperately fears flying, boards a DC 7 and prepares for takeoff. When they reach a cruising altitude, he looks out the window and sees a strange creature capering about on the wing with intent to do harm. He tries to convince the flight crew that there is something out there.

This finely told story was made into one of the most famous episodes of the Twilight Zone. It was a pleasure to read it as Matheson had laid it down in print for the first time all those years ago.

Dress of White Silk
A little girl lives with her grandma in the home where her mother died. When one of her friends comes to visit and pokes a little fun at her and her dead mom, our little heroine puts on a brutal fashion show for her tormentor.

Written in the patois of a six year old girl, Matheson tells a simple and inelegant tale of supernatural revenge with flair. Bravo! It was this story that, according to Ann Rice, inspired her to write horror.

Blood Son
This is the tale of a boy born to be a vampire. At a young age, he is drawn to all things that involve vampires. He disturbs his teacher and fellow classmates with lurid tales of vampirism told in class. He steals a vampire bat and allows it to drink his blood. His entire life is dedicated to achieving status of the undead.

Matheson is really the anti-Poe. Poe used lofty rhetoric and obscure words to weave his tales of terror. Matheson’s use of simple language and sparse prose is just as effective. Nowhere is that more evident than in this tale.

Through Channels
Police interview a teenager who has arrived home to find his parents and their friends dead. The friends had come over to watch television. But on the family television, instead of a test pattern, the word, “feed” is sometimes displayed. When the kid comes home to the carnage, he finds one of the e’s is gone, changing the word to past tense.

Here we see Matheson adopting the style of Isaac Asimov, driving his story almost entirely through dialogue. The tale is told through a series of tapes of the interviews the police conduct with the kid.

Witch War
A group of young, teenage girls use their magical powers to destroy an army of attacking men.

Matheson’s writing here is so sparse, that there is nary a complete sentence in the prose. Most of the narrative is sentence fragments and prepositional phrases. I’ll give him credit for trying an offbeat writing style, but the story didn’t work for me. I got the cold dispassion from the girls, but didn’t feel any sense of loss or injustice when the men, who were not developed in the narrative, died.

Mad House
A teacher becomes so bitter, angry, and depressed, that his rage is transferred from him to the inanimate objects within his home, making the most mundane and everyday tasks untenable and maddening.

All I can say is sometimes, I can relate. . . What a wonderful story.

Disappearing Act
A journal is found in a coffee house, three hours after its owner and writer left it there. It tells a story of a young man, in constant conflict with his wife about his inability to earn enough to support them. After a one night stand with a woman he meets in a bar, he chronicles the slow and random disappearance of all the people and places that make up his life.

Matheson’s tale is a first person narrative taken from a journal. He is able to tell his tale to its conclusion without providing a reader a clue as to why the man’s life is disappearing one person and place at time. The not knowing is always more satisfying than a ham handed explanation.

Legion of Plotters
A mild mannered tie salesman is driven slowly mad by life’s petty annoyances. The bus passenger who sits next to him daily and sniffs constantly, the nightly cries of the baby next door, the parties held by the neighbors upstairs, the cigarette smoke of restaurant patrons all add up to drive him toward madness. He starts to documents life’s little annoyances and grade them. He comes to the conclusion that the world is plotting against him.

I get the impression that little misbehaviors on the part of others really annoys Mr. Matheson. This story is much like Mad House. The focus on irritants by the main characters drive them to madness with sad results.

Long Distance Call

An old woman, bedridden and helpless at night, continues to receive strange phone calls during the wee hours. At first, there is just silence on the line. Then attempts at communication, with the person saying, “hello.” The woman demands that the phone company check out the line. When they do, our little old lady is shocked at where the calls are coming from. Late that night, she receives another call and her mystery caller informs her that he’ll be right over.

This is the stellar stuff of great black and white movies that used to entertain me as a child. This story is a little longer than some of Matheson’s material, but not a word is wasted. We know the voice is supernatural (after all, it’s a Matheson story), but Matheson’s ending was brilliantly conceived and written, letting us know what horror is to come, but not showing us.

I am troubled by this story because I know I’ve seen it on television, but don’t know where. There was a Twilight Zone episode called, “Long Distance Call,” but that was the one where the little boy with constantly fighting parents used the toy phone to call his dead grandmother. Great story, but it was not Matheson’s. I’ve Googled it, but can’t find it. I’d love to know where I saw this.

