Customer Reviews: Nightmare At 20,000 Feet: Horror Stories By Richard Matheson
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VINE VOICEon January 20, 2002
His name might not be as big as Stephen King's or Dean Koontz's, but Richard Matheson is nonetheless a master of horror fiction. Even if the name is not familiar, his works are: the title story has been shown in both Twilight Zone the TV show and movie and even been spoofed on the Simpsons. Another story in the collection, Prey, has also become a TV horror classic as part of the 70's movie, Trilogy of Terror. Matheson is also the author of the Incredible Shrinking Man, What Dreams May Come, Somewhere in Time, Stir of Echoes and I Am Legend.
In this set of short stories, Matheson shows he is worth all the praise he is given. The weakest of these stories are merely good and the best are not only great, but classics. Besides his talent to create fantastic horror scenarios and true suspense, he also can leave you thinking at the end of the story. In many of these tales, you are never quite certain if there is something supernatural going on or if it is all imagined by the main character. This intentional ambiguity, done incorrectly can frustrate the reader but in Matheson's hands, it adds an extra level of depth.
If you enjoy horror fiction, this collection is a must. It gives you an opportunity to read one of the most important and underrated persons in the genre.
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HALL OF FAMEon June 12, 2003
In the introduction to this collection of classic Richard Matheson short stories, no less of a figure than Stephen King delivers oodles of praise to this author. According to King, Matheson emerged in a time (the 1950s and early 1960s) when the horror genre desperately needed a kick in the pants. King attributes his very existence as a horror writer to Matheson's influence. With that type of praise, the stories here need to live up to a tremendous standard, which they do easily. It should go without saying that Richard Matheson is the grandfather of modern horror; his stories created indelible impressions on millions of people when Hollywood translated "Nightmare at 20,000 Feet" and "Prey" into memorable television moments. But nothing beats going to the source to see how the original stacks up to the adaptation. You will not be disappointed with this collection, I assure you.
This compilation starts off with the slam-bang "Nightmare at 20,000 Feet," a story made into an episode of "The Twilight Zone" with William Shatner staring as the nervous wreck of a lead character. An unbalanced traveler on a flight through a rainstorm sees something terrible on the wing of the plane, something no one else sees and which paints him as a potential troublemaker to the flight crew. This man immediately associates the thing he sees with a gremlin, or creatures that WWII pilots claimed they saw in the skies over Europe while on their bombing runs. Whatever this thing is, time is running out because this humanoid is tearing up exterior parts of the plane. Fortunately (or unfortunately, as the case may be), our neurotic hero has a gun on the plane. When he takes action everyone thinks he is nuts, but is he? And will people think him crazy when they eventually see the outside of the plane?
Then there is "Prey," a story instantly familiar to anyone who ever saw Karen Black's performance in "The Trilogy of Terror." In this tale, a young woman named Amelia is planning to go out on a big date. She even bought a present for her beau, a Zuni fetish doll. Then Amelia's overbearing mother steps in and insinuates that Amelia needs to cancel the date in order to spend time with her instead. This is regrettable for Amelia because she is now cut off from the help she will soon need to survive. The doll is no gag gift; it holds the spirit of a real African warrior, and when the charm holding back the spirit in the doll falls off it comes alive and attacks Amelia. The twist ending is nice and scary.
Other stories are not as good in terms of real chills and thrills, but still show Matheson's attempts to challenge conventional narrative techniques in order to create a foreboding sense of doom. "The Dress of White Silk" tells the story of a weird, deceased mother through the crude, rambling baby talk of her young daughter. "Through Channels" takes the form of a police interrogation, with the "swish" of the tape recorder reminding us of the atmosphere the characters are in. These stories work, not because they are overwhelmingly scary, but because they reveal how to rework stories that are usually tired and formulaic (such as the vampire genre) into something that has real potential.
