I’m glad to now have the time to review works of fiction again, here on the Horror Drive-In. I’d like to start back with a bang, too, by reviewing not just a collection of ‘Horror Stories by Richard Matheson’ (the byline of the book, can you beat that?), but a single short story from within the collection. The story that gave this collection its name: Nightmare at 20,000 Feet.

This review is going to be different. I’m not going to try to convince you to buy the collection nor am I going to try to convince you that Matheson was a great writer (or that he was not a great writer)—any of these attempts, in my mind, is a waste of space. Instead, I’m going to focus on one short story in a way that suits my own interests: the writing. In this case, I’m going to take a look at the sub-text—something that writers overlook way more often than they should, just to entertain and make the proverbial ‘fast buck’. This is different from layering and is different even from theme. Check it out:

In a short story, word count is critical. It’s an irony that writers claim to ignore poetry, when precise diction is needed in the short form. Matheson understands this need for sharpened words (from his constant short-fiction writing; I have found no evidence that he wrote poetry). He wastes no time. In the opening page, you meet the stewardess—a secondary character. You meet Wilson, the main character (it was odd, reading about a man with my last name). And, you meet the plane. You meet them in that order. The wording surrounding each is to the point; each word is selected for a reason, but what is most interesting is that Matheson characterizes his main character, Wilson, in only one sentence:

“Drawing a deep lungful, Wilson exhaled it in bursts, then pressed the cigarette into the armrest tray with irritable stabbing motions.”

Then, he moves on to a mixture of main character and his interaction with another character in the story: the plane. This isn’t a popular assessment. Most will call to the hills for the hordes to come down on me with their fire and pitchforks. They will claim that the plane is not a character—it’s not a human—and that Matheson is simply working on mood and setting. I won’t argue with that. The setting is, broadly, the plane—both inside and out. The mood is one of malice, or malice as perceived by the main character. But Matheson is doing something else here, under the skin of the story. He’s using a technique, Magical Realism.

If you read the paragraph closely, you’ll notice verb clusters (as well as some adverbs), and most (not all) are related to a human action. This isn’t just metaphor. There is something at work here, for can a plane do these things: cough monstrously, spew out exhaust, and roar?

The short answer is no, it can’t. It can jet out flame, sure, and it can throb—I guess. But, a plane’s exhaust can’t give off a thundering blast; an engine can’t produce thunder. This literal interpretation has a point. Magical Realism is used to give animation to objects that are not, in reality, animated. This is an effect that is often used to heighten the characters place in our minds once they begin to move within the story, and it also slips us into the story where, without knowing it (especially if you’re reading for pleasure), we’ve already accepted things that are not true and could not happen as facts. The plane is alive.

I’ll come back to this in a second.

The rest of the story follows a classic short story structure. There is rising action (in the form a mysterious man landing on the wing of plane, midflight), following by falling action (the falling action, in this case, is internal reaction: disbelief vs. self-reassurance—physiological, emotional, and intellectual responses). The conflict comes from this disbelief; not only Wilson’s disbelief, but the stewardess and the Captain of the plane, as well. No one believes that there is a man there.

That ‘man’, too, is a source of conflict that presses Wilson to follow a character arc on two levels I’ll mention—going from an existential, suicidal state, to becoming self-important enough to make the decision that forms the climax. The other arc is that of disbelief to belief (certainty, in Wilson’s case). The man, outside, is toying with the plane, risking a crash that would obviously end in the death of all onboard (and you can see the character arc here, right? Wilson, existential, seemingly on the brink of suicide at any time, really, grows to care about staying alive. Sure, he cares about the other passengers, but he also cares about himself!). The man is threatening the plane.

He threatens the plane, and that’s an interesting idea that is skipped over in the course of the story’s reading. You take it for face value. A threatened plane is a threatened plane, and all those in said plane ought to worry. But, that plane is animated from the beginning, so we know that it has taken on animalistic properties (the roaring, for instance). Here is the idea that sparked the story, as well as the link to this living plane:

“Suddenly, Wilson thought about the war, about the newspaper stories which recounted the alleged existence of creatures in the sky who plagued the Allied pilots in their duties. They called them Gremlins, he remembered. Where there, actually, such beings? Did they, truly, exist up here, never falling, riding on the wind, apparently of bulk and weight, yet impervious to gravity?”

When you think about the World War Two, and the way Allied forces flew planes into battle, you think about the single pilot prop-planes—until, of course, you consider the B-52’s and the crews that flew them. But, in either case, these planes were made to be more by their pilots. They were not just planes. They were a mixture of both human and animal—a second skin, almost like a snakes skin, once in air, but on the ground, they were given female qualities. Pilots (even now) refer to planes as ‘she’, and of course the B-52’s that dropped the bombs were named after women.
In thinking about these Gremlins, any who attacked or tried to screw with a pilot and his plane was an affront to not only the human inside, but the plane itself, as a living being. The pilot and his plane had a certain symbiotic quality; the live together, die together mentality. Those gremlins (not really existing, of course, but let’s suspend that thought) are attacking a living unit. And, considering this angle, what is most interesting to me is that psychological effect that this has on the story.

Wilson sees this Gremlin Man fussing with the motor of the plane. The Gremlin is threatening those inside the plane—if the motor is taken out, the plane will crash. The Gremlin is also threatening—attacking—the plane, which is alive and a character in itself. And, if you consider that there is a historical connection placed inside the text, that those pilots who treated their aircraft as though they were living also faced these Gremlins (to what end, we are not told—Matheson is a smart guy), you find an undercurrent of suspense. For, if there is the mere suggestion of a symbiotic relationship between man and machine made to be alive, then one affected is not just dangerous, but much the same as if a close relationship ended in the brutal murder of one of the partners—and the suspect is at large, and coming after you!

What I’ve described heightens the effect of suspense and horror. It does it in a subtle way. If you read through the text and take it for face value, you’ll enjoy it. The story on the surface is entertaining (and the ending is great, be glad I left that out). But, if you dig a little deeper into it, there is more at play. Matheson isn’t just messing with our fears, stuff like fear of flying or fear of heights, falling, burning, claustrophobia. He is taking dread and basing it on the history and the nature of the relationship man has with the machines that we use to transport us from place to place; the machines we entrust with our lives.

Or, maybe the guys and gals with the pitchforks are right. Maybe a plane is just a plane. As for me? I like a little magic in my reality. And, if you don’t feel the same, then I urge you to consider this review as you sit in your seat, strapped down with tray tables up, preparing to reach speeds of 180 mph so that your plane can take off. I wonder if you’ll begin to feel or to hope that the plane, in some way, relies on you just as much as you rely on … it?

Review by David M. Wilson

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