Written by: Matt Molgaard
Richard Matheson may not be the most technically polished author in history, but his imagination seems all but limitless. If you’re after true creativity, Matheson’s work delivers on a monumental level. A fine example of his masterful mindset, you ask? How about the beloved short story, Nightmare at 20,000 Feet?
This is a tale that plays on numerous emotions, the most pronounced being fear – obviously – paranoia and claustrophobia. Arthur Wilson travels a gamut of pure, paralyzing terror as he alone bears witness to a strange, hideous creature who clings to the wing of a DC-7. Wilson’s attempts at alerting the flight personnel go unheeded, and Matheson does a superb job of intensifying the anxiety Wilson experiences as his pleas for help go ignored, shrugged off, chalked up to the panic of a man with a fear of flying.
But Wilson’s sight hasn’t betrayed him: there is something on the vessel, and it is indeed ripping at the wings of the aircraft. With a level of tangible panic now having overtaken Matheson’s lead character, Wilson decides the only way to ensure the safety of the passengers, and the comfort of a smooth landing, is to dispose of the creature with the firearm he’s carried onboard (security wasn’t quite so paramount in 1961) with him. Once Matheson has bestowed Wilson with a measure of uncontainable alarm, he allows his hero (or is he?) to cross the brink: Wilson rips open the emergency hatch, and unloads his weapon on the creature, who in turn takes a swipe or two at the mentally fragile Wilson.
Matheson delivers a grand finale, after exercising a buildup of tension that is nothing short of remarkable. As a reader, there is no difficulty in being swept up in the chaos of Wilson’s plight, and Matheson’s ability to paint the flight staff as oblivious and of no patience is an act of true perfection. Every page of this story is mesmerizing, completely entangling readers in a worst-case scenario world far from the stability and security of land.
It’s no surprise that this story has been adapted for the screen on more than one occasion (the 1963 episode of The Twilight Zone stands as a series favorite, despite William Shatner’s still quite stiff performance, and John Lithgow afforded this character a stunning measure of believability in the 1983 Twilight Zone motion picture). It’s a tale that works wonders on page, and on screen.
Still a favorite of mine, Nightmare at 20,000 Feet makes a strong case as Matheson’s finest short story ever written.