My Favorite Richard Matheson Story Is the One I Lived Through
Victor LaValle pays homage to the horror master with a real-life story from his own past
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I recently had the enviable task of reading nearly every story Richard Matheson ever wrote and selecting 33 tales to be included in Penguin Classics’ The Best of Richard Matheson. This turned out to be like stepping into a time machine, transported back to the age when I started reading him. I was fourteen. The year was 1986. My introduction to his fiction, his short novel I Am Legend, was one of the first books that made me run up to my friends and tackle them so they’d all check it out, too. If you haven’t read it (what the hell is wrong with you?), it manages to be a work of science fiction, a vampire story, a progenitor of the “biological plague” apocalyptic novel, and also an excellent thriller. All that in about 160 pages. I had to find out more. I dove into The Shrinking Man (the film added “Incredible”) and Hell House and wow. I wish I had a more sophisticated way to describe my reaction to the seismic effect of Richard Matheson on my young mind, but “wow” gets at the raw, awestruck nature of thing. And then I came to find out the man had written short stories. I tracked them down with gusto, with glee. And with time I began to relate to the man’s writing in a way that seemed damn near mystical.
I want to explain exactly what I mean by that. There’s a lot I need to say about Matheson, and the importance of his fiction, the reasons why this collection is so vital and worthwhile, but I can’t get to that directly. I will go there eventually. But first I have to tell you about my Matheson moment. I don’t mean that I met the man. I mean I stepped into a story he could’ve written. I have to tell you about Cedric and his mother.
My mother made good when I turned fourteen. At least that’s how she saw it when she moved us out of an apartment in one part of Queens and took us to a house she’d bought in another. The woman emigrated from Uganda in her twenties and now, in her forties, she’d worked like a machine to stop renting and start owning. From a two-bedroom to a two-story home, damn right my mother felt proud. Me, my sister, and my grandmother were the grateful tagalongs.
We moved in over the summer and when September rolled around I started going to school. The local public school was Springfield Gardens High, and just before I arrived the place had been outfitted with the newest, latest technology: metal detectors. And with good reason. This was 1986, the Crack Era, and as old news reports will tell you some people had a propensity to shoot guns wildly in places where teens gathered. My mother took one look at the school where she was meant to send her child and she made changes posthaste. This woman was not about to have her kid ushered through those contraptions every morning before heading to homeroom. More to the point, she didn’t want to get some phone call about how I’d been caught by Stray Bullet Syndrome while standing around outside. She found a private school out on Long Island and before I could say “where the hell is Nassau County” she’d gotten me enrolled on a scholarship. My mom was no joke.
My mom also wasn’t a car owner. She got to work and back by taking a bus to the Long Island Rail Road and the train into Manhattan. Suffice to say there weren’t any such choices at Woodmere Academy. People either got dropped off by their parents (Mercedes, BMW, Audi) or they took a school bus. Mom enrolled me in the pickup service and every morning, around 7:45, I’d go out and stand on the corner of 229th Street and 145th Avenue and there I’d wait for one of those long yellow buses to pick me up.
I waited in front of a single-family home with yellow aluminum siding. One morning, maybe around November or December, when the chill weather set in heavy, the front window of that house slipped up and a kid my age stuck his head out the window and called to me.
“Aye,” he called. “Cheese bus.”
I turned, baffled. He had an enormous round head and close haircut. This gave him a kind of Charlie Brown look. A brown Charlie Brown. He wore a white tank top. He was, by no definition, a skinny kid. In fact, me and him might’ve been body doubles.
“Cheese Bus,” he said again, and I realized he’d given me a nickname. Before I could speak he reached one meaty hand out of the window and waved me away.
“Go stand down the block,” he said. “Your bus is fucking up my vibe.”
“You don’t own the sidewalk,” I said. Citing basic property law was the best I could do.
“You sound like a herb,” he said. “Cheese, are you a herb?”