Slaughter House
The narrator tells how he and his bachelor brother purchase a large, old home that had stood vacant since they were kids. They restore it to its original state and settle into a comfortable existence. Over the fireplace stands a picture of a nameless beautiful woman that fascinates them. Soon, the younger brother becomes slothful, angry, and incommunicative. His brother fears he’s been overtaken by a malevolent spirit that resides in the home.

The story was ok, if not terribly original. What was remarkable about this story and what made it interesting to read was the writing style. The style here was a departure from Matheson’s sparse prose. The plot, the characters, and the style of writing were all reminiscent of the screenplays he cranked out for American International Films in the Poe adaptations and other scripts he authored for Roger Corman in the early 1960s.

Wet Straw
A man living alone in a boarding house has a recurring dream where he smells wet straw. Soon, the dream evolves into a recollection he and his now dead wife had when they were young, waiting out a rainstorm in a hayloft. His recollection of this seemingly romantic memory masks memories of the unfortunate conclusion of their marriage – and her life.

This story was suitable perhaps for grade schoolers. The twist, such as it was, was reminiscent of ghost stories kids tell each other.

Dance of the Dead
The setting is post apocalyptic Missouri and four teenagers are en route to a club in St. Louis to see a remarkable night show act with a horrifying star. Three of them are enthusiastic about getting to the show, using drugs to get into the right state of mind. The fourth has serious reservations about seeing this grisly show.

This was one of the darkest post-apocalyptic stories I’ve ever read. It brought to mind horrid images of the emaciated figures of the German concentration camps (though Matheson does not use that simile in his text). One of his finest efforts.

This story was made into an episode of the television show, Masters of Horror television series that aired on Showtime. The script was penned by Matheson’s son, Richard Christian Matheson, and was directed by horror legend, Tobe Hooper. Young Matheson expanded on ideas introduced by his father and revealed an imagination as dark and inspired as his father’s.

The Children of Noah
A holiday traveler in New England is stopped for speeding in a small Maine town. He is put in jail overnight until he can see the judge in the morning. He is told the next afternoon that the judge is sick, so they’ll have to go to the judge’s house for him to hear the case. The man is taken to the judge’s house, sentence is passed, and the visitor is invited to dinner.

Even the greats write stories that become dated. This story is dated. It may have surprised readers in the 1950s with its twist, but the twist, even though it was not telegraphed, came as no surprise to the modern reader who’s seen it many times before.

The Holiday Man
No one likes to work holidays, but one man has the horrific task of calculating holiday death tolls. What makes him so good at his vocation is that he makes the calculation before the holiday, and sees every one of them unfold before his eyes.

This is an example of Matheson being too sparse with his prose. The story idea is great and there is a gift in being able to tell a great tale with just a few words. This story, however, begged for more character development and more plot.

Old Haunts
A middle aged man returns to the boarding house in which he lived while attending college, hoping to take a nostalgic trip down memory lane. He rents the room and then begins roaming the area, seeing old haunts. He feels as if he’s being watched or followed. Instead of bringing back good memories, the trip instead has him reflecting on a life wasted. As he goes to sleep that night in his old room, a figure appears telling him he can’t come back and he needs to get gone.

This is obviously a supernatural midlife crisis. Each of us has returned to someplace formative in our lives, relived the memories there, and thought about how our lives might have been different had we seized different opportunities. Unfortunately for Matheson’s character, his younger self isn’t happy with the choices his older self made.

The Distributor
A new man moves into Joseph Alston’s neighborhood and promptly introduces himself to Alston as Theodore Gordon. At first, Gordon seems amicable enough. But soon, he starts to “redistribute” the belongings of his neighbors. When they complain, Gordon seizes control of the neighborhood through nefarious and prurient means.

Theodore Gordon must be a Democrat. . .

A vacationing couple encounter a man who claims he’s decoded the language of crickets. These noisy nocturnal insects, he tells them, telegraph the names of the dead. He tells them that he’s heard his own name on the crickets’ list and he wants their help.

Crickets as psychopomps is an interesting concept. They are black like death. They haunt the night. I’ll never listen to a cricket again without wondering whose name they are chirping. Brilliant story!

