A mysterious misty spray drifts across the sea, colliding with our protagonist, Scott, while he’s out on his boat. He thinks nothing of it until he begins noticing his diminishing height: one seventh of an inch every day without fail. The premise is very much a in keeping a noticeable trend in 1950s science fiction. It was the era of oversized or undersized monsters and mutants, from the Attack of the 50 Foot Woman and the gigantic ants of Them!, to the microscopic adventurers of Fantastic Voyage.
The idea of shrinking a person to a few centimetres in height is one you can have a lot of fun with as a storyteller. The scope of unique situations you can put your protagonist in is vast, as evidenced by an entire TV series, Land of the Giants being devoted to the idea. But I suspect no one has done it better than Matheson.
I’ve heard that Matheson originally structured the events of the novel in a completely linear fashion, from 6 feet to zero, then later restructured them so that he was able to tell two stories side by side, hopping back and forth in time. The first story is all about how Scott copes with people’s attitudes to him while his height diminishes. The second begins with Scott trapped in the basement, only a few centimetres tall and presumed dead, and tells the tale of his struggle to survive in that environment against such adversaries as food out of reach and a black widow spider. The two sides of the novel are quite different in tone, and readers will probably have a favourite depending on their taste. For me, my preference was the former.
We see Scott struggling to maintain a sexual relationship with his wife when he is conscious of becoming more like a boy than a man. We see him going for a walk at night and offered a lift by a drunken paedophile. We see him defenceless against the bullying of a gang of teenagers. We see his own daughter defying his fatherly authority because of his size. We see his wife unconsciously talking down to him like boy. We see him degenerating to the level of peeping tom to a teenage girl. In all of his suffering there are a few moments of relief, one of which is a brief but touching relationship with a dwarf. I only have vague memories of the movie adaptation of this novel, but I’m pretty sure much of this stuff never made it in (it has always been the case that you can get away with more in books than you can in films). That material was so much more interesting to me than reading about Scott finding inventive ways to climb gigantic tables, etc. Although that side of the story was certainly fascinating, too.
Having read Matheson’s I Am Legend recently, I’m noticing how he works. He takes an essentially ridiculous notion and drops a totally believable three-dimensional character into the middle of it. The novel then becomes the story “What would you really do, if this were happening to you?” And Matheson has a real knack for it. I can’t help picturing him lying on the floor of his basement, looking along the ground with his eye, imagining himself as Scott. When reading the novel, I lost count of the times that I read something and thought in amazement, “I never would have imagining seeing the world like that.” Matheson’s observations were so perceptive.
However, I have to question the value in the author devoting such creative energy to a concept that is, at its heart, daft. A better way to phrase the question is this: “Is there something more to The Incredible Shrinking Man than mere b-movie fodder?” When I thought about this, the answer was yes. The novel is, intentionally or not, an apt metaphor for disability. It’s a tale that motivates us to empathise with those whose bodies have betrayed them, those who struggle to be seen as normal or equal to the rest of us.
Despite all the good things I’m saying about the novel, oddly I found it difficult to keep on reading. I’m not sure why. Possibly because the tiny print on my old paperback annoyed me; maybe because I remembered not liking the ending from the movie. Either way, I’m glad I made it to the end. It’s a story with great depth that I’m not likely to forget.