“Well how come you’re not getting ready for school?” I said. What kind of kid treats cutting school like an insult? This one. And with that I cemented my herb status.
“I would try to help you,” he said. “But I can’t even guess where I’d start.”
I walked up to the chain link fencing at the edge of his parents’ property and leaned my elbows on it so that I was posed just like him.
“Seriously though,” I said. “You’re skipping?”
He thought about this a little bit. He sighed and said, “I’ve got company coming over.”
“Like, you’re having a party?”
“Party for two,” he said, then he looked to his left and pointed, discreetly, with one finger.
When I looked up I saw two things: my bus — the cheese bus — chugging toward me; and a girl, fourteen, moving down the block with much more grace. This would turn out to be Lianne, Cedric’s sweetheart since seventh grade. They kissed sweetly when she reached him. He led her inside without even saying good-bye.
After that me and Cedric talked each morning. He’d lean out the window and gab with me before the bus showed up. I made nice, but not because I found him so charming. I’ll admit I had ulterior motives. New in the neighborhood and being bused to a school miles away. How was I going to meet anyone? I wanted to girlfriend, too. Couldn’t Lianne call in a friend for me?
It turned out to be surprisingly easy to cut school. Just don’t be on the corner when the bus shows up. After two minutes the driver simply drove on. Meanwhile I’d been tucked inside Cedric’s house, peeking out through the blinds like some secret agent at risk of having his cover blown. The bus left, then Cedric tapped me on the shoulder and said, “Stop hiding.”
Easy to do when two young women knocked at the front door. Cedric went to let them in and I stood there in the living room feeling quite sure I’d ascended to some higher plane of existence. Or was about to. He opened the door and kissed Lianne, then stepped aside so she and her friend Tasha could slip in. The front door fed right into the living room where I stood. The living room fed right into the kitchen. Apparently there were two bedrooms elsewhere — Cedric’s and his mom’s. When I’d asked him if I could use hers — in case things went well with Tasha — he patted me on the arm and said, “Don’t get ahead of yourself.”
Now let me cut in with a message from me as a grown man, as a father. It is absolutely insane that four fourteen-year-olds were sneaking off to get intimate in the middle of the day; I can’t pretend it wasn’t. But at the time it felt wonderfully sane.
Anyway, I’m standing there and Tasha and Lianne are coming through the doorway and then I heard it, a sound in the kitchen. Knocking. Not all that loud, but I was close to the kitchen and getting closer. By that I mean that Tasha and Lianne were taking off their coats and I ran away. Later I told Cedric I went to “get them water,” but there’s no other way to say it: I fled.
As soon as I entered the kitchen the knocking stopped. I figured it might be their boiler kicking in. It was winter after all. I knew I’d run away though so I came up with the water idea and went scrounging for cups. This led me on a chase through the cupboards as, in the other room, Cedric called for me. And then I reached their pantry door. This style of one-family home had a separate little pantry, about the size of a small walk-in closet. I found the door there and, still hunting for glasses, I tried the handle and found it locked. Then Cedric walked into the kitchen.
“Cheese,” he said. “You making me look bad.”
When he said it he didn’t sound playful. He’d convinced his girlfriend to bring someone with her and then his boy had gone and run into the kitchen. But I also wondered if that was really the reason he seemed unhappy with me. He peeked at the pantry door then back to me.
“Cups is over here,” he said, taking four down from a cupboard by the sink. Then he rushed me out of the kitchen.
He put on a movie. I definitely don’t remember what it was. He closed the blinds so the living room went dim. Lianne leaned into him. Tasha and I hardly spoke. She was as nervous as me.
At some point Cedric went to the bathroom and left us alone in the living room. Lianne patted the cushion beside her and Tasha hopped over, the pair whispering and I sat there alone. Hadn’t even sipped my water once. And then I heard it — that knocking — coming from the kitchen again. I didn’t hesitate. Maybe I felt stupid sitting alone. I walked in there and went quiet.
