Of the two men, an American is more likely to recognize the works, if not the name, of Richard Matheson (1926 – 2013), because so many have been adapted to the screen. For example, there is that classic Twilight Zone episode, “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet,” starring a pre-Star Trek William Shatner . . . and 15 other episodes! And yet, in many ways, the stories of Robert Aickman (1914 -1981) are deeper in a literary Twilight Zone, even though he never wrote for the series. In this review, I’m going to talk primarily about two anthologies of their stories that I’ve read.
The Penguin Classic The Best of Richard Matheson (2017) demonstrates that Matheson was comfortable ranging all over science fiction as well as horror, and did good work in both. Often, of course, they overlap. For example, “Shipshape Home” spins a yarn about humans who become afraid that their apartment building is host to aliens. And there is humor, sometimes to be found in what otherwise would be dreadful places, as in “The Funeral.” But what drives a Matheson story is a normal person confronting the abnormal, or occasionally an abnormal person dealing with the normal world. A man confronts a killer truck in “Duel” (the basis for Steven Spielberg’s first TV movie) or suddenly find himself learning the knowledge in whatever he passes by in “One For the Books.” A boy wants to become a vampire in “Blood Son,” or a man realizes he’s a robot (or is he?) in “Deus Ex Machina.” “The Last Day” is just about how people react to the very last day.
What I found amazing is that all of these stories still seem fresh, even though many are foundational in sci-fi/horror pop culture. Critics used to joke that much early sci-fi was written in a very plain, simple style (think early Asimov, for example). But Matheson’s work shows that a plain style can be versatile and memorable. Tell your story, tell it cleanly, make it memorable. That’s a Matheson story.
To judge from the anthology Compulsory Games (2018), Aickman was similar to Matheson in concentrating on how ordinary people confront the abnormal. But what distinguishes Aickman’s stories is how reality goes off the rails, as it always does. Aickman’s stories might be horror, they might be fantasy, but one cannot be sure. His characters live in surreal worlds, in which they may notice a river that wasn’t there before, or see humans manipulated as if they were mechanical contrivances. In Matheson stories, what is real is rarely in question; we know what elements are fantastic. But in Aickman stories, it is much harder to find the line between reality and unreality. It’s as if his stories don’t enter the Twilight Zone — they begin there.
The problem with such stories, to judge from this anthology, is that they can be very effective, but they can also simply be puzzling, and sometimes seem downright trivial. “The Coffin House” sets up a truly surrealistic situation, but resolves it in such a lame fashion that passes for mysterious that I was more annoyed than interested. And yet, hard though it may seem to believe, Aickman can make a perfectly gruesome and surreal story out of government indecision, as he does in “Residents Only.”
I’m happy to have read The Best of Richard Matheson and recommend it. Compulsory Games I’m less happy with. Maybe it’s the editor’s choice of stories. I’m interested enough to go look for some other collection of his stories. This one I’d recommend if surrealistic horror in a minor key is your cup of tea.