[Reading Room] Nightmare At 20,000 Feet by Richard Matheson

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I thought I knew what I was getting into, with this story.

After all, I’ve seen the Twilight Zone episode (William Shatner!!) a hundred times and they re-used the story for the Twilight Zone movie (John Lithgow!!).

Surely there was nothing Matheson could do to scare me (or even retain my interest) in a story I knew so well.

Ha!

The writing is FABULOUS and I thoroughly recommend you read something by Richard Matheson today.

Within the first two paragraphs he conjures up the sense of being on a plane in the 1960s, when this story was written. He describes an everyday action (like smoking a cigarette), but it tells you so much: Who, what, where, the place, the time, the state of mind of the character and the tone of the story to come:

“…the sign above the archway which led to the forward compartment lit up — FASTEN SEAT BELT—with, below as its attendant caution — NO SMOKING. Drawing in a deep lungful, Wilson exhaled it in bursts, then pressed the cigarette into the armrest tray with irritable stabbing motions.”

(Of course, everyone in my critique group would have crossed out that word ‘irritable’ as unnecessary, but that just goes to show that sometimes you can ignore people’s pet peeves without killing a story!)

Moving on,

“Outside, one of the engines coughed monstrously, spewing out a cloud of fume which fragmented into the night air. The fuselage began to shudder…”

Isn’t that a great opening for a story that you know is going to be a creepy story? He’s not being melodramatic at all (planes DO shudder as they start up), but the vocabulary is just perfect.

This is a much longer story than I expected, after having watched the two filmed versions. It’s a psychological nightmare, as promised in the title, by a master short story writer.

Highly recommended.