“Nightmare at 20,000 Feet”
by Richard Matheson
We all know his work. But we didn’t always know him, Richard Matheson, who died last year with hundreds of novels, short stories, film and television scripts to his credit. One of the most famous of these was his short story, “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet.” First published in 1961, it was adapted by Matheson himself for a segment of the Twilight Zone TV series, it would help propel actor William Shatner to fame for his turn as the flight phobic passenger who may (or may not) have witnessed a gremlin attacking the wing of his airplane.
The story has been reincarnated in several more adaptations and parodies, which probably kept Matheson laughing all the way to the bank.
In the original short story, Matheson only hints at the psychological problems of the main the main character, Arthur Jeffrey Wilson. Is he really suffering from fear of flying, from hallucinations? Or is he simply an over-worked, over-tired businessman on his way to the next sales meeting?
More seriously, Wilson also has suicidal impulses that have prompted him, in those pre-metal detector days, to carry a handgun.
“Originally, when he’d thought about it, it was in terms of money carried, protection from holdup, safety from teenage gangs in the cities he had to attend,” Wilson thinks, contemplating the “oil-glossed symmetry” of the pistol he carries in his toiletry kit. “Yet, far beneath, he’d always known there was no valid reason except one. A reason he thought more of every day. How simple it would be¾ here, now¾ ”
Wilson puts his gun away, only to witness repeatedly a naked man on the wing of the plane¾ a vision not shared by the plane’s other passengers or crew. Despite his thoughts of suicide, Wilson persuades himself that he must save the plane and the others on board. He flings open the emergency door next to his seat. “Wilson felt himself enveloped by a monstrous suction which tried to tear him from his seat. His head and shoulders left the cabin and, suddenly, he was breathing tenuous, freezing air. For a moment, eardrums almost bursting from the thunder of the engines, eyes blinded by the arctic winds ¼ Wilson flung his arm up, fired.”
Will he heroically save the plane? Or only earn himself a ticket to psych ward?
(The 1963 Twilight Zone TV adaptation provided more overt motivation for Wilson’s actions, a recently bout of mental illness. He also got a name change, to Robert Wilson, and had to steal a gun from a sleeping police officer on the plane.)
Despite the horrific nature of the stories Matheson most often wrote, stories blending the genres of science fiction, fantasy and horror, his writing tended to be as straight forward as the journalism he had studied after leaving the U.S. Army following World War II.
“Like rock and roll, or any other genre that skates across the nerve-endings, horror must constantly regenerate and renew itself or die. ¼ In the early 1950’s, Richard Matheson came like a bolt of pure ozone lightning,” admirer Stephen King wrote in the introduction to the 2002 Tor collection of Matheson short stories.
More than a decade later, King could write for Matheson’s June 26, 2013, obituary in the New York Times obituary. "He was a seminal figure in the horror and fantasy genres, as important in his way as Poe or Lovecraft. He fired my imagination by placing his horrors not in European castles and Lovecraftian universes, but in American scenes I knew and could relate to. ‘I want to do that,’ I thought. ‘I must do that.’ Matheson showed the way."
See Matheson's complete obituary at www.nytimes.com/2013/06/26/books/richard-matheson for more about his life and work.
(Next Wednesday, Adventure classics continues an October of Halloween horror with Robert Louis Stevenson’s novella, “The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.)