The Incredible Shrinking Man by Richard Matheson

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.

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I Am Legend by Richard Matheson

Robert Neville is the last man on earth. He is the sole survivor of a mysterious plague that hasn’t so much wiped out humanity as changed it. By day, the city belongs to him. He is, for all practical purposes, completely alone – free to roam the concrete jungle, foraging for food supplies, equipment for his house, and entertainment to quell the loneliness. But come nightfall, they come out.

Who they are depends on whether you are most familiar with the original 1954 novel written by Richard Matheson, or one of its three film adaptations. Yes, three! I Am Legend was first filmed as The Last Man on Earth in 1964, starring Vincent Price. This film remains the most faithful adaptation of the novel, which is no surprise since the screenplay was written by Matheson himself, albeit under a psuedonym. Matheson didn’t want his name associated with the movie because of some changes to the script demanded by the producers. The creatures in this movie are like George Romero’s zombies with just enough brains to speak. Romero himself cites this film as influential in making Night of the Living Dead. The creatures are called vampires, and vampires they are, except for the lack of fangs – possibly a budgetary restriction. But they can’t stand sunlight, crosses, and can be killed with a stake through the heart, just as tradition states. Matheson’s novel features all that plus the fangs and a lot more agility.

In 1971 I Am Legend was remade as The Omega Man starring Charleton Heston. This time, the only vampiric trait the creatures possess is an aversion to sunlight. They are much more humanlike in terms of their rationality – they’re not interested in drinking your blood – although they’ve been transformed into black-clothed religious zealots with a hatred of technology. To them, Robert Neville epitomises everything that led to the destruction of the world. Matheson, as you can guess, was not involved in this adaptation. Although The Omega Man departs greatly from the original story, it’s still a worthwhile film. It served as my introduction to the novel. I first saw it as a child, and it was a very memorable experience.

In 2008 I Am Legend was made yet again, this time keeping its original name, with Will Smith in the title role. A massive budget went into this adaptation, and it shows. The city is fabulously deserted, decaying and overgrown, thanks to the wonders of CGI. This time the creatures are exclusively computer generated. In stark contrast to the staggering zombies of the first movie, these are fearsome, frenzied killing machines, scarier than a lion bearing down on you. Again, it’s far from a faithful adaptation of the novel, but it remains my favourite of the three movies for its portrayal of Robert Neville, his loneliness, his desperation, his struggles, his griefs. The director really had his head screwed on. Will Smith’s natural talent for looking cool is subdued and we are treated to a movie experience where substance wins over style.

Sadly, none of the movies bar the first has embraced the courage of the novel’s startling climax. The novel’s ending (as well as much of the content) is so different that I would gladly encourage viewers to watch both The Omega Man and I Am Legend before reading the novel. It might even enhance your reading experience, because you will be saying, “Hang on a minute. This isn’t how it’s supposed to go down.” However, save The Last Man on Earth till later, because that movie is a 95% copy of the book.

I won’t spoil the ending for you, but I want to share a couple of examples of what makes Matheson’s writing so good. In the story, Robert Neville has fortified his house against the enemy. He lives every day in isolaton and every night listening to the mocking cries of the undead outside his door. And then one morning, an unusual visitor shows up …

For an hour he [Robert Neville] wandered around the neighborhood on trembling legs, searching vainly, calling out every few moments, “Come on, boy, come on.”

At last he stumbled home, his face a mask of hopeless dejection. To come across a living being, after all this time to find a companion, and then to lose it. Even if it was only a dog. Only a dog? To Robert Neville that dog was the peak of a planet’s evolution.

And then, when Neville manages to lure the dog into his presence with food, he is fearful of scaring it away again …

But it was hard to keep his hands still. He could almost feel them twitching empathically with his strong desire to reach out and stroke the dog’s head. He had such a terrible yearning to love something again, and the dog was such a beautifully ugly dog.

As you can see, Matheson has a talent for both empathy and artistry. I think I’m getting a feel for the way he works. He will take a ridiculous notion that has no place in reality (be it vampires here, or a shrinking man, from another of his novels), then he will throw into the scenario characters that are totally realistic. Matheson gives you the impression that he has thought long and hard about what it would be like to be in a situation like Robert Neville’s. I Am Legend is the tale of a real man in the midst of the fantastic. Zero melodrama. It’s a short novel, barely more than a hundred and twenty pages, but it’s a more rich reading experience than many a five-hundred-page tome.

Not many novels have been made into movies three times. The fact that this one has is testament to how good it is. One of the first post-apocalyptic novels, and still one of the best.