As I wrote in my first “Famous Monsters” post last May, “…from an early age, as early as I can remember, I was totally in love with science fiction and horror (monsters!) via all their delivery systems; i.e. books, magazines, comics, TV, and movies. Mainly movies, probably because films are so immediate.” This is true, but I can’t overestimate the importance of books to me at that time, either. Books fed my imagination and kept me going between films. I was in love with the library and the newsstand.
I remember my sixth grade teacher, a pretty young woman I had a crush on, tentatively handing me her own copy of Franz Kafka’s “Metamorphosis” one day after class. She said I might not understand all of it (that’s putting it mildly), but given my interests, she thought I’d find it interesting. Years later I realized there were other layers to the story, but what I understood then was that it was about a guy who changed into a giant bug over night. A monster story! But not the kind I was used to, so it was awhile before I returned to Kafka.
The Winston Science Fiction series, 35 science fiction novels for young readers published by the John C. Winston Company between 1952 and 1961 and written by established names in the field, had a great collective impact on me. I burned through every copy in our home room library during junior high school, around 1957-58. The dust jacket illustrations were especially exciting, 18 of which were created by the superb Alex Schomburg, who also did the endpaper illustration that appeared in every book (seen at the top of this post). I still find it thrilling to see this. Schomberg did cover illustrations for hundreds if science fiction magazines and book jackets during his long career. Here are two examples of his work; at left a detail from the endpapers, and a vivid re-working of that image at right.
Several years ago I satisfied my nostalgia for these books by acquiring a copy of one of my favorite titles in the series, Danger: Dinosaurs!, a story of time travel to the Jurassic period written by Evan Hunter under the pen name Richard Marsten in 1953. I ended up paying $125 for a book that originally cost $2. It was worth it.
I was also reading a lot of science-fiction comic books during the 50s, but remember very few of them. The comics I really wanted to read were those put out by EC: horror, science fiction, crime and war comics, as well as the original Mad. EC’s horror and crime titles especially had a lot of people up in arms, parents and other uptight watchdogs. Here are two examples of what was bending authority figures out of shape.
My dad didn’t want me reading these comics. I can’t imagine why. My mother let me read most anything I wanted. I don’t think she was really paying attention. Remember, this is the woman who let me see The Thing from Another World when I was 6 years old. Pretty cool. My dad usually stayed out of it, but he put his foot down when it came to horror comics. I knew about the EC titles and would see them at news stands, but it wasn’t until years later, when boxed sets of oversize black and white reprints with color covers started appearing in the 1980s, that I was able to fully indulge myself. I ended up buying sets of every title EC had put out through the mid-50s. An example of these slip-cased volumes is at left.
All of this material was filling up my head with crazy, wonderful stuff. I wasn’t aware of film directors then, but I knew the book authors, especially Richard Matheson. He has had a huge impact in the fields of science fiction, horror, and fantasy. Matheson has written novels, short stories, film and television scripts. His work in television alone is astounding. He wrote 16 episoes of The Twilight Zone, including the classic “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” with William Shatner going bonkers when he sees a demon on the wing. I doubt I’ve ever been on a flight and not thought of that episode, especially if I was seated over a wing. Matheson wrote the short story and script of Duel, the TV movie that helped put Stephen Spielberg on the map. He wrote The Night Stalker for TV, which gave us a hardcore vampire in the modern world, followed by The Night Strangler, which led to the series Kolchak: The Night Stalker. These are just a few examples of his work. Matheson is a giant. His fingerprints are everywhere. I can’t imagine the landscape without him.
His first short story, “Born of Man and Woman,” was published in 1950 when he was just 23. An auspicious beginning, to say the least, “Born of Man and Woman” is the account of a monster child kept chained in its parent’s cellar, told in the first person in mangled diary entries. It’s a profoundly disturbing story, which I don’t think has dated in the least. I’ve included it at the end of this post, so you can see for yourself.
But it was Matheson’s novel I Am Legend (1954) that really got my attention. I bought a copy in 1957, the edition seen at left, and proceeded to read and re-read it many times. I still have this copy, though it’s falling apart, held together by rubber bands. It wouldn’t survive another reading, but I can’t bring myself to throw it away. The book conveys a genuine sense of dread in its apocalyptic account of a plague of vampires and Robert Neville’s existential efforts to remain alive from one day to the next. Neville narrates the story and we never know more than he does. I Am Legend is matter of fact and quite serious. I recently re-read the book for the first time in years, and despite an over-reliance on exclamation marks, it still works. Matheson also has sex in his writing, especially in his next novel, The Shrinking Man (1956). To a 13-year-old boy in 1957, this was something else again, and definitely new in the horror stories I’d been reading. This, too, got my attention.
I’ve given up any hope that a decent film will ever be made from this novel. The Last Man on Earth (1964), made in Italy with Vincent Price as Robert Neville is the most faithful adaptation to date, despite its deficiencies. This is probably because Matheson, using the pen name Logan Swanson, was a writer on the script. The Omega Man (1971) with Charlton Heston has little to do with the novel, and I Am Legend (2007), the Will Smith version, even less.