The knocking, low and insistent, came from the other side of that pantry door. I checked for Cedric but he wasn’t around. I tried the door but found it locked. Meanwhile the knocking kept on, regular if weak. It damn sure wasn’t the boiler.
I whispered, “Who is it?”
When I spoke the knocking stopped. I mean instantly. What followed next was a scratching sound. Claws on the floor. I even thought I heard something panting softly.
Cedric had a dog and he locked it up when company came over.
The knocking, low and insistent, came from the other side of that pantry door. I checked for Cedric but he wasn’t around. I tried the door but found it locked.
I got to my feet and laughed at myself and now thought only of how I would not fuck things up with Tasha, who — it turned out — was exactly as geeky as me. All I had to do was finally speak to her and find out. We finished the movie together in the living room, all four of us. By the time it was over even me and Tasha were kissing. At some point she mentioned a smell in the room. I almost laughed because I knew it was just the funk of four teenagers fucking around. But she persisted. It was worse than that. Could there be something going rotten in the fridge? In the walls? Maybe there was a mutt somewhere in the house, an animal that had had an accident.
Cedric hardly pulled away from Lianne’s lips. He answered her casually, thoughtlessly. He said, “My mother would never let me have a dog.”
I remember hearing those words and going utterly numb.
Which brings us to Richard Matheson.
Just because you may have heard of him, read him, watched the countless shows and movies that he wrote or inspired, that doesn’t mean you may have thought so much about his meaning in the history of the genres of science fiction and fantasy, horror and thrillers. Why bother hashing over all that when you could just dive into the tales themselves? A fine point. I wouldn’t blame you. Actually, I’d encourage such a thing.
I find it interesting to note that Matheson was the son of two Norwegian immigrants. I like to think on that because he is, to my mind, such an American writer, and it’s always good to be reminded that for almost all of us that means, at some point, our people came from elsewhere and landed here. There’s so much journeying in Matheson’s writing — across time and space, across the threshold between life and death, across town to get to work on time (though of course you’ll never get there safely) — as I read through all the stories I wondered how much the journeys of his parents meant to Matheson, the young man. It might be that as the son of a more recent immigrant my mother’s course — her bravery, her drive — informs so much of what I imagine, what I write.
If nothing else he’s written about how his parents came from Norway and found each other, then circled the wagons around family, fearful of the outside world and clinging to each other. Inside the walls sat a young, bookish Richard Matheson. They kept him close but his mind roamed.
We should get The Twilight Zone out of the way now. Yes, Richard Matheson wrote some of the most beloved and enduring episodes of that classic show. Let’s rattle off just a few: “Third from the Sun,” “Death Ship,” “Nightmare at 20,0000 Feet.” You’ve seen them and loved them. You’ve sat down with some friend during a Twilight Zone marathon and giddily anticipated when one of them would play. But before they were on your screen they were in magazines, collected in books. I know this seems almost silly to say, but they were all stories first. And what’s so remarkable, when you read them, is to see how perfect they were right from the start. The clarity of the language, the promise of a pleasing mystery, the mounting tension of the confrontation — the revelation — to come, and the cool satisfaction of seeing Matheson pull off this magic again and again and again (and again). Matheson regularly did the patient work of illustrating an ordinary existence only to have it smash directly into the monstrous, and this becomes the moment of a person’s greatest test. Sometimes they triumph, sometimes they fail but Matheson knew that in a way the pushing is the point. The stress and anxiety, the drama and fear, that’s when humanity truly gets to understand itself, understand the world.
Matheson began his writing career with short stories. He worked that form for twenty years, and all were published between 1950 and 1970, a Golden Age for Matheson’s fiction and also for the world of science fiction and fantasy magazines. He started with short stories and an industry existed to support him. Such an idea can seem like fantasy these days. But the pairing was auspicious. These genres were reaching a wider readership, so they’d better have some good content. And Richard Matheson was there. In many ways he was inventing the template that generations of writers would copy.
