Nightmare at 20,000 Feet is a collection of some of Richard Matheson’s wonderfully creepy horror and suspense short stories, written between 1953 and 1969. Some of them, including the titular tale, were the inspiration for several episodes of the popular TV series The Twilight Zone, which first aired in the late 50’s and early 60’s. The episodes of The Twilight Zone were often a mix of horror, suspense, psychological thriller and science fiction, and this collection of short stories adheres to this mélange of genres as well.
I love a good short story, but more often than not they aren’t executed very well, and end up failing to meet my expectations. There is no such worry with this particular collection however, as almost all of the stories kept me captivated and shared the common element of impending terror, building to an often shocking climax. Matheson clearly has a brilliant imagination for shock-horror stories. Many of them are preoccupied with madness and there are several instances when the reader wonders whether the characters are really enduring what they describe or if they have simply lost their minds. Sometimes the endings are vaguely ambiguous - although not in a totally random and confusing way as with Jackson's The Lottery and Other Stories - and you as the reader are expected to fill in the blank, as is the case with ‘Through Channels.’
Except for a couple, all of the stories in this volume were extremely good, but a few really stood out for me:
Nightmare at 20,000 Feet: The first tale of the collection throws you in at the deep end, and it was probably my favourite story in the entire collection. Matheson succeeds in building suspense, tension and a sense of rising dread as the story progresses. A nervous flyer embarks on a flight and becomes convinced that a ‘gremlin’ is attempting to sabotage the plane! The trouble is, only he seems to be able to see the malignant creature...
Dress of White Silk: In this disturbing tale, a creepy little girl becomes obsessed with her dead mother’s possessions, including the titular silk dress. This one was very short and intense - just what a decent horror piece should be.
Blood Son: In ‘Blood Son’, we meet another apparently mentally disturbed child, who after reading Dracula becomes obsessed with vampirism to the extent that he decides he wants to become one himself. It provides the reader with an interesting and more realistic take on the tired vampire genre that has become consumed by the stigma of ‘supernatural romance’ in recent years.
Through Channels: The epitome of ‘the reader fills in the blank’ category of story, the ambiguous events of the tale are slowly revealed, although not in full, through a conversation between investigating policemen and a young boy who have witnessed a horrific crime-scene.
Legion of Plotters: This story has that shock factor that Matheson executes so skilfully. A man becomes so irritated with all the little things that people do around him - such as coughing - that he begins to believe that the world is conspiring against him. It is quite comical how angry such tiny things cause him to become, which serves as a stark contrast to the more serious, latter events of the story.
There are other brilliant stories in the collection, but these five really shone. If you enjoy The Twilight Zone then I would definitely recommend this collection, since the stories have very much the same feel. Furthermore, this would make a great read for those of you who enjoy shocking finales, as well as fans of horror and science fiction. The tales are mostly very short, intense and gripping and I enjoyed them very much.