I’ve had a copy of ‘The Science Fiction Hall of Fame Volume One (1929 – 1964)’ on my shelf for a long time now. I never really picked it up as I’ve found that I have a bit of an aversion to being told what is good and what isn’t, I’d rather read something and make my own mind up. Here, the blurb talks about ‘twenty six of the greatest science fiction stories ever written… the considered verdict of the Science Fiction Writers of America’. I’m sure they know what they are talking about but even so, I want to find my own ‘greatest science fiction stories ever written.’
Well, that was what I was thinking until I picked up ‘The Science Fiction Hall of Fame’ the other day (really want to get back to reading books that I already have on the shelves) and saw that there was a Richard Matheson story lurking within. I say ‘lurking’, ‘Born of Man and Woman’ is only three pages long and is very easy to miss if you’re flicking through the book. Richard Matheson hasn’t let me down yet so I thought I’d have a quick read before I went to bed last night…
‘X- This day when it had light mother called me retch. You retch she said. I saw in her eyes the anger. I wonder what it is a retch…
Today mother let me off the chain a little so I could look out the little window. Thats how I saw the water falling from upstairs.’
Matheson sets things to play with our expectations very early on. A small child locked in the cellar by an abusive mother and a father who cannot bring himself to touch the child at all,
‘Look at you he said and didn’t have the nice face. I touched his arm and said it is alright father. He shook and pulled away where I couldn’t reach.’
These early moments in the story are all about identifying with the child. It loves it’s parents, despite their rejection, and has been shut away from everything. It is the father’s reaction though that suggests there is a little more to this tale then at first appears and the readers have to ask themselves, ‘just why has this child been shut away…?’
The beauty of Matheson’s writing lies in his ability to drop major revelations in a very matter of fact way. Blink and you’ll miss it, catch those moments and the whole story will suddenly be turned upside down. The child escapes the cellar, briefly, and his father finds him,
‘The anger came in his eyes. He hit me. I spilled some of the drip on the floor from one arm. It was not nice. It made ugly green on the floor.’
All of a sudden we start to realise exactly why the child (we never find out if it is male or female) has been locked away and just why its parents are so unloving towards it. It is not entirely human. At the same time though, we are looking at this story through the eyes of a child (‘Ohgod he said. And only eight’) that is trying to express uncertainty and unhappiness through very immature speech. It works, the reader ends up feeling very sorry for everyone involved but most of all for the child.
But then that all changes. ‘This is another times…’ and the child has grown to a point where the father can no longer fully control it. If this wasn’t bad enough, the child has realised that the balance of power has shifted, ‘I have a bad anger with mother and father… If they try to beat me again Ill hurt them. I will.’
We’ve all heard children say this (and have probably said similar things ourselves as children) but Matheson adds a touch of horror to these words with the nearest thing to a description of just what is locked in the cellar. We still don’t know what it looks like but the descriptions of what it will do gives us some pretty vivid clues.
‘I will screech and laugh loud. I will run on the walls. Last I will hang head down by all my legs and laugh and drip green all over until they are sorry they didn’t be nice to me.’
I’m thinking some kind of bat-creature here (although that’s just me) but what is clear is that the fear of the parents has driven the child to fully embrace its monstrous nature and things will undoubtedly get a lot worse.
Matheson has written a pretty damn terrifying story all in all; a story made all the more terrifying through the inability of any of the characters to resolve a situation that could be resolved. Or could it? That’s the question you have to ask and that adds another level of fear to the narrative.
Either way, I’ve just read another story by Richard Matheson that stuck in my head for hours afterwards and had me wondering what happened next. You can’t ask for a lot more than that and while I’m still not sure if ‘Born of Man and Woman’ is one of the ‘greatest science fiction stories ever written’ I’m more than happy (if ‘happy’ is the right word) with what I’ve just read.