Matheson had far better luck with the movie version of The Shrinking Man, which in the fashion of the time was retitled The Incredible Shrinking Man. As if a shrinking man wasn’t incredible enough to begin with. One of a series of very fine science fiction films directed by Jack Arnold, The Incredible Shrinking Man is genuinely tragic, and ends on a spiritual, metaphysical note, rather unusual for a Hollywood film of the 50s. This is emphasized by the music score, which features a haunting trumpet solo by Ray Anthony, also unusual for the genre. The theme music can be heard in the clip below.
Finally, here is Richard Matheson’s first published story, “Born of Man and Woman.” It appeared in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction in 1950. It became the title of his first short story collection in 1954. – Ted Hicks
X— This day when it had light mother called me a retch. You retch she said. I saw in her eyes the anger. I wonder what it is a retch.
This day it had water falling from upstairs. It fell all around. I saw that. The ground of the back I watched from the little window. The ground it sucked up the water like thirsty lips. It drank too much and it got sick and runny brown. I didn’t like it.
Mother is a pretty thing I know. In my bed place with cold walls around I have a paper things that was behind the furnace. It says on it Screen Stars. I see in the pictures faces like of mother and father. Father says they are pretty. Once he said it.
And also mother he said. Mother so pretty and me decent enough. Look at you he said and didn’t have the nice face. I touched his arm and said it is alright father. He shook and pulled away where I couldn’t reach.
Today mother let me off the chain a little so I could look out the little window. That’s how I saw the water falling from upstairs.
XX — This day it had goldness in the upstairs. As I know when I looked at it my eyes hurt. After I looked at it the cellar is red.
I think this was church. They leave the upstairs. The big machine swallow them and rolls out past and is gone. In the back part is the little mother. She is much small than me. I am big. It is a secret but I have pulled the chain out of the wall. I can see out the little window all I like.
In this day when it got dark I had eat my food and some bugs. I hear laughs upstairs. I like to know why there are laughs for. I took the chain from the wall and wrapped it around me. I walked squish to the stairs. They creak when I walk on them. My legs slip on them because I don’t want on stairs. My feet stick to the wood.
I went up and opened a door. It was a white place. White as white jewels that come from upstairs sometime. I went in and stood quiet. I hear laughing some more. I walk to the sound and look through to the people. More people than I thought was. I thought I should laugh with them.
Mother came out and pushed the door in. It hit me and hurt. I fell back on the smooth floor and the chain made noise. I cried. She made a hissing noise into her and put her hand on her mouth. Her eyes got big.
She looked at me. I heard father call. What fell he called. She said a iron board. Come help pick it up she said. He came and said now is that so heavy you need me. He saw me and grew big. The anger came in his eyes. He hit me. I spilled some of the drip on the floor from one arm. It was not nice. It made ugly green on the floor.
Father told me to go to the cellar. I had to go. The light it hurt now in my eyes. It is not like that in the cellar.
Father tied my legs and arms up. He put me on my bed. Upstairs I heard laughing while I was quiet there looking on a black spider that was swinging down to me. I thought what father said. Oh god he said. And only eight.
XXX – This day father hit in the chain again before it had light. I have to try to pull it out again. He said I was bad to come upstairs. He said never do that again or he would beat me hard. That hurts.
I hurt. I slept the day and rested my head against the cold wall. I thought of the white place upstairs.
XXXX — I got the chain from the wall out. Mother was upstairs. I heard little laughs very high. I looked out the window. I saw all little people like the little mother and little fathers too. They are pretty.
They were making nice noise and jumping around the ground. Their legs was moving hard. They are like mother and father. Mother says all right people look like they do.
One of the little fathers saw me. He pointed at the window. I let go and slid down the wall in the dark. I curled up as they would not see. I heard their talks by the window and foots running. Upstairs there was a door hitting. I heard the little mother call upstairs. I heard heavy steps and I rushed to my bed place. I hit the chain in the wall and lay down on my front.
I heard mother come down. Have you been at the window she said. I heard the anger. Stay away from the window. You have pulled the chain out again.
She took the stick and hit me with it. I didn’t cry. I can’t do that. But the drip ran all over the bed. She saw it and twisted away and made a noise. Oh my god my god she said why have you done this to me? I heard the stick go bounce on the stone floor. She ran upstairs. I slept the day.
XXXXX — This day it had water again. When mother was upstairs I heard the little one come slow down the steps. I hidded myself in the coal bin for mother would have anger if the little mother saw me.
She had a little live thing with her. It walked on the arms and had pointy ears. She said things to it.
It was all right except the live thing smelled me. It ran up the coal and looked down at me. The hairs stood up. In the throat it made an angry noise. I hissed but it jumped on me.
I didn’t want to hurt it. I got fear because it bit harder than the rat does. I hurt and the little mother screamed. I grabbed the live thing tight. It made sounds I never heard. I pushed it all together. It was lumpy and red on the black coal.
I hid there when mother called. I was afraid of the stick. She left. I crept over the coal with the thing. I hid it under my pillow and rested on it. I put the chain in the wall again.
X — This is another times. Father chained me tight. I hurt because he beat me. This time I hit the stick out of his hands and made noise. He went away and his face was white. He ran out of my bed place and locked the door.
I am not so glad. All day it is cold in here. The chain comes slow out of the wall. And I have a bad anger with mother and father. I will show them. I will do what I did that once.
I will screech and laugh loud. I will run on the walls. Last I will hang head down by all my legs and laugh and drip green all over until they are sorry they didn’t be nice to me.
If they try to beat me again I’ll hurt them. I will.