Monday, 20 June 2011

The Box: Uncanny Stories by Richard Matheson, Tor Books

We are in the territory of the white picket fence and the twitching curtain; specifically, post-war, Atomic America of the Fifties and Sixties, where the white-collar middle class believed it had much to fear from blue-collar make-doers.
  Time has emphasised the class demarcation as something worth fearing.
In ‘Button, Button,’ – the opening tale turned into a movie for which this release is its tie-in – a door-to-door salesman from a nameless, possibly disreputable, company offers a special offer to a well-to-do New Yorker couple in return for the ultimate sacrifice that may salve the conscience through anonymity.
  ‘Girl of My Dreams’ describes an insecure, psychotic, trailer-trash Bonnie-and-Clyde blackmailing a respectable married woman in her own home.
‘…he appraised the room.  Money was in evidence wherever he looked, in the carpeting and drapes, the period furniture, the accessories…this was it all right.’
  ‘Dying Room Only’ has nice Ford-owning Bob and Jean finding a downbeat roadside cafĂ© at summer’s unbearable height, that sells only ‘Hi-Li Orange and Dr Pepper,’ leaving Jean alone with the idling, downtrodden drinkers, while her husband’s non-return from the John makes each one culpable.
  ‘A Flourish of Strumpets’ returns us to door-to-door selling of the back-page variety as The Exchange tries soliciting a different kind of service to its not-in-our-backyard Republicans.
  To what extent was Matheson aware of this at the time?
The second half of the collection, penned subsequently, is more varied, but collectively revealing an umbrella theme all their own.
  ‘No Such Thing as a Vampire’ has a medical twist in its tale.  ‘Mute’ - the longest and best story here – describes a voiceless German boy, orphaned from a house fire, and his mysterious survival.  ‘Shock Wave’ is a more conventional horror tale where a church organ, due for removal, takes revenge against its fate on behalf of its covetous owner.
  The remaining four are message stories played for laughs.  ‘The Creeping Terror’ is a punning satire on the Cult Phenomena and the media’s relationship with ‘the facts,’ while ‘Clothes Make the Man,’ ‘The Jazz Machine’ and the very silly ‘’Tis the Season to Be Jelly,’ closing this collection, all deal with the question of man’s ability to hold onto his identity.
  Matheson fans will know too well most of the early tales here, having been anthologised to death over the past forty years.  Yet, for the newcomer, they have morphed into something else; a snapshot of the repressed fears in post-war conservative values faced with the, then, new cushioning appliances and their purveyors of domestic convenience.

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