Thursday, July 26, 2012

Richard Matheson: Idea Man

I just finished reading my third Richard Matheson story collection, and I have to say I'm hooked on this guy. Of course, he's been writing since the 1950s, so he's not exactly a recent fad. Like Kurt Vonnegut, Matheson served in the army as an infantry soldier during WWII, got married after the war, and then began writing short stories. Also like Vonnegut, Matheson dabbles in the science-fiction genre, but where Vonnegut is a satirical humorist with a distinctively simple style and primarily interested in exploring whether free will exists, Matheson's styles, tones, and themes are far more wide-ranging. Stephen King said, "I think the author who influenced me the most as a writer was Richard Matheson." And if you read just a handful of Matheson's often disturbing stories, you see why this is true. While Matheson is sometimes interested in breaking free of genre conventions, many of his works are decidedly fixed in the horror, fantasy or Western genres.

Several of his stories and novels have been adapted into television shows and films, including I Am Legend (1954), "Steel" (1956, adapted as Real Steel), The Shrinking Man (1956), A Stir of Echoes (1958), "Duel" (1971), "Button, Button" (1974, filmed as The Box), Bid Time Return (1975, Somewhere in Time), and What Dreams May Come (1978). He also wrote scripts for several Twilight Zone episodes, including the famously shocking "Nightmare at 20,000 Feet" (1963 and remade in 1983). Matheson continues to write today; one of the anthologies I read included two of his recent stories, one from 2009 and one from 2010. But he seems to have slowed down his rapid production quite a bit in the last few years.

Here's a sampling of the types of stories he writes: A woman is told she will be given $50,000 if she presses a button on a box which will result in killing someone she doesn't know, a man goes to a funeral home and makes arrangements for his not-yet-deceased wife, a man searches for the origins of dirty jokes and finds a secret society, a family prepares to live in an underground tunnel system as a result of an impending nuclear attack, a young girl shows her friend a possessed dress belonging to her deceased mother, a scientist travels back in time to witness the crucifixion of Jesus, a man discovers he has a double, large groups of people walk into the Pacific Ocean and drown for an unknown reason, a young man discovers that being a gunslinger in the Old West is far more difficult than he ever imagined.

I like Matheson because he is first and foremost a good story teller. He knows how to begin and end stories well, and many of the stories have surprising "twist" endings (often a bit like the ending in Shirley Jackson's "The Lottery"). And he is a pretty good writer of sentences. He's no Cormac McCarthy or Joseph Conrad, but he's not trying to be poetic and dense either. He writes with a natural rhythm with often surprisingly sophisticated diction that doesn't get in the way of his rapid pacing.

What I like most about his works is his emphasis, and this isn't always the case but often is, on ideas, on moral questions and unsolvable dilemmas. For instance, I Am Legend raises lots of interesting questions, some directly, some indirectly: if you were the last human on earth, would it be better to die than live alone? Is sexual desire and consummation an essential quality of the human condition? What is the worth of human life? How much effort would you put into saving your own life? Do we have control over our desire for vengeance? Similar types of questions could be asked in relation to "Button, Button": Is it morally right to will the death of an innocent person? Is there a price on innocent suffering? How well do we know our spouses and family members?

Of course, Matheson doesn't answer these questions. He is not completely ambiguous in his leanings, though. His overall vision seems pretty dark. Matheson's world is a world where innocent people suffer for no real reason. It's a world of pain, of darkness, of pure evil, where terrible monsters lurk, where people betray their families and spouses, where you can't rely on the compassion of others, where machines and mankind itself is working against you and there is nothing you can do to stop it from coming. But it is also a world of the individual, a kind of dark and realistic Ayn Randian vision (as opposed to her romantic individualism). For Matheson, the individual can will himself to survive or fight, and he can accomplish great things, but it's usually only temporary. Eventually, the individual loses. In this way, Matheson is like a Greek tragedian. His characters are caught up in a world that is out of their control, and there is no winning or escaping. But like many of the Greek characters, there is something noble in Matheson's characters attempts to do the impossible. To persevere in a world where the deck is stacked against them.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Existential Spider

When I first saw the trailer for the latest Spiderman film, I, along with I assume many others, wondered why so soon? The first Tobey Maguire  film only came out ten years ago, and this latest film covers much of the same territory as the earlier one. Are two origin stories in ten years really necessary?  I could see an alternate origin story told, say, twenty or thirty years apart, but not ten.

