Saturday, 4 December 2021

Twenty-one in '21: The Shrinking Man

I've read far less in recent years than I would like. To help remedy this, I've set myself the modest target of reading twenty one books in 2021. When I finish one, a thumbnail review here will follow.

The Shrinking Man by Richard Matheson

17/21: The Shrinking Man by Richard Matheson

The blurb: While on a boating holiday, Scott Carey is exposed to a cloud of radioactive spray. A few weeks later, following a series of medical examinations, he can no longer deny the extraordinary truth. Not only is he losing weight, he is also shorter than he was. Scott Carey has begun to shrink.

Richard Matheson's novel follows through its premise with remorseless logic, with Carey first attempting to continue some kind of normal life and later having left human contact behind, having to survive in a world where insects and spiders are giant adversaries. And even that is only a stage on his journey into the unknown.

The review: I don't remember much about the '50s screen adaptation of this, the screenplay for which was also written by Matheson, other than that it scared the proverbial out of my big sister. When she went to bed and then found a spider in her room, she had to call me to come and deal with it... and if you've seen the film, or read this, the source material, you'll know why.

Matheson is perhaps better remembered as the author of the brilliant I Am Legend. In a long and accomplished CV, he also wrote Duel, on which Steven Spielberg's breakthrough TV movie was based. But enough of the back catalogue, what about The Shrinking Man?

Well, our protagonist's story is told in alternate takes, part consecutive storytelling in the last week of his shrinking, part flashback to various points in the process. The tale is satisfyingly bookended with the spider that shares Scott's domain (a cellar), and the mechanics of staying alive when you measure your height in fractions of an inch are vividly brought to life. However, it's the flashbacks that are most interesting, as we bear witness to his erosion, not just in physical stature but as a man; gradually, his wife becomes less interested in him; passers-by mistake him for a child; eventually furniture becomes too big for him. All the while, as he physically shrinks, his psyche, his thought processes, his wants and desires, all remain those of a fully-grown adult male. Matheson illustrates this neatly and, at times, uncomfortably - we feel the disjoint that Scott feels and, as his relationship with his wife also shrinks to nothing, we feel that too. It's this aspect of the book that is most brilliantly realised - you really feel the pain of shrinking away, becoming smaller, being less of a man, becoming gradually irrelevant to his wife. So striking is this that I felt the need to research (okay, hit Wikipedia about) Matheson's life to see if his marriage broke down when he wrote this, but that would seem not to be the case - he married his wife in 1952, after which they had four children... and this was written in 1956. So maybe I'm reading too much into this; maybe Matheson was just a very good writer.

Actually, there's no "maybe" or "just" about it - he was a great writer. Okay, so perhaps some of the book that isn't in flashback becomes a bit hard-boiled in places, but the power of the flashbacks more than compensates; indeed, they generated quite an emotional reaction in me that I wasn't expecting. Prior to this I'd only read I Am Legend but this has left me wanting to read more of Matheson - no wonder Stephen King called him "the author who influenced me most as a writer." Oh, and there's a neat double ending too, one pessimistic, one optimistic... clever stuff.

The bottom line: effective and emotional slice of SF that deftly balances the mechanics of a fantastic story with an insight into the fragility of the male psyche

Since everything online is rated these days: ★★★★★☆


  1. It's only just dawned on me through your excellent post that I need to read this. Thank you Martin - I'm off to eBay!