First Anniversary
A man kicks off his first anniversary with his lovely bride by telling her she tastes sour. She is peeved. Then he quits tasting, smelling, and feeling her. It’s finally time for him to face some hard realities and she’s going to make him do it.

I knew it was a space alien – and it wasn’t. Matheson comes at marriage from an unlikely direction and creates an intriguing story.

The Likeness of Julie
A college student in is inexplicably attracted to the plain, childish looking girl who sits behind him in his literature class. He’s more than attracted to her. His emotions devolve into violent fantasies of rape and debasement. He hatches his plan of debauchery and asks her out. But whose idea is it really?

Definitely not one of Mr. Matheson’s most politically correct stories. But the woman gets the last laugh and we find that the poor college student, whom we come to loathe in the narrative, is actually the victim. Matheson stories have more twists than a hemp rope.

A woman buys a Zuni fetish doll for her boyfriend who likes to hunt. The doll is called He Who Kills and the package comes with a warning that the little gold chain must be kept on the doll to keep the Zuni spirit at bay. But when she is arguing with her mother on the phone, the doll is knocked over and the chain comes off. The woman fights for her life against a six inch tall Zuni hunter.

This is one of Matheson’s best known stories, made famous by the television horror movie, Trilogy of Terror which starred Karen Black in three different roles in three stories based on Matheson’s work. This segment, entitled Amelia, was the only one of the three in the movie given the screen treatment by Matheson himself. The story is average, but the transfer to film is brilliant. King gave it an update, using plastic toy soldiers in his story, Battleground from Night Shift. In the Nightmares and Dreamscapes television miniseries episode based on the King story, the doll appears briefly in a shot – King’s homage to his mentor.


  1. Happy to help with your "Long Distance Call" mystery. Matheson adapted it for the fifth and final season of THE TWILIGHT ZONE but since, as you noted, there had already been an episode with that title, this one became "Night Call." It starred the celebrated actress Gladys Cooper and was directed by Jacques Tourneur, a veteran of the RKO horror films produced by Val Lewton during the 1940s. Eight weeks after "Night Call" wrapped, Tourneur began shooting Matheson's AIP film THE COMEDY OF TERRORS. Interestingly, the episode has a different ending from the story, which was first published as "Sorry, Right Number."

    In addition to those you mentioned, several other stories in this collection have been adapted for film and television.

    *"Blood Son" was made into not one but two non-theatrical short films in 2006, one under its original title and the other as "My Ambition."

    *"Disappearing Act" was the nominal source for Rod Serling's first-season TWILIGHT ZONE episode "And When the Sky Was Opened," but little more than its basic premise was used.

    *"First Anniversary" was adapted by Matheson's daughter Ali and her husband John Cooksey as an episode of the cable-TV OUTER LIMITS revival.

    *"The Likeness of Julie" was another segment of TRILOGY OF TERROR, entitled "Julie" and written by his friend William F. Nolan.

    Several others were adapted into scripts that were never produced.

    *R.C. Matheson turned "Mad House" into a teleplay for a third season of MASTERS OF HORROR that never materialized.

    *Nolan adapted "Slaughter House" into an unfilmed teleplay in 1975.

    *Matheson recalled adapting "The Children of Noah" into a script that was probably intended for DEAD OF NIGHT, an abortive anthology series he and Nolan tried to launch with TRILOGY OF TERROR producer-director Dan Curtis.

    *Matheson adapted "The Holiday Man" as part of an unfilmed pilot for another abortive series, GALAXY, which was to have been the television counterpart to the magazine in which several of his stories were originally published.

    *Both Matheson and Paul Schrader adapted "The Distributor" into separate feature-length speculative screenplays that were never shot. Matheson's version was published in his collection DUEL & THE DISTRIBUTOR, which I had the honor of editing for Gauntlet Press.

  2. As always, Matthew, your comments and input help make my Matheson posts more authoritative. I thank you...and thank you for reminding me where I saw Night Call. I thought for sure it was Twilight Zone, but could not find it in the IMDB episode list.

    I absolutely loved the Dance of the Dead Masters of Horror. With Robert Englund in the cast, I expected a cheesy rehash of the Freddy character. Instead, it was dark, with nary a ray of light to brigthen it.