Matheson regularly did the patient work of illustrating an ordinary existence only to have it smash directly into the monstrous, and this becomes the moment of a person’s greatest test.
The problem with being a pioneer is that you often die out before your settlement thrives. You’re in the ground for years before the village becomes a town; decades before the town becomes a city. Matheson, thankfully, got to see countless kinds of success. It’s always nice to be able to say a writer enjoyed the fruits of his labor. How rare is that? Let’s celebrate it.
But the other issue with being a pioneer is that the generations who come later may forget the ground you tilled, the innovations you brought into being. You hear Matheson’s name on the lips of so many greats, from Stephen King to Joe Hill. (A little family joke I just couldn’t resist.) But he deserves to be spoken of by so many more. His stories became the bedrock of many genres: thriller, horror, science fiction, fantasy, so essential it’s almost impossible to really grasp how much he accomplished. How many people take a moment to give thanks for the sidewalks and highways? Yet most of us couldn’t get anywhere without them.
The other reason this may be the case is that Matheson had such an effortless, clear writing style. He threw the reader into the story and made very little attempt to force attention on himself as Author. This is great for stories, but not so good for getting credit. Writing is like life: too often we praise the show-offs, the ones who wink at us when they toss out some abstruse word. Many tend to think of this as artistry, but I’m less inclined. Or maybe I only mean to highlight the grace, and confidence, of a writer like Richard Matheson. Clarity can be artistry as well. It implies confidence, too. You won’t notice much of what he’s doing the first time you tear through these stories, but on your second pass you should take your time.
His central concern is survival. What threatens your existence? Even more important, what will you do to get through? Think of the man in “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” who risks popping open the emergency window of an airplane at cruising altitude so he can fire a gun at the being he’s seen tearing at the plane’s engine. He’s nearly sucked out into the night sky, but he must do something. He, and the other passengers, must survive. The ordinary meets the monstrous and every life is at risk.
But let’s not only talk of the classic stories, the ones you no doubt know; they’re worth the price of admission alone, but Matheson has so much more to offer. There’s my personal favorite find, a story called “Witch War.” Matheson plays out the idea of a conquering army powered only by the occult abilities of a handful of teenage girls. In between decimating the opposing army they talk smack about one another, they mock and joke, by the end they even revel in the fear they cause to the men they’re meant to defend. It’s a subtle and stunning little tale and it shows off another aspect of Matheson’s talent: he can be wickedly funny.
Then there’s “Dance of the Dead.” I don’t want to spoil anything for you, but it’s straight up disturbing. It’s a kind of postapocalyptic undead tale that also predates, even anticipates, the reprobates of A Clockwork Orange. (It was also made into a deeply troubling and memorable episode in the Masters of Horror anthology series, written by Matheson’s son, Richard Christian Matheson, and directed by Tobe Hooper.) Where Richard Matheson often had his stories come out on the side of safety or triumph, this one has no time for such treacle. This one wants to hurt you. And it, too, is a product of the same singularly gifted mind.
The depth and variety of the man’s imagination seem nearly unparalleled. His influence exists even for those who have never read him. He’s in the DNA of too many other writers to count. When you enjoy science fiction and fantasy today, when you read modern horror, you are still reading Richard Matheson.
The next morning I decided not to skip school. This also had to do with the fact that Tasha — with whom I was now smitten — told me she couldn’t cut twice in one week. So I showed up at my bus stop right around 7:45, and sure enough the cheese bus turned the corner a few blocks west, right on time. But then Cedric’s living room window opened and he leaned out looking as blasé as always. Yet again he had on my Champion sweatshirt, one of many articles of clothing I’d lent him, never to be returned. He leaned on his elbows and watched me quietly for about the count of three.
“All right then,” he said, keeping direct eye contact. “You want to see?”
Did I? In that moment I didn’t really know.
