Richard Matheson's apocalyptic vampire novel, I am Legend, saw its first printing in 1954 and would later inspire the early '70s-era flick The Omega Man, which certainly seems to be a direct cinematic ancestor to the recent sleeper 28 Days Later. Like Legend, the 28 tales in this first installment of Matheson's collected stories were composed around half a century ago.
As I took in the descriptive prose of "Witch War," with its duality of seven pretty teenaged girls gabbing and preening themselves set against the mud-bogged soldiers who become the recipients of the spells the witches conjure, I expected to find that it had appeared in a literary magazine. Not so, unless the July 1951 issue of Startling Stories qualifies as such.
Some of these stories show their age more than others, but Matheson's writing is timeless. In "Lover When You're Near Me," a man is given a six-month assignment as a manager of sorts on a planet inhabited by sentient aliens. The female of the species is laughable. Hairless, with enormous eyes and raw pink flesh, I saw her repulsive noggin as depicted in an oversized papier-mâché mask in an old “Outer Limits” episode. However, as this loathsome creature trespasses into the isolated Earth man's dreams and waking consciousness, to say nothing of his bedroom, the result is not laughable at all, but a mesmerizing thriller of enduring brilliance.
The title "Mad House" involves both meanings of the word "mad" when a house absorbs the vein-popping rage of its inhabitant. En route to a tragic climax, this one made me chuckle quite a bit, the main character driven to fury by everything from malfunctioning pencils to a razor that he suspects is thirsty for his blood.
The story "F____" appears here with Matheson's intended title for the first time. A time traveler arriving in the future is taken into custody amid much gossip over something found in his ship. It involves normal biology, starts with "F," is followed with three more letters, and is not the word you're thinking of!
"Born of Man and Woman" distinguishes itself markedly, a short piece told from a toddler's perspective, the question being what, exactly, the toddler is. Another Matheson experiment in this vein is "Dress of White Silk," which drives home its wickedly humorous conclusion in a mere two words.
Bradbury, the late Robert Bloch and William F. Nolan address the Matheson phenomenon, and the author gives candid comments after each piece, often seeming to bare his soul in the funhouse mirror of his writing.
Anyone interested in the short story form, in imaginative writing, in literature, will find no better introduction to an author who, during the height of his staggering productivity, could really wail on the keyboard. I gobbled up every word of this weighty collection with relish, then, 28 tales later, finally got my hands on a copy of I Am Legend for dessert.