The Shrinking Man (1956)
by Richard Matheson
Richard Matheson’s first short story was published in 1950 and his first novel in 1953. The classic I am Legend was published in 1954. The Shrinking Man was his fourth novel and was published in 1956. After I am Legend, he was staying in a house on Sound Beach Long Island and he would write in the basement. That basement ended up being the setting for The Shrinking Man. The novel quickly drew interest from movie studios and ended up being Matheson’s gateway to screenwriting. When the movie rights to The Shrinking Man were purchased, Matheson wisely stipulated that part of the deal was that he be allowed to write the screenplay. The result was one the best science fiction films of the 1950s, exaggeratedly titled, not by Matheson, The Incredible Shrinking Man.
Although the idea of a miniature person was not new in science fiction or in Hollywood film, Matheson’s idea of a man that is slowly shrinking day by day is a brilliant one. The novel starts off with a bang. Our hero Scott Carey is already as small as an insect and about to become a meal for a black widow spider. Carey’s battle with the spider is an ongoing conflict throughout the novel; his evolution through shrinking is told in flashbacks.
The Shrinking Man is packed with memorable scenes. As you would expect there are passages of nail-biting excitement. The spider scenes are masterful; tense and scary. And the passages of his interaction with full sized humans are vivid and nerve-wracking. More surprisingly however, The Shrinking Man is rife with heartbreak. His crumbling relationship with his family is heavy with pathos. Matheson takes us inside Carey’s head and we feel his pain, depression, and frustration. The novel’s ending is pure genius as well.
The novel is not without its faults however. I felt some of the scenes of Carey’s plight in his basement prison could have been trimmed; I found them a bit tedious. Too much mechanical description of climbing. And Carey’s repeated questioning of why he even continues at all with his struggle is overdone and makes him appear perhaps too weak. Still, The Shrinking Man is a harrowing tale that will paint indelible pictures in your mind and take you on an emotional and traumatic adventure. Coupled with its dazzling film adaptation which was entirely brilliant, it’s a story that was monolithic in the 50s and remains an icon in science fiction today.