Cedric opened the front door. I walked into the house with my head down, my curiosity tinged with dread.
The living room looked like it hadn’t been cleaned — or even occupied — since me and Tasha had been there yesterday. The couch cushions still in disarray. Cedric walked ahead of me. He entered the kitchen and I hesitated.
“Well?” he called out.
I moved toward the kitchen, but I can’t say it was my choice. I felt compelled to take a step. Pulled in, drawn closer. As moved I heard the pantry door’s lock click and a faint groan as it swung open. At the same time I smelled it again, what Tasha had been talking about the day before. A kind of rot so strong I experienced it as a wave of heat that made my eyes flutter. And still I stepped through the threshold and entered the kitchen.
“This is my mom,” Cedric said.
There’s a look to ships that have sunk to the bottom of the ocean and remained there for decades. When they’re brought to the surface they’re scaly with barnacles and orange with rust. They look vulnerable and indestructible, simultaneously. A sunken ship, now risen, Cedric’s mother seemed much the same.
As I said, it was the Crack Era and I recognized what had torpedoed this woman. I tried to greet her but there wasn’t time. Cedric’s mother came at me, her hands dug into my coat pockets, she yanked my book bag off from where it dangled on one shoulder and, right in front of me, she unzipped it and tossed everything out on the floor.
“Ma!” Cedric shouted, but he didn’t try to stop her. He’d never looked so young.
Each of us must’ve outweighed Cedric’s mother by two hundred pounds but I knew I didn’t have the strength to challenge her. She tossed through my things and sucked her teeth and both us boys just watched her.
“Ma,” Cedric said again, but much softer this time. “Please, Ma.”
Then she turned and leapt at him, her own child, and sent him flying backward. He went to the ground. She climbed right up onto his chest, that’s how I remember it. She pulled at the sweatshirt, my sweatshirt, and I heard the fabric tear. I went down on a knee and tossed everything back into the bag and that’s when Cedric cried out, I swear I thought it was an infant wailing from another room. When I looked up she’d torn open his sweatshirt and her hands dug at his flesh. I saw blood. I thought she might devour him right there.
And there I’d finally reached my Matheson moment. The ordinary was over. The monstrous was here. I wish I could say I helped him, but I didn’t. I picked up my bag and I scurried backward. If someone was going to survive, better it be me. Even today I can still hear him whispering, pleading, that same single word. “Ma. Ma.”
And there I’d finally reached my Matheson moment. The ordinary was over. The monstrous was here.
I got to the living room and crawled to the front door. I opened it and pulled the door shut behind me. I stopped skipping school after that. I told Tasha about what happened and, bless her, she believed me. But when I went back to the house, knocking for what seemed like hours, Cedric didn’t answer. I’d never seen a place look so lifeless. Lianne told Tasha she couldn’t reach him. She’d call the house, but the phone only rang and rang. I never saw him pop his head out his front window ever again.
Obviously I’ve turned this history into a story, my homage to Richard Matheson, to my old friend Cedric, and even to his mom. While some of this tale is indeed fiction, there really was a monster living in that house.
Which brings me back, one last time, to Richard Matheson. What did this son of Norwegian immigrants who spent the majority of his life writing in California know about the Crack Era nightmares of a black boy from Queens? On the surface I’d say nothing. Superficially he and I could hardly seem farther apart. But then why, when I wrote out what happened between me and Cedric and his mother, did I hear the echoes of so many of Matheson’s tales? I’m not talking about the plot points but the essence. The fight for survival, the monstrous breaking in on the ordinary, no one holds the sole rights to such real estate. But Richard Matheson tilled the soil long before me and, likely, long before you, too. He even built a house in which so many of us still dwell. All hail the architect!
From The Best of Richard Matheson edited by Victor LaValle, to be published on October 10, 2017 by Penguin Classics, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC. Copyright © 2017 by RXR, Inc. Introduction copyright © 2017 by Victor LaValle.