I did like Andrew Garfield as Peter Parker. He's appropriately nerdy and awkward but also genuine and sweet. He delivers his lines with a natural purity of expression, pausing at the right moments, smiling a charming smile that I'm sure makes all the girls swoon (he doesn't do much for my wife, though). He makes us believe he is in high school. One small problem I had, though, is that Garfield's body in the Spiderman suit is a bit too lanky. I'm not saying he should be ripped or anything, but Tobey Maguire's body was more believable as a superhero. Emma Stone is also great as Gwen Stacy, even though it's not very believable that she is in high school; she looks much too old. And it's a little odd that she is the head intern at Oscorp--what high school student would be in charge of taking future interns on a tour of a major research and development corporation?

This latest Spiderman film is much less campy or silly; the first really plays up on the corniness of the comic. I found this one much darker--or darker than I remember the first anyway. I think the darkness of the story and the mise en scene is appropriate for the story, though. Spiderman's world is a dark, absurd one, a world that is devoid of meaning. This existential hero is the only figure who can establish order in this meaningless reality. He may still conform to traditional notions of love and relationships--at least to some degree, but he does everything in his own terms. Sartre and Camus and Nietzsche would approve.

One thing I missed from the first film is Spiderman's discovery of his powers. There is this kind of cool scene in this version of Spiderman skateboarding, but I loved the Tobey Maguire scenes where he figures out that he can climb walls and learns how to swing from his webs.

All-in-all it was a fairly entertaining film and I mostly enjoyed it--not exactly a resounding endorsement, though.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

A Game of Dragons, Direwolves, and Death

All the hype about the HBO series Game of Thrones, based on George R. R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire fantasy series, sent me to the library to discover the first book, titled A Game of Thrones (1991).  I finished the 600+-page novel a couple of weeks ago and was somewhat surprised how much I enjoyed it. The story is engaging from the first page and was often difficult to put down, but I was finishing it in the last weeks of school, so, alas, I had to succumb to sleep or grading those final exams. In my experience few authors have truly mastered giving characters really distinctive voices and personalities. There are surely others but Barbara Kingsolver's Poisonwood Bible comes to mind. Each of the Price daughters sounds nothing like the other. I think Martin is in the same league here in terms of characterization and voice. Whether it is a seven-year-old boy who must come to terms with his immobility (Bran), a thirteen-year old princess who must step out of her brother's cruel shadow (Dany), an honorable 30-something Lord who reluctantly accepts the offer to become hand of the king (Ned), or a dwarf who compensates wit for his lack of height, Martin imbues each of these and many others with richness and distinctiveness. His characters are all flawed. None are purely good nor are any purely evil (well, maybe that is debatable). These are characters who are real, who are human. You know you love a book when something happens to a character or a character does soemthing (and I'm thinking of a couple of examples), and you are shouting at the book: "No!" or "Don't do that, please, please!"

Another admirable quality is the array of interesting and complex female characters. So often in fantasy stories do female characters (if they exist at all) get minimized or placed in cliche roles like prostitute or loving wife. Martin has a prostitute and a loving wife but they are interesting, intelligent, powerful, and not at all stereotypical.

Martin also has a distinctive style and uses several clever idiomatic expressions such as "he's not yet a man grown" or "take the black" or "unleash the dragon." For me great writing has little to do with plot or characterization. Greatness is in the language. And Martin writes with a poetic, even classical, quality that takes the reader to a whole new world.

There were a few minor issues I had with it, though. I found it a bit odd that the novel begins with a vidid and haunting supernatural scene but no other supernatural or fantastical element occurs for another 500 pages. In other words, the supernatural seemed rather inorganic to an otherwise highly political and realistic book. I'm assuming Martin will return to these supernatural elements in his later books, several of which he has already published but I haven't yet read. On a related note, the dragon witchcraft scene at the end was a bit odd in relation to the rest of the story.

I did also watch the first season of the HBO series, and I liked it. But the book is much better. The series is very faithful, but they do add some elements. For instance, they make the king's brother gay and give him a lover. I guess I don't have a problem with that; it was just a little surprising. The question I kept wondering is, why do they always have to make movies out of great books? Why can't people just read the book?

All in all, a great read.