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

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.


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.

[Writing Prompt] Twilight Zone

I’ve been binging on Twilight Zone recently. Things I have noticed:

  • The stories often, but not always, have a twist at the end
  • The weirdness is not constrained by the need for an explanation (last night I watched “Living Doll”. The story was about a creepy talking doll. The ‘how’ was never explained, but the character exploration was priceless nonetheless)
  • No matter how mundane or unusual the setting, the stories are always rooted in character. The opening scene paints a broad-stroke picture of one trait we’re going to be observing in the main character, and then throw something new at them. From there we follow the character until the consequences of his encounter with that ‘something new’ plays out.
  • Endings are not always happy. And sometimes that’s just fine.

The Prompt

Write a story featuring someone with a strong (or problem) character trait.
Throw a wrench into their nice, everyday routine.
See what happens.
Don’t feel the need to explain the ‘how’ if something unusual is happening (i.e. talking dolls, houshold objects that activate themselves; out-of-body/time experiences). Just focus on what it means for your character.

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