A Study in Smallness: Richard Matheson’s The Shrinking Man

In this week’s Dispatches from The Secret Library, Dr Oliver Tearle analyses a science-fiction classic

Many of Richard Matheson’s narratives focus on lonely men. It was Matheson who wrote the screenplay for an early Steven Spielberg film, Duel (1971), which was based on one of Matheson’s own short stories. Like many of Matheson’s most famous stories, such as The Shrinking Man and I Am Legend, it is ultimately about the loneliness of modern man. The latter book, in which Robert Neville – played by Will Smith in the book’s most recent adaptation – finds himself the last human survivor of the zombie apocalypse, has tended to obscure the former. But The Shrinking Man is no minor work of throwaway genre fiction: the novel contains great themes and tackles deep-rooted human concerns, especially male concerns.

Matheson’s work has influenced a raft of great writers of fantasy, science fiction, and horror: Stephen King and Ray Bradbury are among the greats who have acknowledged a debt to him, with King calling Matheson, of all writers, the most important influence on him. Matheson’s 1956 novel The Shrinking Man is a tense and engaging tale about a man, Scott Carey, who, after coming into contact with radioactive waste, finds that he is shrinking at the rate of an inch per week. Once six feet tall, he is soon just one inch in height and living in his own cellar, estranged from his own wife and family, trying to avoid being eaten by the black widow spider that will soon be bigger than he is. (The original SF Masterworks reissue of this novel has a wonderfully chilling cover depicting this, pictured below right.) Rather than using conventional chapter titles, Matheson heads each section of the novel with Carey’s height at that stage of the narrative, suggesting how much time Carey has before he will, seemingly, become so small that he might cease to exist.

What happens at the end when he does drop below one inch is not for me to reveal here (no spoilers), but what makes the growing suspense and tension of the book so successful is the way Matheson varies the pace between dramatic action and Carey’s lonely and isolated musings upon the life he has been forced to leave behind and the (perhaps very short) future he has ahead of him. Matheson actually wrote The Shrinking Man while sitting in his own basement, looking around him for inspiration: what obstacles, such as the family’s cat or that seemingly ever-growing black spider, would a man face as he lived out his last days among such an environment? What tools might he bring to bear against these ‘foes’, such as a needle which might serve as a passably good lance?

What also makes The Shrinking Man more than your run-of-the-mill piece of science-fiction escapism is the commentary on endangered masculinity, or at least one idea of masculinity, in the post-war era. Carey’s physical shrinking is obviously the most potent symbol of this loss of male confidence in the context of the end of the Second World War, the shaking up of the concept of the American family, and the growing new threat of the Cold War (it is fitting that Carey’s minimisation is brought about by interaction with nuclear substances). But his diminution also has a knock-on effect: he is unable to go to work and so cannot be the breadwinner any more. He cannot make love to his wife. He cannot be a father. His great nemesis and threat becomes a spider – tellingly, a black widow which foreshadows his wife’s own soon-to-be-widowed status as well as pitting Matheson’s male protagonist against a deadly, literally man-eating female foe.

Writers get inspiration from a range of surprising places. The Shrinking Man, of all things, was inspired by a comedy film. According to Stephen King, Matheson got the idea for The Shrinking Man – which, along with I Am Legend, is regarded as his greatest contribution to science fiction and horror – after watching a 1953 comedy film, Let’s Do It Again, in which Ray Milland puts on the wrong hat. The hat comes down over his ears as it’s too big for him. What if Milland had actually begun to shrunk, Matheson began to wonder, and that was why the hat was too big for his head? Fittingly, since the novel was inspired by a film, The Shrinking Man has also been successfully adapted for the big screen, as The Incredible Shrinking Man.

For my money, it is this novel as opposed to I Am Legend that is Richard Matheson’s finest work, though many readers will disagree. But if you’re a fan of SF or horror and looking for something new to read, you could do far worse than pick up a copy of The Shrinking Man. It’s been reprinted in the SF Masterworks series as The Shrinking Man (S.F. MASTERWORKS).

Discover more forgotten literary curiosities with our Secret Library archive.

Oliver Tearle is the author of The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History, available now from Michael O’Mara Books.

5 thoughts on “A Study in Smallness: Richard Matheson’s The Shrinking Man”

  1. I have always thought that I would very much like to read ‘I am Legend’ but now you have me considering this work too – although it doesn’t half sound like another version of Kafka’s ‘Metamorphosis’ and it would be hard to imagine a story topping that particular theme.

    I’m tempted to see if there’s a collected works of Matheson. Another to add to the list perhaps…

    • Matheson told Stephen King (who wrote to him when he was working on his study of horror, Danse Macabre) that he preferred I Am Legend, and I’m probably in a minority in preferring The Shrinking Man. But they’re both absolute classics of their era. Penguin have a selection of Matheson’s short stories, I think – and the SF Masterworks editions of I Am Legend and The Shrinking Man tend to be available online for a few quid second-hand!


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