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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. Read the rest of this entry

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The Time Machine: Notes Towards an Analysis of Wells’s Novella

In this week’s Dispatches from The Secret Library, Dr Oliver Tearle analyses the lasting appeal of H. G. Wells’s first great ‘scientific romance’

In some ways, H. G. Wells’s The Time Machine (1895) is a ‘timeless’ text: it continues to enjoy huge popularity (as witnessed by big film adaptations in 1960 and 2002, as well as the fact that the novel itself has never been out of print and is available in a range of editions), it continues to exert a considerable influence on the literature and cinema produced since, and its very narrative structure – with much of the action of the novel taking place in a time that hasn’t happened yet, the year 802,701 – in a sense absenting it from its own context. But an analysis of Wells’s novella that sees it floating completely free of its 1890s context, much as the Time Traveller himself succeeds in leaving his late Victorian world behind, risks overlooking the extent to which The Time Machine is a novella deeply rooted in late nineteenth-century concerns. These concerns are neatly covered in Roger Luckhurst’s introduction to the recent Oxford edition of the novella, The Time Machine (Oxford World’s Classics).

In an interview published in 1899, Wells outlined his reasons for being so concerned with the future of mankind:

Why should four-fifths of the fiction of today be concerned with times that can never come again, while the future is scarcely speculated upon? At present we are almost helpless in the grip of circumstances, and I think we ought to strive to shape our destinies. Changes that directly affect the human race are taking place every day, but they are passed over unobserved. Read the rest of this entry

Frankenstein, 200 Years On: Why Mary Shelley’s Novel Remains So Relevant

In this week’s Dispatches from The Secret Library, Dr Oliver Tearle revisits Mary Shelley’s misunderstood parable and founding text of science fiction

Frankenstein is one of a handful of nineteenth-century fictional creations that went truly global and became ingrained in the popular consciousness. Along with Sherlock Holmes and Dracula, Mary Shelley’s character has flown free of the text which spawned it: Frankenstein has become synonymous with biological experimentation, the creation of hybrid ‘monsters’, and the perils of playing God. The Oxford English Dictionary includes the prefix ‘Franken-’, used to denote nouns implying genetic modification, most famously ‘Frankenfoods’. The OED also records ‘Frankenstein’ itself, in extended use, as both a noun and a verb.

2018 marks the bicentenary of Mary Shelley’s first and most successful novel, written when she was just a teenager and published when Shelley was 20 years old. This fact is often repeated, but it’s worth stopping to reflect on the astounding precocity of the novel’s author. Dickens was 24 when his first novel appeared, and he was touted as a prodigy. Try naming another novel written by a teenager which has attained the status of a classic. Now try naming one that, arguably, spawned a whole new genre in English literature. There was, and in some ways is, nothing else quite like it. Frankenstein is not just a founding text but a foundling text. Read the rest of this entry