a zoo in hell


Cards up the sleeve and other dirty tricks.

I'm pretty close to polishing off the last few stories in Richard Matheson's anthology Button, Button. With the exception of the random story in whatever collection I may have read them in, the majority of my exposure to this legend's short fiction has been in translation. Not in the foreign language sense, but as film or television segments.

Reading these stories, it's easy to see why his name is synonymous with the Twilight Zone-effect. They mostly work toward creating a suspenseful singular effect, and then in the last line or two overturns the entire schema of the narrative. "It's a cookbook!" sort of thing, you know. Matheson often does this very well, expertly and artfully, raising a stylistic trope above mere pulp formula when he is at his best.

There's a wisdom that claims you can learn more from artistic failure than genius. In failure, the creative gears are exposed as the machine creaks and sputters in disharmony. Two stories in this collection strike me as being remarkably off-the-mark for such an accomplished writer.

"No Such Thing As A Vampire" is about exactly what the title announces. An older man of science, who happens to live in Romania, struggles to deal with the inexplicable attack of a vampire on his younger bride. He enlists the aid of a younger, handsome colleague, to help him take action against his impossible assailant. Like I said earlier, I've seen this story as a short film first, and while the film wasn't a true spine-tingler, it worked pretty well to deliver some shock at the conclusion and revelation of the older man's real motives.

However, the short story is told as an inner monologue from the point of view of the older Dr. Gheria, who happens to be the only one in the story who really knows what's going on with this vampire and really the last person to believe it, really. Yet, we as readers are just supposed to accept it when Dr. Gheria reveals in the final paragraphs that he was scheming the entire time. Right. This is what we've come to know as "cheating" in the writing trade. Others call it derisively an author "gotcha". Either way, it violates the rules that most readers trust their writers with, and it's sloppy writing, really. The story could have certainly been told in a way that wouldn't violate this contract between reader and writer. Just watch the film or read the screenplay for an example of how.

"Pattern for Survival" is another case, but a more interesting one. I can't get into specifics, at the risk of destroying the suspense of the story. That's the problem. The entire shock of the story relies on the reader finally figuring out what is going in the story. Confusion, more than misdirection, leads the reader to the stunning revelation of the world the writer in the story lives in. So, at the risk of perpetuating some cliches of avant-garde writing, I'd suggest that Matheson's use of a completely unreliable narrator and oddly "meta" overtones puts this short story a good fifteen years ahead of it's genre time. This story only works when you realize how it works -- but as a narrative itself, it fails all the standard marks of a good, ripping, yarn. As an exercise, I tinkered with writing this story as a script and it seems completely impossible. By the second scene, the entire "surprise" of the story would be gone. There would no drama. There would be no plot. Nothing happens!

Of course, all of this is worth mentioning, and only interesting by virtue of the fact that Richard Matheson has proven himself to be one of legendary storytellers of the 20th century. I believe that studying the failings can only help illuminate the true genius of the successes.