My favorite story in this book was "Disappearing Act." In this frightening description of a man not only losing his identity but also his very being, Matheson traces the increasingly eerie events that occur when a poor bloke realizes the people and places he has known for years either vanish completely or fail to recognize him as a corporeal reality. The chills come in the languid way Matheson unfolds the story, quietly escalating each new shocking realization towards a dreadfully wicked climax. The author never explains why or how this is happening, which makes it even more jarring. For what can be worse than losing your very existence while you are aware that it is occurring? The story makes you wonder how you would react in the same situation.
Nearly every type of horror story is present in this collection. Vampire tales, ghost stories, haunted towns, plagues, and yarns about psychotics all appear throughout the book. Stephen King almost certainly borrowed the plot of "Needful Things" from the Matheson story "The Distributor," a tale about a new neighbor who creates all sorts of problems for those living around him. In short, nearly every story here shows Matheson's huge influence on succeeding generations of horror hacks. The stories included in "Nightmare at 20,000 Feet" makes me want to go out and pick up other classic Matheson collections, both his short stories and his novels. This author strikes quite a figure in the world of the horror fan, but he ought to be better known in the general population because his stories have a timeless quality to them that promise to entertain again and again.
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on May 18, 2002
Each of the twenty Matheson short story/novella gems in this collection represents a separate haunting, of sorts. There are traditional haunted houses, haunted psyches, and beings from elsewhere who haunt and bedevil unsuspecting souls in strange places. Unlike most horror authors, Matheson excels both in the writing of novels and the writing of short stories, and each of these little nightmares are quite well-crafted.
The two showpieces, beginning and ending the book, are among the author's most famous stories. The former is the title of the book, in which a fearful flyer becomes engaged in a private little war with a gremlin that is dismantling the engine of the plane in which he is riding. This story was the concluding one of the Twilight Zone movie, and was probably the best known (or at least best remembered) of the original series. The latter, "Prey," was adapted into the central piece of two Dan Curtis T.V. movies, Trilogy of Terror and Trilogy of Terror II. "Prey" revolves around a Zuni fetish doll called "He Who Kills," who - needless to say - lives up to his name.
These two stories alone are worth the price of admission, but Matheson has included eighteen more from his early 1950s to late 1960s period, when he was at his peak. Among them are found psychopathic interlopers, men driven mad with their own rage or paranoid obsessions, psychotics, ghosts, vampires, unearthly predators...something for everyone.
I am a lifelong Matheson fan, and was surprised at the number of stories in this collection I had never seen before. I meant to savor them over at least a week, but found myself reading the whole lot from start to finish in a single sitting - without even going to the bathroom!
Highly recommended for all fans of horror stories, and lovers of short stories in general. Matheson is a genuine master.
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on April 11, 2002
Included in this collection are twenty of Richard Matheson's best tales of horror. These stories were written some forty-fifty years ago and the fact that they still manage to chill and thrill proves its lastability and Matheson's talent as a writer.
Many will probably remember the "Nightmare..." tale from the Twilight Zone episode and movie but any of the others would have fitted nicely in that series as well.
Not all of the tales have a supernatural tinge to them. Some are purposely left ambiguous (yet still sinister), while others suggest that man's greatest enemy is man himself. All of them, though, can make your skin crawl, your spine chill and your heart beat just a little bit faster.
And leave you wanting more...much more.
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I am a Matheson fan and first read this compilation of short stories when it first came out (it was published in 2002 and I probably read it about then). The stories themselves were written in the 1950s and 1960s, which is helpful to know so you realize just why some of the stories seem dated. Read them as period pieces, like I did, and you'll enjoy them more.

I am usually not a huge fan of short stories but I tend to like those that are of the horror genre. In this book of short stories and novellas some stories are good and some are great. I liked them all, some more than others.

My favorites:

1. First of all, the introduction by Stephen King. Matheson is a favorite of King's and he considers him to be a father figure. High praise indeed from another master of the horror genre.
2. NIGHTMARE AT 20,000 FEET - I think of this story each and every time I fly (first published in 1962).
3. SLAUGHTER HOUSE - haunted house, anyone? (first published in 1953)
4. DANCE OF THE DEAD - probably my favorite story in the book - come along and dance the loopy dance (first published in 1954)
5. THE CHILDREN OF NOAH - watch out for small towns (first published in 1957)
6. THE DISTRIBUTOR - evil, nasty man (first published in 1958)
7. And, of course, PREY - a gift that takes on a life of its own (first published in 1969)

Matheson was truly a master at the horror genre of writing. His works will still be read for as long as there are books - and horror fans.
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on January 16, 2003
After having quite a Richard Matheson drought for many years, there are finally 4 of his short story/novella collections in print, and this is good news. With the horror shelves packed full of splatterpunk and vampirephile garbage, it's time to get back to the subtle horror writers; the ones who didn't need to incorporate buckets of blood, piles of entrails, sex, sex, and more sex in order to tell a story. Matheson is one of those subtle writers - not the best, but definitely up there. He writes like a darker Ray Bradbury, using a very straightforward style, a sense of innocence and mystery, and just a hint of evil, requiring you to fill in the details. Think of Bradbury's early horror stories (like the stuff adapted in EC Comics), and you'll get the idea.
The title story of this collection will surely get the most recognition, but it's by no means the best here. I rank "Long Distance Call" as my favorite, followed by "The Distributor". It also contains "Prey", famously adapted in the movie Trilogy Of Terror. Don't get me wrong - there are a few turkeys here that will make you question their inclusion, but that shouldn't ruin your appreciation of a true master of the horror genre.
Finally, for those who have never read Matheson before, beware: the introduction by Stephen King, who frequently names Matheson as an influence, is surprisingly lackluster. Don't let his intro affect your decision to read the book!
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on November 21, 2014
It has taken me way too many years to get around to reading Richard Matheson, everytime I would try to search for great horror I had not read his name would come up,and I knew he was a huge influence on my personal favorite writer Stephen King. But for some reason it has taken me this long to finally read this writing master.

Short stories are not usually my thing either, I usually prefer a novel, but this was an awesome collection of short stories. A few of them are so legendary that everyone will be familiar with one form of them or another, the title story everyone everywhere recognizes from either William Shatner, John Lithgow, or Bart Simpson. But there were a few other stories I remember, Prey also showed up in an episode of Treehouse of Horror, I even remember Long Distance Call from an issue of Tales from the Crypt or Vault of Horror.

This is easily the best collection of short stories I have ever read in my life, including Stephen King's Night Shift or any book of Poe stories. Lovecraft and Poe get all the glory but Matheson is the father of modern horror. Some of the stories have a dated feel to them. You can't read Dance of the Dead without almost laughing at it at times, but most of the stories are very current in terms of it not mattering when they were written.

It would be shorter to list the stories I didn't like in this collection, there are no really bad stories but I don't guess I couldn't really get into Dance of the Dead and Old Haunts, but that by no means makes them bad stories, none of these stories is bad. I could take almost each story in this book and write a long loving review of it, but just trust me if you are on the fence about reading Matheson, jump off the damn fence and run to a bookstore or library.
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on April 28, 2016
I love Matheson's work. He gives the reader a great balance between creepy and human. His observations are understated and pack a punch. This collection gives you the gamut from the rarely read to the classics. He isn't as graphic as some authors today but trust me, you won't miss it. Great read!
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on May 22, 2014
"Nightmare at 20,000 Feet" offers a generous collection of twenty spooky stories, led by the title story. "Nightmare" will be familiar to any fans of the original "Twilight Zone," and I struggled to not picture William Shatner as the protagonist. Other stories include: "Disappearing Act," about a man who gets his wish for a simplified life and does not like it one bit; "Mad House" and "Legion of Plotters," depicting mental illness; "Long Distance Call," another story that was adapted for a chilling "Twilight Zone" episode, about an aged woman receiving phone calls from an unexpected place; "Slaughter House" presents two brothers being driven to distraction by strange happenings; and "Prey," the Zuni fetish-doll story that was so memorable in "Night Gallery."
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on January 23, 2003
As I child I was a huge fan of anything scary. Twilight Zone, Night Gallery, and the "movie of the week" were my childhood thrills. Like many others I have never forgotten the vision of Karen Black being chased around by a possessed Zuni doll, in Trilogy of Terror. I now know where that story comes from (The Prey), along with several other thrillers from years past. This is a solid collection, yes there are a few clunkers, but overall the stories are excellent. My personal favorite was "Disappearing Act", a truly unnerving reading experience. This collection has stood the test of time for good reason. 4.5 stars.
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